Goodbye Tyrants, Hello Democracy

New Zealand Herald, June 24, 2003

Denis Dutton

Essayist Ian Buruma tells a story about Japan just after the war. The Prime Minister, Yoshida Shigeru, divided the American conquerors into two categories.

The "realists" didn't mind an authoritarian, pro-business Japan, he said, but the "idealists" - Roosevelt New Dealers - encouraged Japanese socialists and trade unionists to create an American-style democracy.

The idealists prevailed in building democracy until the Cold War started, and Japan became, as Buruma puts it, "a conservative, bureaucratic, de facto one-party state".

For the next 45 years the Cold War impeded the growth of democracies.

The Soviet Union promoted an overtly anti-democratic system, and the Americans and allies found themselves acquiescing to tinpot dictators in oil monarchies and coconut republics all over the map.

They were awful - they even included the Taleban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq - but they were lesser, or at least more localised, evils compared with the communist empire.

With the Cold War over, the future of dictatorships is everywhere in doubt.

Democracy - which means free, fair elections between competitive candidates and parties, held at regular intervals - is on the rise. This is heartening news, not only for the ability of people to enjoy liberty and civic participation, but also for prospects of world peace.

A pacifying and civilising sense of mutual respect characterises relations between democracies. Countries ruled democratically almost never declare war on each other.

The statistics are impressive. Most of the world's nations are now democratic. The virus spread through Latin America from the 1970s, into Asia, and finally into Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.

In 1974, there were 41 democracies among 150 existing states. Today that ratio is 121 of 193 states. Nothing rivals democracy as a model for government.

Not all the news is good. Russia has had severe problems instituting democracy, or even grasping the idea.

Too much control and money fell into the hands of local mafias on the collapse of the Soviet Union, strong political parties are having trouble forming, the judiciary is weak, and Vladimir Putin seems too fond of the Kremlin's Tsarist accoutrements.

China presents awesome difficulties. The leadership wants dictatorial control while allowing the country to reap the wealth of free enterprise.

Their attempt to run a free-market dictatorship is incoherent and, therefore, doomed. Convulsions lie ahead.

Then there is that black hole of democratic tradition, the Arab dictatorships which take in billions in oil revenues and return so little to their own people.

Even Saudi Arabia's female literacy rate is still only 69 per cent.

Some military tyrannies, such as Myanmar's especially nasty version, are the West's Cold War orphans. But the Soviet Union also left totalitarian client states, notably the egregious North Korea and that vile Stalinist encampment, Castro's Cuba.

Some bone-headed Hollywood stars and pompous lecturers are still singing Castro's praises, but they are a dwindling band.

Fidel's recent secret trials and sentencing of 75 dissidents for up to 28 years in prison, and the summary execution of three ineffectual chaps who tried to hijack a ferry to Florida (it ran out of petrol almost immediately), have soured former friends.

Castro is 76, and his brutality reminds me of the last years of another charming but deadly monster.

Francisco Franco had a few brave students executed not long before he died. Once Franco was in his grave, Spain took the democratic road, and the Spaniards have never looked back.

The same will happen to Cuba. I expect some of my romantic, leftist friends will feel a sense of profound loss the day oxen are replaced in Cuban tobacco fields, Starbucks opens in Havana, and they start having traffic congestion on the streets.

The Cubans won't share their nostalgia. They want freedom.

And what about our neighbourhood? We, too, support a semi-feudal state in Tonga. With 100,000 people to rule over, the King of Tonga is little more than a village tyrant. Lately, his Government has tried to ban the Taimi'o Tonga, a threatening source of independent criticism.

Now that the newspaper is being distributed by court order, the Government talks of amending laws to exempt it from court orders, and to further curtail press freedom.

New Zealand gives $5.6 million a year to Tonga in aid. It's inexcusable that this kind of money should support such an authoritarian regime, and we all ought to support MP Matt Robson's call to pressure Tonga into democratic reform.

A defender of Tonga said last week, he was not convinced that democracy was good for Pacific peoples. For Tonga, it was "culturally not the proper thing to bandy dirty washing in public".

He should be told that, for New Zealanders, it is culturally not the proper thing to send millions of our hard-earned dollars to prop up little kava-bowl monarchies that stifle freedom of speech.

Pushing around Tonga? That's colonialism. Yes, I can hear the howls of execration. But maybe a little revived colonialism on behalf of knocking over dictators and installing democracies is exactly what the world needs.

It could do immense good in places like Burma or Zimbabwe. If the West holds the power to incite democracy - as we hold power over Tonga - it ought to go ahead.

Among the true reactionaries of our age are the anti-democratic academics who try to excuse the likes of Tonga.

They bleat mantras of "cultural identity" and the need to respect "indigenous values" (meaning local fascisms) in the face of globalisation. They treat democracy as though it were an optional cultural preference, like rugby or a taste for Vegemite.

Democracy is not an arbitrary choice among governmental systems. Wherever it arises, it tends to become permanently entrenched.

Even countries that have lost democracy (Argentina in 1975) have thought better of it and worked to regain their democratic right.

Karl Marx had a few good ideas and a lot of bad ones. Among his best was the notion that human political history was heading toward a state of equilibrium.

He wrongly imagined it would be a workers' paradise where the state had withered away. What a disappointment it would be for him to find out that the end of history looks pretty much like universal bourgeois democracy.

In the final analysis, democratic idealists have turned out to be the true realists.

Worldwide, tastes in food, music, clothing and television quiz shows may vary, dropping in and out of fashion.

But underneath it all is emerging a bedrock political certainty: for the human race, democracy is destiny.