Bob Rae's Exporting Democracy
Jul 9, 2012

Bob Rae's Exporting Democracy

When Michael Ignatief was the leader of the Liberal Party, I lamented that someone whose pre-politics life was as an expert on foreign affairs and had written several books on the subject that I read - even if I agreed only in part - was unable to articulate a clear foreign policy position for his party and, when it came to an election, ultimately ran, and lost, on other issues. Unfortunately, now that Bob Rae is interim leader, and having read his book, Exporting Democracy, I must render the same judgement. It is a waste that two successive leaders in a row, both experts in foreign policy, have not managed to make this important issue more central in their party's message. 

Exporting Democracy has a lofty goal: it aims to both provide an overview of the history of democracy and its implementation throughout history and around the world, while simultaneously making a nuanced case that exporting democracy is often far more problematic than whimsical idealizations about democracy would have one believe. It can only be said that it partly succeeded in these dual aims. On balance the book was certainly worth reading, and contained some interesting ideas that were well written and well argued (as we shall see below), but it lacked several elements in both content and arguments needed to make it a particularly great book. 

After an overview, Rae's second chapter is both the best in the book and sets the tone for the rest of it. He dives into the epic conflict of ideas between Thomas Paine and William Burke, two eighteenth century Brits, who argued very publicly about the nature of democracy and society, and whose ideas underpinned the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the fabric upon which modern society is built. If not Athens, it is a fitting place to start on any discussion of democracy. While he agrees and disagrees with both, Rae's larger position is that while Paine really won out in terms of the infamy of his ideas and name, that we still have a lot to learn from Burke. Paine saw ideas as being of paramount importance and the fight for our ideals such as democracy to be a virtuous one. Burke was the realist who saw value in the incremental improvement of the institutions of society, thinking that ideas for ideas' sake was nonsense. 

Burke was willing to vociferously criticize the British East India company for the excesses he saw in it. However, he was for neither the abolishment of the Monarchy or the British Church. These were institutions he sought to reform or curb their excesses but, as part of the fabric of society, ought not be eliminated (in contrast to Paine). He did not recognize that these institutions were fundamentally problematic and could not possibly be fixed by incremental reform. Today, even if the centuries have defanged them, they both ought to go.

The major criticism I have of Bob Rae is that he committed a similar Burkean sin. Much of the the exporting of democracy that has occurred over the last half century has been done by the US. The book lacks a major critique of the role that US imperialism has played, a role that I often try to demonstrate on this blog. He leaves out commentary of the role that the US has played in actively subverting the democratic process in countries around the world, how it has aims that run counter to that of spreading democracy, and how its justifications in the name of democracy cover up massive suffering. Rae sees the problems with exporting democracy being, principally, that it is often difficult and messy to do this in these troubled third world countries. He doesn't see the problem with the democracy exporter. It is fine to admire Burke for his pragmatism and devotion to building institutions, but one has to rise above the myopathy of Burke that failed to recognize the structural problems in the institutions he was defending. A different time, yes, but Rae has made the same mistake here. 

A history of democracy is a big topic. So is an around the world tour of the present trouble spots with regards to attempts to export democracy. Bob Rae's book, however, is not a particularly large book, and it shows. The result is that many of the developments of twentieth century history, and many countries like Afghanistan and Iraq get a cursory glance over but are too shallow in scope to provide much insight. Chapters on Sri Lanka and Canada, in contrast, both place where Bob Rae has special expertise, are informative and interesting. The excellent chapter on Burke and Pain features extensive quotes and commentary on the two and really allows us to get sufficiently deep into this debate to get something out of it; the rest of his book should have been like this.

I can agree with Rae on a lot. We both share a similar commitment to the same sets of values as well as as the sense that realism and pragmatism in the geopolitical conflicts of our world is imperative. I had hoped, ahead of reading the book, to come away with a better understanding of what would be needed to overcome the often intractable conflicts we get involved in. It was clear from the outset that no panacea was going to be proposed and the book was to focus on the difficulties of exporting democracy. However, Rae offers few meaningful suggestions to help ameliorate these problems. 

It is an interesting thing to see the history of democracy, both its triumphs and its tribulations, spread before us in a single book. In some of this history, there is a consistent theme. The struggle for freedom from oppression, the desire for involvement in one's society, and for solidarity with one's neighbors is, in a meaningful sense, universal. We can see this story repeat itself and manifest itself in a multitude of ways; the story of the struggle for freedom in the past can motivate us and be meaningful today. However, the difficulties in realizing a world of democracy are often disjoint and unconnected. It is not clear - and Rae doesn't really attempt to say - what is to be learned from the very different ways that democracy was stalled in different places over this long history. We are left, in the end, with a heap of problems that have prevented the easy transition to democracy, and very little light to guide us forward. This may not be a problem with Rae's book, it may simply be how things are. 

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