It is not enough to have democratic ideals; democracy must deliver

Watching Western democracies scramble to match China’s Road and Belt Initiative and “support development” in the Global South, while proclaiming that their version of the initiative will be “value-based”, is rich. 

With the G7’s track record of plundering and destabilising countries in the South whenever access to resources was in peril (that is, whenever some nationalist government asserted sovereignty over those resources), this promise sounds more than hollow. The United States, in particular, has a history of supporting insurrections and coups around the world whenever the incoming government promised to deliver easier access to raw materials. So much for the rule of law in countries like Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua and other countries caught up in the Cold War rhetoric. 

The rise of China as a world power and its willingness to establish a “new silk route” to access much needed materials and distribute its products around the world is worrying because of the country’s autocratic nature. For some, the rise of China represents a general decrease in the quality of global governance. As a societal model, we have much to worry about increased Chinese influence, as Hong Kong seems to remind us every day.

But the strategy is not new. The British built or helped build railways all over the world to access the same raw materials and to deliver their industrialised goods, leaving countries in insurmountable debt as a result. While railways are the great feat of British engineering and help nostalgic imperialists justify colonisation in places like the Indian subcontinent, roads and highways are the great American legacy. This legacy is intimately connected with the promise of the American model of prosperity and consumption, which seemed enough to justify and offset disruption to the rule of law elsewhere, so long as American democracy thrived at home. It remains to be seen what the Chinese legacy will be, and what societal models it will trigger elsewhere, but the prospects are dire.

But when asked whether they are bothered by China’s lack of democratic values, people in places like Ethiopia and Tanzania are adamant: the Chinese are investing in infrastructure and development. What are the United States and Europe doing, apart from providing foreign “aid” that gets lost in impossible bureaucracies or worse, gets syphoned off by kleptocratic elites?

There are two new factors (at least) to be contended with: the first is that the American model of development is incompatible with the limits of our planet, which contributes to the general decline of industries connected to the rise of the United States as a world power (oil, cars, road building) and the ditching of consumerism. In this instance, the Chinese model does not really look like an improvement. 

The second factor is the erosion of democratic norms at home. While previously the United States needed only to worry about the maintenance of democratic norms and the rule of law at home, it usually had a much more lenient attitude abroad. But today, American democracy has never been so vulnerable. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that American democracy hangs by a thread, with the abandonment of democratic ideals and values by much of the Republican Party (and by many of the Republican voters). 

It is ironic that this dire situation has been fuelled by policies pursued by both Republicans and Democrats, and their counterparts in Europe since Reagan and Thatcher set out to “reform society” in the 1980s. But as bad and violent as neoliberalism is, no policy has been as damaging to democracy as austerity. The cutting of social programs and the general retraction of the State accompanied by untold inequality has eroded citizens’ faith in institutions, including democracy. “The basis for self-respect in a just society is not one’s income share, but the publicly affirmed distribution of fundamental rights and liberties”, stated John Rawls in his seminal work A Theory of Justice (1971, p. 477). While Republicans love to overemphasise their own distorted and extraordinarily selfish views on liberty, I suspect that far too little attention has been given to citizens’ rights and human dignity with regard to neoliberalism and the corrosive belief that the State needs to be “reduced” to let the market work its magic. While democracy is still the best opportunity to deliver social justice, democracy’s success also depends on the ability of governments to include citizens in the realm of civil rights and provide them with the opportunities and capabilities to live a full life. 

The United States and its allies in the “Atlantic Alliance” must urgently counteract Chinese ascendance with a democracy that is more than ideals. The United States simply cannot function as a democracy in a non-democratic world.Democratic ideals must deliver, both at home and abroad.

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