Today, the talk about democracy in the world seems to become as important as it was 30 years ago following the fall of the Berlin Wall, surely it became more controversial than in any period after the end of transition in the Central and Eastern European countries. Ten years ago, on various occasions discussing democracy in the world, democracy was generally perceived in expanding terms. Democratic waves were still happening in some places, most of the new democracies continued to have a high regard for values brought by pluralization of society and broader participation of citizens in public life.
It could be said that this basic belief hasn’t changed much in the last few years, but contending issues brought up by the rise of populism in Europe, emerging nativism in America and democratic stagnation in some other countries coupled with ever growing impact of the social media on the public opinion made democracy looking more fragile, the tide of its supporters receding worldwide, while the number of its critics becoming increasingly prevalent in media. Democracy has also got a challenge from the COVID-19 pandemic that has been ubiquitous for the last two years. One of the biggest novelties brought by the pandemic is the fact that the public is no more talking about the democratic advance into the “rest” of the world, but rather switched to concerns about threats the democratic world is facing from the “rest” of the world. As it has been emphasized by numerous media experts, scholars and politicians alike, democracy is increasingly being countered by creeping authoritarianism from without and populism from within, its cause is becoming one of a new fronts in geopolitical tensions between the big powers.
In December 2021, Washington organized Summit for Democracy to tackle the issues of retreating democracy, protecting against authoritarianism, fighting against corruption and advancing and respecting human rights. This summit can be regarded as an overture to the ideological posture Washington assumed in increasing tensions with Russia that subsequent to the Russian aggression against Ukraine escalated into an open ideological war. Over a few months, a subtle war of ideas behind the overt propaganda war took place in order to again “control the hearts” of the public with “shared values” and securitizing against those perceived as threatening them. Parallel efforts have been made by the Biden administration to contain “malicious” influence arriving from the “rest” of the countries deemed unfriendly, competitive or dissimilar. Defending various “vibrant” , “resilient” or “sturdy” democracies on the West’s eastern frontier had already caught significant media attention recently, among them the Taiwan visit of US House Speaker in August was maybe the most controversial case in point. As challenging as this visit turned out to be for cross-strait, Asian and global security, more underlying and potentially recurring problems were unveiled when democracy and other values were not defended per se, but were confronted as means to establish ideological conformity and monopoly over the term, and even to establish new bloc alignments. However, how come a concept inextricably linked to Innenpolitik became so internationalized and does democracy project the same values within the community of states just as in the community of citizens?
In order to understand democracy as a “ideological weapon” in international relations, one should go back to the Cold War history to find the origin of the “democratization theory”. Despite very diverse contribution made on democratization theory, its origins are to be found in bloc tensions from that period. Similar to modernization theory, democratization theory was regarded as a Western pendant to Soviet-led communist doctrine in order to compete for influence in a new post-colonial world . Eventually it “won” this contest after the breakup of the Soviet Union and became more elaborated in dealing with political transitions of ex-communist countries. Democratization theory likewise became monopoly of the Western social and political sciences.
Interestingly, more as a term, democracy was becoming linked with pluralism, liberalism, diversity, as a notion became more rigid and exclusive. In such narrative, “socialist democracy”, “guided democracy”, “democratic centralism”, “Asian democracy”, “whole-process democracy” etc. become contradictions in term or notions to a certain extent distant from a “real” democracy.
Are there any other non-Western sorts of democracy? Most of the Western textbooks on democracy would give a qualified explanation, but negative answer. Regardless of which definition is used, whether some country believes it has or wants to advance its own democracy without following any models is a fact often interpreted as a deviation from democratic standards.
If we go back further we should find this exclusive approach to democracy in a modern electoral sense was brought about by the British and American political systems a couple hundred years ago, which foremost reflected specific social and economic conditions in these countries, which were not without struggles gradually accepted by the rest of the “free world” we know today. Going back to the Greek antiquity, the cradle of democracy, it is clearer how difficult it was even to other poloi (city-states) to copy Athenian democracy. The conclusion about exceptionality of the Athenian democracy and contemporary Western democracy likewise, was a narrative constructed by the Western scholarship to serve as one cornerstone of the exceptionality of the Western civilization. We should not dare to underestimate the ideal that flourished in Periclean Athens, but to question its universal normativity, yet exclusive interpretation as touted by its modern proponents.
This rather familiar pseudo-universalism upon which the Western democratization theory is based displays not only a non-historical, but also a non-scientific view, unconcerned with the evidence coming from the “rest” of the world. In a long struggle to dethrone these reccurring colonialist tropes, many objections have been raised so far; among them, global perspectivism (全球史观) , a fresh approach coming from Chinese academia, is also demonstrating ability to stand as the most subversive alternative. Global perspectivism, in short, is a history and area studies (国别区域研究) approach that transcends the narrow focus on the modern nation-states as preponderant actors in international affairs and by applying de-othering perspective examines intrinsically “global” processes that conditioned specific historical circumstances in different international regions. In short, global relations qua relations existed in a various ante statu nascendi forms in different historical periods and are not only “invented” in modern history. In the research of global processes and relations, global perspectivists attach great importance to the way global relations were being re-created within different historical and “global” settings.
So, in order to depart from the “founding myth” of the Western democratization theory, we should ask how democracy was being understood more “globally” in ancient Greece and to make distinction between democracy in a city-state (polis) and democracy between city-states (poloi). Some IR neorealists made excursions into the Peloponnesian War to draw conclusions for a balance of power in the current international system. From this perspective, Thucydides’ account of the Greek “inter-city” war is in fact a sobering history of the present multipolar international order which many scholars acknowledged by drawing numerous analogies and comparisons with the post-WWII world. Selective readings of his Histories was a source of colorful determinist and cyclical accounts of history as well as geopolitical imaginations that saw potential power transfer in the current international relations predated by similar international situation brought into history long ago by the Peloponnesian War. The so called “Thucydides’ Trap” is a recently popularized term to describe an apparent tendency of a conflict between the United States and China, mimicking the “inevitability” of conflict along democracy-aristocracy fault lines between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BC.
However, despite deeply ingrained narratives on democracy as a progressive ideal that all states should adopt, we should not be led to assume it was originally meant to be as such. First, from polis perspective, we have the unanimous testimony of authors from Herodotus to Aristotle for “democracy” being applied in “technical” issues concerning the “rule of many” (demokratia) rather than the ideal itself. There are, of course, times when the rule of demos is better served than rule of few (ochlos), but the “moderation” (metriotes) of both is undoubtedly a political value they seemed to be prized mostly. Finding a measure (metrios) between the political aspirations of the many and prudent statesmanship of the few is a contingency of a talent, opportunity and luck, metrios would mean “striking the right note between”, find mutually agreeable measures, or – in providing handy equivalent from global perspectivist scholarship - make gongying (共赢) relation between the will of the many and power of the few. Second, from contemporary accounts there are no indications suggesting that Athens played higher moral card in poloi system by propagating the virtues of democracy, over, for example, Spartan “high tune” on more “cultural” values such as the Hellenistic exceptionalism unity and self-determination of the Greek people. Athenian Assembly in deliberating reprisal against Mytilene (427 BC), for example, reveals that democratic decisions when de-authenticated (translated) into inter-state relations (let alone in a more “global” settings, against barbarians and alike) can assume absolutist and unilateral course of action as much as a decisions made by tyrants. Along the same allegoresis one may infer it couldn’t even provide enough safeguard against the atrocity exemplified by the siege and subsequent genocide of Melos? Modern misunderstandings of pre-modern “global” features of democracy, on the other hand, claim that there could not occur war between democracies, nor are they capable of committing genocides against “free people” what Athens made to Melos in 416-415 BC.
Third, although most sources about poloi international order come from Athens, the beacon of Greek democracy, it can be inferred that no matter how proudly Athenians from Thucydides’ masterpiece held democracy, it was never considered as a “model”, multilateral or an “export value”, nor did Athenians seem to care much in political sense whether their allies in Delian League are tyrannies, aristocracies or democracies. A simple explanation given by classicists - after years spent contending whether Thucydides himself was an anti-democrat or whether Athenians were too much clinging for “hard power” hegemony over Greece – is that democracy is of an “autochthonous” or self-grown, authentic sort, undistinguishable from contingent quality of governance within given society and elusive to attempts for transplantation.
As a matter of fact, despite later historical distortions, from accounts given by contemporary Athenians it can be inferred that Athens experienced a golden period of democracy as a result of a set of “globally” coincidental facts for which Athenians found a way to control or hold a grip on, but were surely not so confident as to know how to operate with its “mechanism” anywhere else, let alone “sell” it as a formula for forging alliances and establishing hegemony. Moreover, they were aware of innate absolutist traits in democracy, which is taken as ideal seemed to them in terms more similar to what we would identify as modern nationalist or populist phenomena.
This also holds truth for modern democracy, especially because we are living in a more complex multipolar setting with democracies taking more diverse forms and shapes. If democracy is understood in the same way it resonated “globally” to the Greeks, it should be accepted that it is inextricably connected with specific conditions and a development path suitable for a particular community. It is always foremost authentic. One can impose good governance hoping to bring about democracy, but not necessarily the other way around. Therefore, recognition that the paths toward democratization are diverse and various should be the first step in accepting that democracy is not uniform nor is an export commodity on which a few have selling rights.
Contributed by Ivica Bakota, Assistant Professor at Capital Normal University, researcher of the Center for Study of CIvilizations, associate of ZSEM school in Zagreb and co-founder of CroAsia Institute, Croatia