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If I may, however, sort of speak up in defense of the president on one narrow issue, I've noticed over the years, and reading commentary on today's speech once again, that skeptics about the Bush Freedom Agenda have a tendency to throw the term "Western-style" democracy around. Whatever is this supposed to mean? Is Brazil's democracy Western-style? India? South Korea? Japan? Turkey? South Africa? The point of the word seems to be to simultaneously impugne the idea that new countries could become democratic without essentially abandonning their cultural differentness, while also making it seem like would-be democracy-promoters really have two tall hurdles to cross, first to a "democracy" and then to the vaunted "Western-style" democracy. But though democracy certainly comes in styles, there's no "western" style. The political systems of the United States, Britain, Germany, and France are all dramatically different from one another. The political systems of Britain and India, or Mexico and the USA, or Germany and Turkey, are pretty similar. No one copies the French model except the Russians, and it didn't serve them well.

January 21, 2005 | Permalink


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What is French style democracy? Periods of corruption and decay punctuated by bloody revolution? Rather like American .

Posted by: TJ | Jan 21, 2005 1:25:43 AM

I always took that to mean "liberal democracy," refering to certain social institutions and attitudes rather than anything structural. It's always seemed clear enough that way. But maybe I've been too generous.

Posted by: jb | Jan 21, 2005 1:26:54 AM

liberal, constitutional democracy

Posted by: praktike | Jan 21, 2005 1:31:20 AM

I have always construed "Western-style" democracy to mean a country with democratically elected leaders who are subject to the same laws and subservient to the same institutions as everyone else. "Western-style" democracies place the process and the institutions above individual politicians, so leaders cannot do things like void elections they lose, imprison citizens without due process, or change laws they don't like without consulting the legislative branch. All of the countries you mentioned include healthy institutions that are above individual leaders, while in countries like Haiti, Venezuala, or Russia leaders are free to ignore the law and simply use rigged elections to validate their own power.

Posted by: jjbman1121 | Jan 21, 2005 1:37:32 AM

So the British (who have no written constitution), do not have a "Western-style" democracy? Maybe you just think I'm nitpicking, but I think Matt's point is well-taken. I think the "Western-style" democracy rhetoric may have made more sense during the Cold War when sometimes the other side tried to win PR points by looking democratic, but it has long outlasted its shelf life by now.

Posted by: Ravi | Jan 21, 2005 1:39:30 AM

How about if you defined "Western-style Democracy" as including institutions outside the government, and supported or defended by the government, such as a free press, respect for contracts, religious and ethnic tolerance, etc?

Do any of the countries in the list have a press that can't crticize the government? Except maybe the US.

An secondly, given MY's point, could it be that it is these external institutions and traditions that are the necessary and sufficient conditions for democracy, rather than the formal structures of written law.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 21, 2005 1:53:44 AM

My (first) impression of it was American-West-style-democracy, and you try spreading it to other unwilling countries!

Posted by: Roc | Jan 21, 2005 1:54:49 AM

I believe the Iranian constitution is based on the French one. I would assume that various African governments also are, although I'm not sure. I would suspect, actually, that many pseudo-democracies in the Third World have constitutions based on that of the French Fifth Republic, although I'm not sure of that.

It should be noted, however, that Turkey's constitution is not very much like Germany's. Germany has the rather unique feature of the Bundesrat, the Federal Council, in which representatives of the governments of the various Bundesländer (States) form the upper house of the legislature (in effect). As far as I am aware, this is virtually unique. Certainly Turkey, which is not a federal state and seems to have a unicameral legislature, is not very similar to this.

Posted by: John | Jan 21, 2005 1:59:21 AM

MY's point is spot-on, and pointing out the definition that one has in mind when "Western-style democracy" is used kind of misses the point.

If you want someone to take you seriously as an ally, the first thing you do is try not to insult them. Telling someone from the East they need a Western anything is a really stupid idea. Especially when "Western" is going to be associated with infidels and wars and exploitation to people in other parts of the world.

Constitutional democracy or republic or whatever, but not "Western-style democracy."

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Jan 21, 2005 2:13:11 AM

I think it's meant to be contrasted with Eastern faux democracies like the USSR and Red China.

Posted by: John T. Kennedy | Jan 21, 2005 3:26:04 AM

IMO the phrasing is meant to exclude democracies-in-name-only on the one hand and on the other hand distinguish it from other conceptions of democracy that may or may not work. For instance non-secular democracy or democracies with varying degrees of socialism-free market economy thrown in.
Admittedly the term is unfortunate, but it might be hard to come up with a better term without having to resort to a highly technical description. As the thread shows, "constitutional" won't do, though it captures a good deal of what we may consider the essence of the concept. Less technical terms like "stable" or "mature" which might also grasp the essence of what is meant are even more problematic when considering the details.
IMO "Western style democracy" is a convenient shorthand which generally -that is without post such as this one- work as a convenient shorthand that avoids getting sidetracked by debates whether such and such is a necessary or sufficient condition for a democracy and just what distinguishes a democracfy considered "real" from a "fake" one.

Posted by: markus | Jan 21, 2005 3:58:38 AM

markus, are you asserting that India is not a "real" democracy? I know most Americans don't know this, but they still have a fairly active Communist party over there. The Communists are actually fairly popular in at least one state because (when they were in power) they started with universal education which wound up being a big win once the outsourcing wave started to hit...

Posted by: Ravi | Jan 21, 2005 4:13:23 AM

'mature democracy', 'genuine democracy' 'stable democracy' etc should do the trick. There are no good reasons to ever use use the term 'western-style democracy.

Posted by: David Weman | Jan 21, 2005 4:36:14 AM

Russia's constitution is certainly not modeled after the 4th repuplic's. In Russia, the president names the cabinet. They don't have pariliamentary runoffs. It's more a cross between the german and US constitution, tho with a much weaker legislature, and much less federalism than either of those.

It's fairly unique, actually.

Posted by: David Weman | Jan 21, 2005 4:39:45 AM

The word 'democracy' means about as much as 'liberation' or 'moral values'.

In every country in the world there is a mechanism for the ruling elite to maintain control no matter what. For example: even in such enormous transformation as collaps of the Soviet Union, pretty much the same people who ruled the USSR came out on top in the 'new' Russia. The simply changed the structure to keep control.

In every country in the world there is a mechanism for the serfs to express their resentment, from casting ballots for or another member of the elite to mass-protests to riots.

The word 'democracy' in this context has no meaning whatsoever; you people can't be so stupid as to believe that majority of the common citizens rule the US or the UK or even France. This idea flies in the face of logic and common sense.

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 21, 2005 4:52:29 AM

"In every country in the world there is a mechanism for the ruling elite to maintain control no matter what."

Well, you can say what you want about the Russian government, but I'm fairly confident that the guy at the top isn't called "Romanov" any more. Mechanism didn't work too well there, did it?

Posted by: ajay | Jan 21, 2005 5:33:14 AM

@Ravi: on the contrary, that was precisely my point, though I wasn't aware of that particular fact (Thanks!). Going from thing I know more about, for instance "property confers obligations (to society)" is part of the German Basic Constitutional Law ("Grundgesetz"), and I expect this squares badly with some notions on property rights which a sizeable chunk of Americans might argue are essential for a democracy. Similarly, restrictions on the freedom of speech and hence the press as embodied in e.g. hate speech laws are problematic in that both almost everyone would probably consider freedom of speech an essential part of a "true" democracy. How does one distinguish simple restrictions which reasonable people can agree on from suppression of legitimate objections without resorting to "I know it when I see it".
@David Weman: "genuine democracy" is IMO just code for "only if I agree it is a democracy". "mature" and "stable" would seem to apply to any system which stays around for more than an (arbitrary) amount of time. FWIW I don't consider the former GDR (east-Germany) an true democray, and yet they lasted fourty years, had parties and elections and nominally a free press.

Posted by: markus | Jan 21, 2005 5:38:31 AM

Well, "democracy" in the sense of a press not wholly controlled by the government, a universal franchise for elections in which the military took no part and the police were not permitted to monitor who voted for who, and so on, was more or less invented in the United States and Europe (counting the British Dominions as part of Europe at the time).

In this sense "Western-style" seems fair. In the same way a wine is sauvignon blanc even when growh in South Africa.

Posted by: MFB | Jan 21, 2005 6:05:45 AM

Well, as a criticism of Bush's policies, "Western style" may be highly relevant - (1) there has been an unfortunate tendency of the West to support non-democratic authoritarian regimes and call them democracies, which may be what we're talking about, or more likely (2) there has been an unfortunate tendency to talk about solving the factional/ethnic strife in iraq with the solutions used in the US, like Federalism, which looks like a worse idea when one considers nations like Yugoslavia, or even more likely (3) Western Style Democracies have been characterized by a fairly extreme separation between religious and State institutions in recent decades, and there is every reason to think this may pose a serious legitimacy problem for Iraq. Iran has some Democratic Institutions, but it is fundamentally not democratic but a theocracy. However, whether any of the lessons of Iran's government can be applied to creating a Democracy in Iraq is an issue that seems verbotten in much of our discourse.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Jan 21, 2005 6:52:12 AM

Western Style means pro-American in practice. Its code people. This way you can say Venezula which is democratic isn't Western Style and deserves scorn.

Posted by: Rob | Jan 21, 2005 7:03:04 AM

"Freedom" and "Democracy" are empty with out Justice. Bush's speech was myopic no matter how nicely written in this regard.

I think this is one area where we are failing miserably in the eyes of the Muslim world (the people we are trying to win over to our world view I gather) ... for them individual "liberty" does not resonate. "Justice" does.

Posted by: a-train | Jan 21, 2005 8:37:19 AM

The Cold War was won by our (free world) Western Style Democracy. The threat of aggression and containment kept the Cold War from going hot, without question – but free markets proved they provide a better standard of living than planned economies. Toward the end of pervious century, more and more third world nations align themselves with free market countries than the communist ones. Finally, it became apparent even to the least of officials in the USSR that Marx had no clothes. Free markets perform better than planned economies.

I don’t know who said this (I heard it on Firing Line a long time ago.): Countries that strive for liberty achieve a better life for its citizens than countries that strive for equality.

Now, does this same comparison apply to the countries of the Middle East? Can liberty really work in those countries, or does it provide the freedom for the terror and chaos we are seeing?

There is another saying that I have been watching over time. (Once again, I heard this on Firing Line.) Revolution never really changes anything; it just changes who is in power. For example: The American Revolution reasserted the freedom the colonist had had prior to Britain taking notice of what was going on across the Atlantic, the Russian Revolution exchanged the tyranny of the Czar for the tyranny of the Politburo, the Iranian Revolution exchanged the tyranny of the Shah for that of the Mullahs. Makes you wonder what the Iraqi.

Posted by: scout29c | Jan 21, 2005 8:38:12 AM

So the British (who have no written constitution), do not have a "Western-style" democracy?

They do have an unwritten constitution, IIRC. Aside from this nitpicky point, I think the important thing is simply that there are a set of attitudes and social norms (perhaps embodied in a written constitution, perhaps not) that provide for substantive liberties (speech, etal).

That seems like a generous way to construe it, although in many circumstances, it does seem more like a coded persuasive definition.

Posted by: jpe | Jan 21, 2005 9:19:52 AM

The USA was a "Western-style democracy" only for the brief period 1970-2000. Before and after that period the substantial African-American vote was systematically suppressed in many states; from 2000 on the use of unverifiable voting technology further corrupted the validity of election results.

If it means anything, freedom should start at home.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Jan 21, 2005 9:24:28 AM

In Asia and Latin America, there are a few examples of places that are/were democracies but definitely aren't mirror images of American or European systems. Usually, this means they're somewhat more undemocratic in some way. For example, Malaysia is a democracy, people vote in reasonably fair elections--but the same party has won every election since Malaysian independence in 1963 and there are subtle pressures that keep it in power (some government control of the press, for example). That doesn't look very much like most democracies you see in the West.

In Venezuela, the two main parties colluded for decades, so the people didn't have real choices at the ballot box. After the economic crisis, both parties were completely discredited, leaving Venezuela without any viable parties. The result was a decidedly non-"Western" system by which politicians just started their own personal parties for every election.

Posted by: B | Jan 21, 2005 9:25:37 AM

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