Eric Hobsbawm, the world’s greatest living historian, has some cautionary words about the conditions for democracy and the limits to power in the Guardian, in response to the aims set out in George W. Bush’s inaugural address:
This idea is dangerous whistling in the dark. Although great power action may have morally or politically desirable consequences, identifying with it is perilous because the logic and methods of state action are not those of universal rights. All established states put their own interests first. If they have the power, and the end is considered sufficiently vital, states justify the means of achieving it – particularly when they think God is on their side. Both good and evil empires have produced the barbarisation of our era, to which the “war against terror” has now contributed.
ELSEWHERE: Gary Younge asks whether the desire to “spread freedom” extends to regimes in countries such as Uzbekistan.
While threatening the integrity of universal values, the campaign to spread democracy will not succeed. The 20th century demonstrated that states could not simply remake the world or abbreviate historical transformations. Nor can they easily effect social change by transferring institutions across borders. The conditions for effective democratic government are rare: an existing state enjoying legitimacy, consent and the ability to mediate conflicts between domestic groups. Without such consensus, there is no single sovereign people and therefore no legitimacy for arithmetical majorities. When this consensus is absent, democracy has been suspended (as is the case in Northern Ireland), the state has split (as in Czechoslovakia), or society has descended into permanent civil war (as in Sri Lanka). “Spreading democracy” aggravated ethnic conflict and produced the disintegration of states in multinational and multicommunal regions after both 1918 and 1989.