Strange Versions of Democracy

What passes in most media accounts as the “international community,” that floating collection of international diplomats who seem to have a stronger sense of loyalty to the international system, the ideal of diplomacy and agreements as ends in themselves – not to mention all the cushy international conferences – than to their own countries of origin, is constantly saying that what it really wants from benighted countries mired in conflicts is more openness, more democracy, more respect for human rights. But when the rubber meets the road, what the diplomats tend to demand is more arrests, without being too picky about details like due process or probable cause.

The most recent country to have this lesson driven home is Pakistan, but it is hardly alone and it surely won’t be the last to learn that a little selective repression is what really floats the boat of the keepers of international ethics and morals.


Pakistan, facing a tense cross-border standoff with perennial rival India over the ever-disputed territory of Kashmir, has acceded to demands to arrest Islamic militants, including some involved in the two groups India holds responsible for the December 13 attacks on the Indian parliament in New Delhi. (It is likely, as India accuses, that the Pakistani government has itself provided at least tacit support for some of these groups over the years.) So far Pakistan has arrested scores of militants, but neither India nor London nor Washington is content with the results.

You might suppose, given the tender concern most international diplomats express for human rights when they give speeches – and given that Pakistan’s government came to power through a military coup and is not exactly known for treating dissidents with much respect – that the Western diplomats would be worrying in public whether Pakistan has treated those arrested properly, reading them their rights and making sure they didn’t pick up any innocents. But it turns out that the vaunted protectors of human rights and proper procedures are mainly upset that the net has not been spread far enough, that not enough alleged militants have been snagged yet.

“I don’t see any shift in their [Pakistan’s] position on terrorism as directed against India,” said Indian foreign ministry spokesman Nirupama Rao. “What we expect from Pakistan is concrete, serious, substantial steps to deal with cross-border terrorism and groups that operate from Pakistani soil. We have yet to see satisfactory action taken.”

In other words, round up as many alleged militants as possible and break their organizational backs. And if that takes cutting a few civil libertarian corners, so be it.


Pakistan is hardly the only country to get a call to “round up the usual suspects.” The putative test for seriousness about the “peace process” on the part of the Palestinian Authority is the willingness to round up a bunch of militants. I might have missed it, but I’ve never heard either an Israeli or an American spokesman say, “Make sure you don’t get any innocents by mistake and make sure the presumption of innocence prevails.”

A recent New York Times article about Saudi Arabia reported, in a manner that sounded very much like a complaint, “In the past decade, as thousands of young Saudis left to wage holy war abroad, Saudi leaders let them go, aware of the danger they might pose to the United States, but more focused on the danger they would pose at home.” The underlying assumption here seems to be that the Saudi government can and should control the movement of every one of its citizens, and imprison those suspected of certain sympathies, whether or not they have yet engaged in any overt terrorist activities.

The Yemeni government has recently imposed restrictions on foreign students, teachers and Muslim clerics living in the country. It also has launched an aggressive manhunt for suspected backers of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in its territory. These steps followed a visit to Washington by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Presumably the Yemenis got a message something like – my paraphrase – crack down on your own people if you don’t relish a large-scale invasion that would lead to the United States running the place.


Perhaps it is appropriate that the supposed avatars of human rights and democracy recommend repression and crackdowns to other countries who want to be approved by the club. After all, democracy and respect for the will of the people are little more than window dressing in most of the “advanced” democracies. Fewer than half of eligible Americans even vote, and some unknown percentage fail to do so because they understand that the people don’t really run things.

The European Union, containing our most influential and powerful putative allies, is an increasingly – even aggressively – undemocratic or even antidemocratic institution. The trend is to have more and more policies set by bureaucrats in Brussels who answer to nobody, and less and less decided at the level of the nation-state – and even less to be influenced even tangentially by the people who are the presumed beneficiaries of all this wise ruling. It is most doubtful whether most Europeans supported conversion to the Euro currency – and certainly the masters in Brussels weren’t about to take the risk of authorizing a referendum. But the Euro is now the currency, largely because of indifference among people experienced and intelligent enough to know that their opinions and voices count for little or nothing.


The record of the “international community” when it has undertaken “nation-building” is fairly consistent with the tendency to prefer repression and state control to freedom. The Cato Institute recently published a valuable short history, Fool’s Errands: America’s Recent Encounters with Nation Building, by Gary Dempsey with Roger Fontaine, that does case studies of Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, documenting some of the failures and mistakes in these countries.

The chapter on Bosnia is especially illuminating. Bosnia, remember, has three main ethnic groups and no substantial history as an independent nation-state. But the nation-builders in the U.S. State Department, the UN and the EU insisted on recognizing a state with the borders former Yugoslav dictator Tito had put in place for essentially administrative reasons (though there was also the motive of keeping the ethnic groups divided and conquered). So Bosnia was going to be a multiethnic showcase, no matter how impractical that goal was – and whether the people who lived there wanted it that way or not.

Jacques Klein, America’s top nation-builder in Bosnia, was remarkably frank. “Our job,” he said to a Wall Street Journal reporter in 1998, “is to turn a province into a country – sometimes whether the people like it or not.” NATO Senior Deputy High representative Hanns Schumacher, responding to a question about a lack of Muslim-Croat cooperation or enthusiasm about NATO’s plans: “I don’t care. I am simply not interested in who does not want the Federation: this is a concept we will implement … We dictate what will be done.”

Spanish diplomat Carlos Westendorp, who was High Commissioner in 1997 dismissed numerous elected officials and disqualified even more from running for office. He explained that if elected Bosnian officials “cannot agree about some decision, for example the passports, the license plates, the flag … I will stop this process of infinite discussions. In the future, it will look like this: I will give them a term to bring a certain decision, that is to agree about some decision. If they do not, I will tell them not to worry, that I will decide for them.”

Before he was done, Westendorp had meddled extensively in the electoral process, going so far as to back certain candidates, and dismissed 13 Bosnian officials from power. He imposed 46 different laws and executive orders by decree. He also began the process of controlling the Bosnian media, closing offices of journals and TV stations he considered irresponsible (i.e., not cheerleaders for NATO occupation).

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to find the benevolent and wise functionaries of the New World Order demanding that various countries round up suspects if they want to be taken seriously as members of the international club. But we shouldn’t be under any illusion that this process has much to do with spreading liberty, respect for human rights, or even minimal adherence to democratic procedures.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).