Connecting global Anglo-American primacy and democracy

- April 8th, 2012

Kevin Narizny, an assistant professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., has an interesting essay in the latest issue of the journal World Politics. The paper is called “Anglo-American Primacy and the Global Spread of Democracy: An International Genealogy” and, in it, Narizny argues “that Anglo-American primacy over the past three centuries was a necessary, but not sufficient, cause of the global spread of democracy.”

The United States, in Narizny’s view, is the first democracy in 1809. The United Kingdom achieves “democracy” status in 1880 and Canada in 1888. Narizny uses, for these purposes, a definition of democracy set forth by Renske Doorenspleet in Democratic Transitions: Exploring the Structural Sources of the Fourth Wave. (On pages 24-25 of that book, a copy of which I do not have. Any readers of this post who might e-mail me her definition or explain it a bit more in the comments below would have my gratitude!)

Between 1809 and 1988, there were 122 transitions to democracy, among which only forty-four survived, uninterrupted, to the present. Of the seventy eight that did not survive, forty-four lasted less than a decade, and an additional twenty-two lasted less than two decades.

The question is not whether Great Britain and the United States could have “done more” to promote democracy. Rather, it is whether democracy would have thrived in a world in which Anglo-American power was not preeminent.”

He presents the case that there was “a genetic uniqueness of the founder state, early modern England” noting that:

Early modern England .. was not a democracy. After the Glorious Revolution, it is best described as a “liberal protodemocracy,”with a constitutionally constrained executive, an independent parliament with substantial influence over domestic and foreign policy, a mostly free press, and a relatively open economy. These characteristics had important implications for English foreign policy …

At home, it attacked the privileges of royal charters and commercial monopolies; in the colonies, it fostered institutions that protected property rights and the rule of law, favored market competition over rent seeking, and provided public goods. Over time, this legacy would prove propitious for democratization.

And he notes successive British governments did not have, as a foreign policy objective, the spread of democracies:

None of this is meant to imply the beneficence of the British Empire. Despite their high-minded rhetoric about preparing their colonies for self-rule, the British rarely made concessions until faced with armed rebellion and, even then, proved willing to censor, imprison, and execute their subjects. The empire was conducive to democratization not because it was morally enlightened but rather because it was rooted in a liberal state-society relationship.

Whatever. It seemed to work:

Recent statistical research confirms a dramatic difference between the colonial legacies of Great Britain and its European rivals. First, British imperialism is strongly correlated with the survival of postindependence democracy. [In fact] the longer the period of [British] occupation and the more direct the form of rule, the better were the prospects for democracy in nonsettler colonies. By contrast, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and French imperialism had either insignificant or negative effects.

And what about the relationship between democracy and capitalism? Does capitalism inevitably lead to democracy? Narizny would argue it does not thought certainly capitalism and modernization can be contributing factors:

The rise of capitalism stimulates a culture of individualism, rewards investment in education, expands the middle class, and, via urbanization, enables the mobilization of the lower classes. Each of these factors can contribute to pressure for regime change.

Modern-day China, of course, is perhaps the best example of “capitalism” of a kind flourishing in the absence of a democracy.

I also found this observation an interesting one (my emphasis):

It is often assumed that authoritarians are unable to suppress dissent in an information-age economy. Yet, the leaders of modern Singapore, Russia, and China have succeeded in doing just that. George Orwell would be surprised: what has been needed to prevent democratization in these cases is not a totalitarian police state but rather modest controls on Internet access and political reporting.

Looking around the world, today, Narizny sees some often-criticized (by conservatives mostly) international institutions as vital to the spread of democracy:

Perhaps the most potent force for the cultivation of a third generation of democracies has been the EU.

The United States played a major role in the organization’s formation, and Great Britain became a member in 1973, but it is mainly a creation of the second-generation democracies, led by Germany, France, and Italy.

Its diplomatic leverage derives from its offer of integration with the largest economies in Europe. By virtue of the strict conditionalities it imposed on candidates for accession, the EU was a critical factor in democratic transitions in Southern Europe in the 1970s and in Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

The World Bank, UN, and EU, as well as the OSCE, OAS, Commonwealth of Nations, and NATO, are all products of the British lineage, and their collective influence is considerable. The conditional promise of economic aid, preferential trade, diplomatic cooperation, and military security, coupled with the threat of international isolation, weighs heavily on small states. In such an international environment, one sees “the extraordinary capacity of outside actors to shift the political momentum in the direction of democratic options and to maintain that momentum through time in the face of apparently insuperable obstacles and repeated setbacks.”


Categories: Foreign Affairs, Politics

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