Sunday, January 10, 2010

The fantasy of imposing Republics

I read an excellent article recently by Mai Yamani, a female Saudi anthropologist. It was fascinating for the concise analysis of the problems of trying to bring democracy, specifically republican style democracy, to the Middle East. She says: “The frightening state in the region is the United States, which, following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, was anxious to bring about democratic regime change — a failed policy that now appears to have left the US unable to leave.”

I have already written about how unsatisfactory a Republican form of government usually is for establishing any form of stable long term government, but I only scratched the surface on the irrationality of trying to impose a foreign and somewhat idealised concept on cultures completely unsympathetic to its thinking, and unsuited to its practical applications. So let’s open a debate…

Any democratic form of government relies on having a literate voting group, with an established understanding of the rule of law. (Probably including just, or at least consistent, property rights.) Setting up some sort of franchise amongst a population that lacks these basics is an open invitation to tribalism (for instance Papua New Guinea), corruption, dictatorship, and possibly genocide – see any basic analysis of any Republic anywhere in Africa in the last half-century. (Like any good rule, there is an exception… points for finding it…)

Republican forms of government are of course, the most unstable of democracies, because there are few safeguards built in. Unlike constitutional monarchies (sometimes called ‘crowned’ republics), or federated states, or more honest democratic oligarchies with checks and balances built in to the state structure: one vote/one value republics are just waiting for whichever demagogue can convince 50.001% of the population that there is some benefit in ‘getting’ some group or other – class, religion, ethnic group, whatever. (Lucky ones, like Hitler, can manage it with only 34% of the vote.) After that the only ways out of the inevitable dictatorship will be popular revolt, civil war, or invasion. (By some ‘coalition of the willing’ opposed the extremes or dangers of the dictator – their external dangers in the case of Hitler, Saddam Hussein and possibly Galtieri, or their internal extremes in the case of Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Milosovic and possibly Mugabe.)

Nonetheless the Americans have a strange and desperately inappropriate variation of their Universalist approach to everyone else on the planet – the belief that all people are really like Americans, and that given the chance any oppressed group of ignorant natives will settle down to a perfect life of suburban moms and apple pie. (The equally horrid English version of this during their comparatively gauche phase of middle class morality imperialism a century and a half ago was “the natives will understand English if you just shout loud enough”.) As a result you get the statements by American statesmen and ambassadors from the time of their first invasion of Mexico in the 1840’s… “We will just go in there and impose a democracy and go home”. When a US ambassador to Edwardian Britain was asked the inevitable question, “What happens if they elect someone you don’t like?” he gave back the flabbergasting response: “then we will just do it again until they get it right”.

This explains the American fantasy that they could send millions of men to fight in Europe in the Great War, then just go home and hope for the best. (Indeed, pull out of the international community altogether after joining the French in hopelessly sabotaging the Versailles conferences chance of making a lasting peace. The cartoon of a child wearing the label ‘Class of 1940’ weeping outside the conference doors was an absolutely inevitable result of what was referred to at the time as a meeting of ‘Wilson’s un-worldliness and Clemeanceau’s vindictiveness”.)

How American politicians imagined that a similar approach would be possible in the Middle East in the last decade remains a stunning indictment of the US education system. Nonetheless there was a clear belief amongst many planners of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan that you just throw out the ‘bad guys’, set up a ‘republic’, have an ‘election’, and magically create a stable government that will allow you to go home!

Part of the problem of course, is an appalling misreading of the results of the Second World War. I have found many American (and not a few other nationality) textbooks and history books that suggest that successful Republics were set up by the Allies at the end of the war, allowing them to just leave the new nations to it. What a crock.

May stable states were RE-established after the war. By far the most successful were Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, but we can’t count those, because they are Constitutional Monarchies. Quite a few so-called Republics were set up in Eastern Europe… if you think Socialist Republics are democratic… France was helped to set up it’s Fourth Republic, and that lasted for almost a decade! Italy was pushed (largely by Americans) into establishing a Republic to replace the Constitutional Monarchy that had (belatedly) overthrown Mussolini and swapped to that Allied side. (Whether you could call the following fifty years of fragmented chaos effective government is suspect, but fortunately a neighbouring communist threat kept them in NATO.) West Germany became a Republic, but had not only the threat of the Communists, but an Allied army of occupation to keep it honest for the next 40 years.

You will note that these 30 odd European nations were all (by world averages), literate, highly educated, culturally developed, ethnically distinct states; most with a long term history of government and legal structures to build on. Yet the successful ‘Republics’ amongst them come down to perhaps three or four, and those were at most modifications of pre-existing government structures, rather than new states. The closest thing to the Americans imposing a new system and having it work was West Germany… previously known as the Wiemar Republic. And they had an occupying army long term!

The examples in Asia are even more inappropriate. Japan, like Italy, ended the war when the pseudo Constitutional Monarchy belatedly pulled the plug on the military dictatorship. (With most historians acknowledging that they would have pulled the plug a lot earlier if the American’s had had the sense to promise not to try and remove the Emperor!) The Americans can probably take credit for, at most, forcing a major expansion of the Japanese franchise, which is an amusing contrast to the ‘Jim Crow’ franchise that continued in the continental US for another 20 years.

(A TED recently interviewed Gordon Brown. He told an amusing anecdote about Nixon, when he was still VP, visiting Ghana at the time of their independence. Not knowing what else to say, he wandered around shaking hands and asking anyone who appeared to be a native ‘how does it feel to be free’. He was brought to a halt by one person he asked, who looked him in the eye and said “how should I know, I come from Alabama”.)

The resulting Japan is best described as a modification of the pre-existing structures rather than a new entity, and again there is the minor issue of a long-term army of occupation to keep them honest. South Korea could be said to have made it… under the threat of Communist invasion, and the need for a permanent army of occupation. And the Philippines turns out to be most embarrassing. After a supposed fifty-year preparation for independence, and despite the presence of large American forces, the Marcos dictatorship was not long in arriving.

So where did American leaders get the idea that once you ‘free’ a people they will automatically adopt a republic, which will automatically be stable, and will automatically allow their peace loving invaders to go home? There is nothing in the most optimistic fiction, from Kipling, to Huckleberry Finn, to The Sound of Music, which would support any such fantasy. Even the political tripe passed out as practical philosophy by fantacists like Marx and Paine doesn’t go this far.

Nonetheless, Americans acted as though this was the way the world really worked, and actually tried to put it into practice. When the British diplomat who had achieved some limited success in solving the problems of the Balkans was invited to visit the new US administration in Iraq he was flabbergasted when they asked him ‘what should we do next’. The only response he could make was ‘it’s already too late”.

Yes corrupt regimes collapse like a pack of cards in the face of even moderate application of superior technology, but what then? One of the most astonishing mistakes the new American administration in Iraq made was to immediately fire every military officer and civilian official in Iraq who had been a member of the Ba’ath Party. The inevitable result of the complete removal of a functional local military or police presence apart from the vastly inadequate number of invading troops (particularly given the tens of thousands of newly unemployed young thugs thrown onto the streets) was the immediate collapse of civil order and services.

The truly astonishing thing about this failure was that the US military had already satisfied itself that such policies didn’t work. In post war Germany the Americans attempted to remove any person who had been a member of the Nazi party from positions of authority. Fortunately the British (and even French) occupiers of other zones had a somewhat more realistic understanding, and managed to turn the situation around. In a one party state, where being the local dog catcher requires membership of the party, the educated professional classes required to run a modern technically advanced state will have had to join the party to be able to work. Sacking them all will leave your government run by inadequate petty bureaucrats, your hospitals run by uneducated orderly’s, and your police force manned by those who had already failed the enlistment exam three times (probably the Psych test). Yes cleaning out war criminals is important, but removing all school-teachers because they were forced to join the party to keep working is not very helpful. It is not possible to run a modern industrial society after sacking all the engineers and electricians. The Americans knew this from post war Germany. How did they forget it within fifty years?

Which just underpins the significance of the failure to learn that Republics don’t work when imposed on countries with largely illiterate populations, undeveloped administrative systems, and no established rule of law. The idea that you can wander into a place like Iraq or Afghanistan and run a democratic election on the assumption that a full fledged and stable Republic will inevitably result is ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’. Another TED speaker – Paul Collier – points out that the result of a one vote/one value election will not be a democracy, but a winner and a loser. With the winner trying to rig things to become a long-term dictator, and the losers relapsing into insurgency. How hard is that to understand?

Actually the real problem is not the Democracy, but the Republic. Democracy is fine, as long as some sort of literacy is available, and it is part of a carefully designed system of checks and balances that take note of the regional and cultural peculiarities of the new state. As we have noted, places like South Korea and Israel have mostly functional democracies despite being Republics, but with the notable caveat of ongoing threats to their survival to increase their honesty. Those of the colonies granted independence post-war that have not fallen to long term dictatorships can usually be identified by some sort of adjustment for regional conditions. Places like Malaysia and Thailand have sometimes-functional democracies, under Constitutional Monarchies. Places like India and… (actually I am struggling to find another name here) have sometimes functional democracies that call themselves Republics, but with a federal structure that gives a lot of compensatory checks and balances. (The United States likes to think it is a straight Republic, but in actuality it is a Federation with vast checks and balances – and even then should consider itself lucky to have had only a single civil war. Frankly it would be fair to suggest that a couple of centuries of British law and administration before independence have more to do with the survival of these two federations than the inherent brilliance of a republican system.)

Most of the other states thrown into Republicanism post-war have headed down similar paths. Corrupt governments, dictatorship, economic chaos, tribal infighting, probably refugees, and possibly genocide. Let’s list a few…

In Asia – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China, North Korea… have I missed anything with the word ‘Republic’ in it’s title?

In the Middle East – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and now a group of ex Soviet “stan’s”… missed any republics? (Note: some of the absolute monarchies are not too flash in the Middle East either, but even the Saudi’s have been a bit better off than the above mentioned. As for being a citizen of Jordan or Oman or the Gulf Emirates, there is simply no comparison. Iran and Iraq both had an Italian style disposal of their King/Shah to install a more 'modern' republic… lucky them.)?

Muslim North Africa - one party states anyone? People's Republics (Algiers) to outright dictatorships (Libya). Tunisia is the economic high point, but politically teh supposed democracy has an ex-military permanent 'President'.

Rest of Africa - well it would be quicker to name the Republic that is not in political chaos, economic decline, and ethnic violence. (That exception is the 'Republic' of Botswana - a tribal culture that volunteered to join the British Empire under threat from it's neighbours, and experienced a century of British policy and development before being granted independence. They had the threat/example of their neighbours to keep them honest, and have run free and fair elections - even if their 'Presidents' have been one party, or even one family, tribal chiefs. The fact that their economy has been a miracle that shames the Asian 'Tiger's', explains why they have been happy to avoid the examples of their neighbours. Of course the Diamond industry that provides vast income and is 50% owned by the government helps... Note that this single success story in Africa is effectively a single tribe with a few small additions operating under it's traditional chieftans - the current President is the son of the original President. In practical terms closer to tribal monarchy Tonga than to American or French democratic Republics.) Kenya is probably the closest runner up, but is it really a stable democracy?.

Central & South America – interestingly a lot of the Twentieth Cnetury ‘independence’ here has been from the United States, who can nominate such raging success stories as Cuba and Panama. (Where the 1988 invasion by the Americans to secure the canal and put down a corrupt dictatorship showed that they could learn from failing the same test in Suez thirty years earlier! The US can take a lot of credit for Egyptian dictatorship and Middle Eastern contempt since then, despite the supposed excuse at the time of Suez being to ‘prevent the ME from being driven into the arms of the Soviets’.)

The vast majority of other South or Central American republics date back a century or more, as of course does their tradition of military coups and dictatorships. (Note that Mexico and Brazil are federations, not straight republics, but the Americans still had to invade Mexico several times to steal land and to ‘get the government they wanted’; and most of Mexico’s history has been fairly ugly dictatorships. The decision of King/Emperor Pedro II to encourage a supposedly Republican coup in the 1880’s ended Brazil’s first golden age, and condemned it to a century of coups and dictatorships before attempting to build an Italian model democracy in the last 20 years. And those two would probably be considered the success stories!)

There are always going to be problems with establishing stable democracies in tribal countries, or in countries with inadequate literacy or rule of law; but it can be done. What can’t be done however, is to establish a one vote/one value Democratic Republic in such places.

Councils of Chieftans, Absolute Monarchies, and Tribal Confederations work for smaller states - see Tonga and Oman. Constitutional Monarchies are no problem – see Thailand, Malaysia, Jordan or the Gulf Emirates, most of which are, or close to, properly democratic versions. Federations are possible, and this is where Iraq definitely needed to be taken! And Afghanistan could possibly still be made to work, by the simple introduction of a House of Lords to engage the regional chieftains and warlords in the government process. (And by a deal for the occupying powers to guarantee the purchase of the entire opium crop for pharmaceutical use.) But straight one vote/one value democratic Republics with no proper checks and balances? All you get is winners and losers… and insurgency… and dictatorship… and eventually the apparently inevitable results of such a stupid system in the first place.

The floor is open for rebuttal?


  1. Wonderful, I laughed out loud many times and enjoyed this tremendously.

  2. I enjoyed reading your essay, and find the manner in which it was presented most engaging. Well done!

    I would ask, though, that if you find such fault with republican government, in both a historical and contemporary context, what would be the ideal alterantive? Representative democracy, whether organized as a republican system or a parlimentarian system with a monarch working within the framework of an establised constitution, still seems to be the most successful form of national government that history provides us.

    I do not argue that forcing the cultural traditions of one society onto another is a recipe for failure, because it is simply historical fact (as you have demonstrated), but surely any society has the capacity to turn self-determination into repressive tyranny given the right circustances, and not all of those circumstances are within the realm of the "people's" control. The failure of the Wiemar Republic had other factors involved besides an inherent instability in the republican system of government, surely... a global economic disaster, unjust limitations and unrealistic duties imposed by the Allies at Versailles, radical extremists with almost unlimited abilities to exploit public dissatisfaction... aren't these contributing factors every bit as much to blame for the ineffective nature of the Republic as "republicanism" itself?

    What is the ideal?