Modern World History

Democracy, terrorism and the Post-modern World

Even in states like China (where only candidates from the Communist Party may stand for election) or Iran (where they must be approved by the supreme religious leader) it is now universally acknowledged that power belongs to the people and that 'one-man, one-vote' is the only fair system of voting. Multi-party democracy is the ideal that the USA claims to be promoting throughout the world and it is the main test applied to any country seeking to join the European Union. And yet democracy in a world of nation states can create as many problems as it solves. Many states were created by historical accident: few have ethnically homogeneous populations; some are deeply divided along racial, tribal or religious lines. How are the rights of minorities to be guaranteed in such states? And what about international relations? Where governments have to pursue popular policies to get elected it is all too easy for politicians to appeal to patriotism, with the risk, as in the case of India and Pakistan, that conventional conflict may escalate into the use of nuclear weapons. In 'mature' democracies the opposite risk exists: politics becomes a battle for the 'centre ground' so that decisive action becomes almost impossible without deceit, as we saw in the case of the Second Gulf War.

In the face of these pressures democracy as an absolute ideal appears to be in retreat. In theory the United Nations Charter of Human Rights (to which all member states are signatories) limits the power of national governments very significantly. So does the European Convention, recently incorporated into British law. In many nation states judges are protected by law from interference by politicians and can prevent them from abusing their powers. This is especially true of the USA where the Supreme Court has the last word in all matters relating to the constitution. Some states like Britain preserve an un-elected head of state as a guarantee against dictatorship. The survival (and in the case of Spain, re-vival) of constitutional monarchy around the world suggests that an un-elected element is an important guarantee of political stability.

The power of elected governments is also being diminished by international trade agreements. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a mechanism established after World War Two which has now evolved into the World Trade Organisation, seeks to reduce and as far as possible abolish restraints on the free movement of capital and labour throughout the world. It prevents signatory states from erecting barriers to protect their own industries from outside competition. To some it seems like an agency dedicated to promoting the interests of big multi-national corporations who exploit their buying power to keep millions in poverty throughout the world. Others see it as establishing the freedom and stability which trade everywhere needs in order to flourish. Equally the target of radical indignation, the World Bank seeks to prevent national bankruptcy of the kind experienced by Germany in 1929. By lending money to states in trouble it steadies international markets, but at a price: governments that are baled out by the World Bank are generally forced to make draconian cuts in public spending - precisely the hospitals and schools that are necessary to give their peoples hope of a better future.