Democracy vs. the rule of law

By February 21, 2006Article, Atlantic Eye

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Feb. 21, 2006 — The period between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War was marked by the preeminence of nation states as the instrument of engaging in world affairs. The conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union dominated the period, with South American and Asian conflicts occasionally entering the fray.
It was accepted parlance that the world was bipolar, with the forces of NATO facing those of the Warsaw Pact. Most conflicts were divided between players representing those two main streams. Ever so often, China would growl, and India would bellow. Japan and Germany were still recovering their pride from the lost war. And even as rogue elements became players, and would then disappear, the two dominant powers were mostly able to manage their satellites.
It was a stable model within instability. How much that has changed.
The unipolar world dominated by the United States has not brought the stability sought. And maybe Adam Smith understood this best with his paradigms on competition. Where is the competition? Who is the competition? I would be pleased if it were the Europeans, as this column has advocated and admonished previously. Instead, other nations, whose values are not those of the West, continue to grow strong while Europe dabbles along unable to pass a constitution, incapable of agreeing on a common security and defense policy and lacking the political will to take its leadership seriously.
Worse yet, rogue elements and failed states are filling the gaps left by bad public policy and failed leadership. And the unipolar world is having a hard time stopping them.
How refreshing then, and important, to be in Warsaw last week with former Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld. In a 4 hour tête-à-tête which seemed almost too short, a leading parliamentarian, a ranking senator, a former head of the Polish Secret Intelligence, three well-placed under-secretaries, a former NATO assistant secretary, an ambassador, a former chairman of a major international Bank, a former dissident-turned-lobbyist, a leading western diplomat and several other guests dissected leadership, democracy and the rule-of-law.
Poland is a country that takes its place in the world seriously. Poles have a vision of where they should be in the pecking order. A country of nearly 40 million inhabitants and a grand history to boot, the Poles are not idle in their desire to lead. They also expect to be heard. And so they were on this evening in Warsaw in their once, and soon to be again, beautiful capital ravaged by Germany during World War II.
“Is it not possible,” said a participant, “that we need to approach the world differently, and that we should focus on establishing the rule-of-law, as opposed to focusing on establishing democracy?
“Along with this,” he added, “should we not be seeking to redefine the interaction between nation states,” asking where confederated unions and international institutions fit into the political dynamic.
My initial response, along with several in the room, was to feel defensive. I pondered the prospects of interacting with countries that have the “rule-of-law” but are not democracies — of advocating the rule-of-law without democracy. And yet, the arguments given were compelling and strong.
Most countries are not democratic. Many have some democratic principles. Even amongst democracies, elections and the role of government are defined differently. In Germany, each person has two votes — one to vote for a party, and one to vote for a person. In Australia, voting is mandatory, with fines for those who do not participate. Both systems are highly democratic and function well. But they are different in form than the United States, not least of which is that they are parliamentary democracies with a strong prime minister (chancellor in Germany) and a head of state who is president. The United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Monaco and Spain still have monarchs as heads of state. This sounds unthinkable in the United States, though the founding fathers actually considered this possibility.
Focusing on the principle of the rule-of-law allows the setting-up of stable entities while acknowledging differences in culture and religion. A family is not a democracy, but functioning families follow the rule-of-law. Could one not envision a system of states that have the rule-of-law, but are not democracies?
Singapore is a stable country. It has a thriving economy. Muslims, Hindus and Christians live in harmony, with only occasional conflicts. It has the rule-of-law. Brunei and Thailand might be offered as other examples.
As an Army brat in Germany, I remember watching Star Trek. I had a passion for repeating the opening lines: “Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
We are not going to conquer space if we cannot get our act together on this planet. We should want to assist cultures in defining themselves. We should want to make them full partners in the world political and economic process.
Maybe looking beyond the current paradigm would help us do just that.

(Marc S. Ellenbogen is the chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society for International Cooperation. A senior associate at Syracuse’s Maxwell School, he divides his time between Berlin and Prague.)