The current state of global democracy is in shambles. Liberal democratic institutions are in decline and the erosion of global democracy in recent years has only accelerated. As such, the liberal vision of the “end of history” after the fall of communism has been shaken to its core. While this is clearly a complex and multifaceted dilemma, this post will assert that nation-states have contributed to this destruction of democratic institutions and values by virtue of their national security oriented decision-making. In short, sovereign states unified by a national identity have a high tendency to further their relative position internationally which often manifests itself in the undermining of foreign democratic institutions or the violation of human rights for political power or profit. This problem is universal to all kinds of nation-states and implicates various authoritarian regimes, liberal democracies, social democracies, and socialist states. As such, the problem itself lies in the natural tendencies of nation-states to further their political and economic interests when provided with the opportunity to do so.
It is easy to dismiss these claims by asserting that the only kinds of nation-states that undermine democratic institutions are ones with authoritarian and non-liberal regimes. After all, as seen with the Russian interference in American elections, it is apparent that authoritarian regimes are willing to subvert foreign democratic institutions to further their political objectives. Furthermore, authoritarian nation-states are by definition, un-democratic, and automatically detract from the overall democratic character of the world. For instance, the Chinese government’s human rights violations against Uyghurs in Xinjiang deprives individuals of their civil liberties, self-expression, and beyond and therefore weakens the overall state of global democracy.
However, while these critiques of authoritarian nation-states are justified, failing to recognize the same tendencies in their liberal-democratic counterparts glosses over an enormous amount of undemocratic acts that the latter have consistently committed out of economic and national security interests. The United States, including many other liberal democracies like Australia, are responsible for the destabilization and outright overthrow of democratically elected governments for a significant part of their history. America’s long history of intervention in Latin American affairs ranging from the overthrow of democratically elected officials to the destabilization of governments and funding of death squads in Nicaragua is striking but has not even touched on the subject of French, British, German, Italian, and Spanish colonization of the Americans and Africa, both of which enabled these nations to create the democratic institutions that they are often praised for. These kinds of un-democratic and interventionist foreign policies persist through the war on terror and exploitation of the global south. Can a nation-state truly be considered democratic when it actively erodes democratic institutions abroad through these kinds of actions?
One might admit that these evaluations and criticisms of liberal-democratic foreign policies are accurate, but maintain that such actions and behaviors are not fundamental to the nation-state. After all, why is it not the case that these liberal democracies cannot simply vote in less interventionist policy makers and public officials? There are multiple potential answers to this question. Firstly, there are enormous economic benefits and corporate lobbying involved with liberal-democratic foreign policy. As such, so long as this kind of influence exists, foreign policy will continue to be un-democratic and authoritarian. Secondly, influential liberal nation-states like the United States, France, etc must continue to commit these acts to maintain their strategic edge and superiority over other nation-states, as is the nature of a hierarchical relationship in a world of scarcity. If the United States were to be replaced as the global hegemon, its replacement(s) would commit these kinds of acts to maintain its position. Finally, more appealing “peaceful” forms of government like social democracies have also proven to succumb to the aforementioned national security and economic drives.
Take, for example, how the Norwegian corporation of Telenor, which is majority owned by the government, was responsible for relying on child labor in Bangladesh, exposing said children to horrific working conditions and toxic chemicals. Additionally, consider Statoil, another partially government-owned Norwegian business, which was caught bribing state officials in foreign nation-states like Iran. Sweden, another social democracy, enables aforementioned acts like the war on terror through industries like Bofor which manufacture arms for warfare. Referring back to Norway, the Norwegian government participated in the invasion of Libya and was responsible for dropping hundreds of bombs on the nation’s capital. These actions are not flukes, rather consistent behavior conducted by nation-states.
Leftists and the like may respond by suggesting that this is simply a critique of capitalism. While the examples provided throughout this post may in fact be useful criticisms of capitalist nation-states, one must not dismiss the similar acts and strategies employed by the few examples of socialist nations one can look to. The USSR, itself an authoritarian nation-state, was also responsible for the installation of countless despotic and undemocratic regimes in Eastern Europe and North Korea.
Additionally, there may be some resistance to the notion that it is accurate to assess these actions of various nation-states as truly “undemocratic”. When evaluating democracy from the lens of theorists like Schumpeter, this argument could potentially make sense. Namely, Schumpeter advocates for a purely procedural definition of democracy, one in which democracy is tied to “the ability of individuals to acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote”. In other words, democracy is at its core about the importance of competitive elections and the procedural side of electing leadership. If this is the case, the violation of civil liberties by liberal democracies through their foreign policy is not immediately “undemocratic”. On the other hand, America’s ousting of elected officials in Latin America would violate such democratic principles. If anything, one could assert that this simply demonstrates that Schumpeter’s understanding of democracy is too limited and does consider civil liberties and similar values enough. Alternatively, Dahls’ definition of democracy, which includes Schumpeter’s procedural emphasis and an additional emphasis on other factors related to civil liberties like the “freedom of expression” might be more sympathetic to the notion that the actions committed by nation-states are consistently undemocratic abroad. Similarly, when looking at organizations like Freedom House, who assert that democracy is one in the same with a value for human rights, the case that nation-states are undemocratic becomes more sound. Ironically, organizations like Freedom House still point to nation-states like Norway and the United States as “free” in spite of the fact that these nations consistently behave undemocratically abroad, as argued above. After all, considering just how interconnected the world is in the era of globalization, it seems inherently undemocratic for there to be situations in which the actions of a foreign nation-state have such profound effects on those who have no say over these policies and actions.
However, one should not simply conclude that this is an unchangeable and naturally enforced status-quo. Rather, this conclusion should make one more skeptical of nation-states and the ways in which we classify countries as “democratic” in our interconnected and globalized world.