Monday, January 05, 2009

Gaza, democracy and the question of world government

Neil Whitfield demonstration Now that Neil takes his camera with him wherever he goes, one never quite knows what he will capture on film. In this case (here and here), a protest outside the Egyptian consulate in Sydney.

I haven't commented on the situation in Gaza because I have had nothing really useful to say. While I know something of the history, I really do not understand the internal dynamics on both sides. However, it did get me thinking about the nature of democracy.

To my mind, some of our current thinking about democracy is deeply inconsistent, even deeply flawed.

To begin with, we think in terms of democracy as simple majority decision. This is far from the case.

All constitutional systems depend upon the consent of the governed. Majority rule can lead to minority oppression. Where this happens, Government can break down because the minority withdraws their consent. Working democracy requires the majority to pay at least some heed to minority views.

We also tend to think of democracy in the context of particular constitutional entities and especially the nation state. An often implicit assumption is that those entities have a right to exist, are entitled to use state power to maintain their existence. The reality is, as I see it, that some constitutional entities have long out-lived their usefulness and survive just because they are there.

The last forty years have in fact been marked by the creation of new entities as previous national structures disintegrated. Map makers have had to draw and redraw maps.

The last twenty years has also seen the emergence of the concept of the failed state. There have always been failed states, it's just that they have become more important in geo-political terms.

This shift in importance has been partly due to a shift in values, a concern about the damage to the people involved. It has also been due to the spread of cheap modern weaponry that can be made in simple workshops. Failed states are now seen as breeding grounds for crime and terrorism.

The tensions and inconsistencies surrounding the concept of democracy and its interaction with national states have become quite pronounced in recent years because of the emphasis placed by Western Governments on the concept of democracy.

In Bosnia, in some ways a state in name only, continuing tensions between the three different ethnic groups makes for a very complex governance structure. In Kosovo, Europe supported independence and a split from Serbia in part on the grounds of democracy and self-determination, yet opposed similar moves within Georgia. For its part, Russia opposed Kosovo independence, fought to keep  Chechnya within the Russian Federation, yet recognised the break-away regions within Georgia.

To my mind, the decision by certain Governments including the US and Israel to refuse to recognise the success of Hamas in the Palestinian elections illustrated the problems that can arise with the emphasis on democracy.

To my knowledge, I stand to be corrected, Hamas actually won that election. In refusing to recognise the results, Western Governments struck at the heart of their own arguments. Democracy is good so long as I agree with the results.

My view at the time was that the new Government should be recognised as legitimate. I also believed, again I stand to be corrected, that Hamas was in fact still committed to the destruction of Israel. However, I saw these two issues as quite separate.

Since the new Government was legitimate, it should be treated as such until it demonstrated through its actions that it was in fact as its critics suggested. My feeling here was that the very dynamics of Government would lead to at least some separation between the new Government and the rhetoric from its past. Should this not happen, then action might be taken.

This is not a naive view.

Given the existing dynamics, actions taken against the new Hamas Government including witholding of funds by Israel simply guaranteed a bad outcome, more of the same. Had an alternative approach been followed, had the Hamas Government in fact behaved as some suggested it would, then there would have been a clear and compelling case for action that could be justified on international grounds. Now we just have more of the same.

Partially reflecting the rise of the failed state as well as the dynamics of interventions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the term "nation building" has become very popular. I put this term in the same class as another popular modern term "governance".

We generally think of nation building in terms of building state institutions and infrastructure. We talk of governance in terms of principles such as probity and transparency that relate to the overall operations of organisations, the delivery of services and associated decisions. The two link, yet also work to conceal and confuse because they are mechanistic in operation.

Creation of state institutions and of infrastructure is a necessary condition for nation building but is not, of itself, nation building. Nation building is in fact a societal process, the creation of links and a sufficient degree of shared values to allow the constitutional entity to function.

In similar vein, good governance is important, but says very little about the nature of Government itself, nor about the principles on which it is or should be based. A country may be well run in governance terms, yet disintegrate. A country may be badly run in governance terms, yet survive and even prosper.

I make this point because the big challenge the world faces lies not in issues such as climate change, poverty, the global economic crisis or war but in the creation of global institutions that will allow us to manage those issues. If we struggle to deal with concepts such as democracy at national level, how then are we going to deal with this at a global level?

I suppose that my personal view is that the relatively recent concept of the nation state is close to the end of its use-by date. I am not saying that nations will disappear. I am saying that we have entered a new era and that we need to start talking about what this might mean.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Hamas won the election fair and square and the West has not accepted the fact.

What would Australia do if say from Indonesia or New Zealand there was a daily barrage of low intensity but damaging nevertheless rocket fire aimed at places with people?

As an Indian facing more or less similar problems from across our borders, and not separated by high seas, I can sympathize with Israel.

Hamas has stated that its sole reason for existence is the destruction of Israel. What has democracy got to with it?

Jim Belshaw said...

Ramana,focusing on the election question.

I think we need to distinguish between the process of forming a government and subsequent relations with that Government. In advocating democracy on one side but then refusing to accept the result in this case, the West created a disconnect in its own position.

Israel is entitled to defend itself.It had reason to doubt Hamas.

While expressing your resrevations, you recognise the election and maintain existing relations including payment of customs duties. If rockets are fired, you lodge a protest, telling the Govenment to fix things. If they cannot, you lodge a protest with the UN.

If trouble then continues,you have a rock solid and defensible case for taking staged action against the Government in question.

Israel's case has been made especially difficult by the recurring cycles of violence. Israel's core strategic problem is that its relative capacity to punish violence with violence seems to be diminishing. More precisely, the other side's capacity to respond with further violence appears to be increasing.

Israel did not lose in Southern Lebanon despite the propaganda claims made by Hezbollah. However, it took far more punishment than expected.

The difficulty with the situation that has been created in Gaza by the various steps since the election lies in the probability that Israel can only win this latest round by destroying Hamas, replacing it with some other form of administration.

The worst outcome for Israel in some ways might be a cease-fire forced under international pressure leaving a Hamas structure still capable of responding with further violence. I suspect that the timing of the attack was carefully chosen to give Israel the maximum possible window.

Sometimes when you get cycles of violence like this both sides have to bleed themselves out before solutions are possible.

Anonymous said...

There's much in what you say, Jim, with the obvious fact -- and I think it is a fact -- that it has been timed to precede a new US administration, not to mention impeding elections in Israel.

Anonymous said...

"impeding"? Try "impending"!

Hate it when I see a typo after sending!

Jim Belshaw said...

So do I, Neil. Hate typos, that is. I agree with you point re timing.

Tikno said...

Jim, I feel there is an invisible war of ideology (or perhaps religion) which has been planted from grass root.

What you think ?

Anonymous said...

Jim, touche!

Tikno, you are opening a can of worms with that question. Someone like me will take off into orbit with a rocket propelled by Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations. Actually, I am tempted to, but the situation in India right now is not quite conducive to such pontification.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting point, Tikno. I can see why Ramana would not want to buy in just at present.

I think that the answer is yes, but I also think that it's more complicated than usually allowed.

One obvious conflict is between those who support the concept of a modern pluralist secular democracy and those who do not. However, these broad camps have multiple streams of thought.

A second conflict lies in the disputes between those who have faith and those who do not. I am using the word faith here in its broadest sense. Part of the argument here drives to the role that faith plays or should play in society.

Here we have a continuum from those who argue that faith is a meaningless superstition that must be limited to the private sphere all the way to those who want to establish faith based theist states.

There is conflict within and between individual faiths that is driven in part by people's varying perceptions of and responses to the nature of social change. The Anglican communion, for example, is badly split over the two issues of the ordination of women and homosexuality.

There are many other examples of conflict of ideas. A key problem to my mind lies in the way that globalisation, social change and modern communication has forced together people of very different histories and ideas.

We know from European history that it takes time for institutions and ideas to evolve that will accommodate difference. The concept of a civil society is quite recent. The process of evolution in Europe was at times quite bloody. That history still affects the present - the break up of Yugoslavia is an example.

A key problem today is that the social forcing process has out-run our institutional capacities to respond. Time is required, and we don't have it.

I have deliberately used non-Muslim examples because, to my mind, the rise of Muslim fundamentalism is simply an example of, an outcome from, broader processes. The harking back to a golden past, the desire to re-establish the caliphate, the search for moral certainty, the willingness to impose views on others, can all be found in some form in other groups.

One of the problems in the conflict of ideas is that, to a degree, supporters of western secular democracy struggle to understand and manage alternative views. However, this is really a matter for another post.

Tikno said...

Thank you for giving an interesting answer. I know that the "invisible" is very sensitive and I feels you write it with carefully.

Jim Belshaw said...

I tried to be careful, Tikno.

Growing up, I was taught to respect other people's beliefs. This did not mean agreeing, nor not fighting for what one believed. But if you do not respect and listen, how then can you understand?

I hate simplistic solutions. I think that you have to understand the elements in arguments if you are to engage in any way.

At university and even now I am as prone as anyone else to engage in arguments for the sake of debate to try to win the intellectual argument. This does not help in thinking about some of the issues we face.

Because of my past, i think that I am also a little outside some of the current certainties!

Anonymous said...

Jim, we can use someone like you here just now. Why don't you consider a trip? I shall be happy to host you in Pune.

We have all become hot heads the last few weeks. On both sides of the border!

Anonymous said...

Jim, I invite you to

Jim Belshaw said...

What a compliment, Ramana. I thank you. I would love to visit Pune, but it is a bit out of my reach just at present!

On India and Pakistan, one of the reasons that I put so much emphasis from time to time on due process, is that it provides a way to manage the heat to be found in situations such as this one.

If the outcome were, as an example, to be war between India and Pakistan, then was what was a tactical victory for those involved in the Mumbai attack would become a major strategic success.

Tikno said...

Sometimes, I agree of what you had said above "some of our current thinking about democracy is deeply inconsistent, even deeply flawed."

Btw, I really like to know your opinion towards the existence of veto right. Please visit my latest post "Veto VS Democracy"

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you Tikno. I have read the post and will leave a comment. You raise an interesting question. Put this another way. The veto right is a vestige of the past and is undemocratic. But is the world yet ready for a broader version of democracy. My feeling is no; that is one of the issues we need to discuss when thinking about nrw forms of global government.