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.