Democratic Imperialism Is Bound to Fail


Atlas from Turkey in Asia, by Frances Bowen, 1810

by Francis Ghilès

Democratic imperialism has long been the favourite foreign policy vision of American neoconservatives: foreign powers had the moral obligation to impose democratic institutions on people who, subject to authoritarian rule were in no position to determine their fate.

The U.S., and many in France and the UK, argued they had to create a new ethical order based on individual rights, which would ensure economic prosperity and political stability in the Middle East. Ten years after a US coalition toppled the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, two years after public protests – and in the case of Tunisia a coup engineered within the state security apparatus toppled Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak not to mention Muammar Gadaffi whose demise required strong Western and Qatari military backing for the Libyan insurgents – the West is faced with a question to which, so far, it has no clear answer. What can it do to help create a new political order in the Arab world? In particular, what can it do to create a new political order in Syria, let alone stop an increasingly sectarian conflict which has claimed an estimated 100,000 lives, human rights violations on a huge scale, and is threatening the stability of neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Syria in its modern frontiers was created, as Iraq was, in the aftermath of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The frontiers agreed nearly a hundred years ago suited the needs of France (Syria) and the UK (Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine). They have endured until the early 21st century but one is entitled to wonder, after two and a half years of unprecedented revolts across the Arab lands, whether they will last much longer.

As Norman Davies reminds us in his admirable Vanished Kingdoms: a History of Half Forgotten Europe, many states in Europe over the past millennium only exist on the fringe of memory and consciousness. More recently states such as the DDR, the Soviet Union and the Federation of Yugoslavia have vanished as political entities. Might not the same fate await certain states in the Middle East?

While the three key states in North Africa – and Egypt, are unlikely to disintegrate, however dire the economic and political conflicts they confront in the years ahead, the same cannot be assumed in the Middle East. In a further twist to the story, the West’s attempts to promote democracy in the region might further undermine was is already an unstable situation. Does democratic imperialism not offer a template for disintegration and fratricide rather than peace and prosperity? As the Middle East scholar Richard Joseph suggested ten years ago, might the American dream not lead to a nightmare?

Many Western commentators assume that the Middle East and, for that matter, North Africa, have middle classes which are strong, politically assertive and that their citizens are mindful of the duties owed to one another. Take Tunisia: millions of Tunisians have democratic aspirations, a true middle class exists though it has not, until recently been politically assertive, women enjoy more equal rights that few of their Arab sisters do –but they cannot agree what the essential contours of the nation should be, let alone the structures of the new Tunisian state. Many leaders of the ruling Nahda party define the nation in terms of a community of Muslim believers governed by divine law; their hard line Salafis brothers totally reject the very idea of a nation state; nationalists for their part define the nation as those who share the Arabic language and culture while many educated Tunisians have a definition much closer to western norms of individual rights and the strict rule of law.

Tunisia is lucky, in a sense, because it does not have religious minorities such as Copts in Egypt and Maronites in Lebanon, and Christians and Kurds in Syria who define the nation in terms of their own particular sectarian traits. The system of checks and balances which separates church from state and individual freedoms which characterise western democracies has never had a chance to grow roots in countries where the inheritance of Ottoman or Mameluke centralised and militarised bureaucracies has entrenched the privileges of small social groups. Tunisia is presented as homogeneous, but it is not: the coastal elites of Tunis and Sfax have few social links with the poorer Tunisians who live along the Algerian border and, until the revolt of 2011, often felt deep contempt for their other poorer brothers and sisters from the phosphates mining region of Metlaoui,  or towns like Kasserine and Le Kef. For all its façade of modernity – mass European tourism played a key role in  burnishing this image, links of family and clan, often rooted in a very specific region, are what really matter in Tunisia. They are the bedrock of social relations, political and economic power. Yet Tunisia can count itself lucky.

As Syrian leaders play a cynical game of divide and rule with the many minorities that exist within the boundaries of their country, as they export the poisonous seeds of religious, ethnic and economic conflict, half hearted Western attempts to impose democratic solutions are bound to fail miserably. Any serious international policy – which spells long term commitment to the region, will have to include revolutionary reform, mass education and the redrawing of regional boundaries. In Syria, as elsewhere in the region, two outcomes present themselves. The first is disintegration: in Syria the ruling Alawite minority might retrench in the coastal region around Lattaquie and Tartous (the only port in the Mediterranean where Russian ships are welcome), the Kurds in their northern enclave, while the Sunnis and Christians carve out “principalities” where they can live with a modicum of security. Another possible outcome is the restoration of autocratic rule, the like of which we are already witnessing in Iraq albeit with certain autonomous regions, as in Iraqi Kurdistan.

For all the difficulties it confronts today, Tunisia is the only country in the region where a system approximating democracy stands a slim chance of succeeding – although jihadi terrorism and massive unemployment among young people are serious threats, they pale in comparison with the many outside actors who are spoiling for a proxy fight in Syria and Iraq. For that very reason, the West needs to continue to lend strong economic support to Tunisia.

About the Author:

Francis Ghilès is a Senior Research Fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB). He specialises in security, financial and energy trends in Europe and the Western Mediterranean. He was the FT’s North Africa Correspondent from 1981 to 1995 during which time he wrote and lectured extensively on energy security in Europe, the US , North Africa, Israel and Japan.