The world’s most powerful democracies were built on the suffering of others

United States President Joe Biden has cast the conflict between the western world and its competitors as a clash between “democracies and autocracies.” This masks the American desire for power and the complex realities of creating democracy.

Democracy is supposed to base a state’s legitimacy in its accountability to its people. It supports people’s freedoms and human rights. What these ideals mean in practice and how to achieve them are difficult questions.

But it’s clear the U.S. is no longer a credible champion for, or exemplar of, democracy.

In fact, it has a long history of overthrowing and undermining democracies abroad.

A troubled record with democracy

Barack Obama’s administration, for example, greenlit the military coup that overthrew Egypt’s democracy and ended the Arab Spring uprisings in 2013.

The U.S. also has a long history of supporting authoritarian regimes. It has made it clear that being authoritarian does not impede any country from joining its coalition against China.

The U.S. itself is a failing democracy — or perhaps a better description is a plutocracy with democratic embellishments.

American politics have been corrupted by money, civil rights are under assault, voter suppression is rife and distrust and social division are ubiquitous. In 2021, only 50 per cent of Americans said they believed they live in a democracy.

Russia has used social media to interfere in elections around the world. China has tried to influence diaspora communities. But there’s not much evidence these activities are co-ordinated and they pale compared to the ubiquity and influence of American interference.

The U.S. has not been “defending democracy.” It’s been defending its power and privileges in an unequal global system.

Western democracy’s grim origins

This is not the only way the concept of democracy has been misused by the United States and other western nations.

Many countries in the West provide their citizens with the highest living standards and freedoms in the world. How they got there is something many conveniently forget.

The western world’s tendency to see itself as the pinnacle of civilization and morality has been used to justify global domination and intervention in the rest of the world.

The contemporary successes of some of the most powerful democracies are the result of the subjugation and exploitation of other people both within and beyond their borders. The U.S. was built on genocide and slavery.

Canada is only starting to acknowledge its history of cultural genocide. Every European state that practised colonialism profited from that brutality.

The British extracted more than $45 trillion of wealth from India between 1765 and 1938 and destroyed the country’s economy.

The U.K.’s industrial revolution was financed by Indian plunder. Tens of millions of Indians died as the result of Britain’s economic policies. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill deliberately implemented policies that created and exacerbated the Bengal Famine that killed more than three million Indians.

Indian paramilitary soldiers march during a rehearsal for the Indian Independence Day parade in Srinagar, India. India celebrates its 1947 independence from British colonial rule every August 15.
AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

Hiding the truth

Western amnesia about its brutal history is deliberate. As the British Empire ended, it launched Operation Legacy, the destruction of millions of documents detailing the full extent of British atrocities in its colonies.

Black boys stand beside a toppled statue in a black and white photo from the 1960s.
In this 1961 photo, the bust of former Belgian King Leopold II lies on the ground on the Avenue General De Gaulle in Stanleyville, Congo.
(AP Photo)

Belgium hid the truth of King Leopold’s vicious exploitation of the Belgian Congo that involved the murder of 10 million people.

In the U.S., the political right’s campaign against critical race theory stifles the historical reality and legacy of American racism.

Democracy is not a cure-all for human misery and inequity. For impoverished states, democracy can actually exacerbate social divisions.

Exactly what makes a democracy successful is unclear, though it seems to lie in “good governance.” What is clear is that democracies cannot simply be wished into existence. Most western states can only offer examples of democracy-building that have relied upon extreme military, political and social violence.

Democracy in principle is a desirable goal. Most of the world supports the “responsibility to protect” doctrine — the idea that states bear basic obligations to their citizens. However, most do not support military interventions to further those ostensible goals. They are aware of the great difficulties involved in making democracy work.

Western states argue that only democracies are legitimate states because they are supported by the consent of their citizens. That isn’t the case for most authoritarian states.

Chinese prosperity

However, China — the primary target of the American “democracy versus authoritarianism” campaign — complicates the “democratic narrative.” A meticulous, long-term Harvard study found that the vast majority of Chinese citizens support their national government. Other surveys have reached the same general conclusion.

This support may reflect, in part, China’s cultural and historical norms and experiences but it is mostly attributable to how much the lives of the Chinese people have improved.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has overseen 40 years of economic growth and technological development unprecedented in world history. Chinese GDP per capita increased from US$195 in 1980 to US$12,556 in 2021. As many as 800 million people have risen out of poverty. Like any government, democratic or not, the CCP’s legitimacy reflects its performance.

Thousands of people at a night-time celebration hold up their smartphones to take pictures of fireworks.
In this 2019 photo, people use smartphones to film fireworks exploding at Tiananmen Square as part of a gala evening commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing.
(AP Photo/Andy Wong)

China is not, however, aggressively promoting its political model around the world, unlike the West’s often violent, coercive and selective push for liberal democracy.

Western democracies can best help the world by doing more to live up to their highest ideals and approach their relations with the rest of the world with humility borne from historical awareness.

The one existential threat the entire planet faces is climate change. Co-operation within the entire international community is more important than ever and will require global economic and political transformation.

The American and western strategy of fomenting global division to maintain a harmful status quo is counterproductive at best.

You Might Like