Green Books Campaign: Exporting Democracy

November 10, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

This review is part of the Green Books campaign.Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco-friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on the Eco-Libris website.

Bob Rae’s book Exporting Democracy, published by McClelland & Stewart, was printed on acid-free paper that is 100% recycled, ancient-forest friendly (100% post-consumer waste).


Exporting Democracy: The Risks and Rewards of Pursuing a Good Idea. Bob Rae; $29.99 cloth 978-0-7710-7289-5, 280 pp., McClelland & Stewart.

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. – Winston Churchill

Bob Rae, Liberal MP, former premier of Ontario, and Rhodes Scholar, is a passionate advocate for democracy and its institutions. Rae concludes the acknowledgements to his new book by saying, “The pulse of democracy needs to beat stronger in the world. The point is not just to measure it, but to figure out how to keep it going.” Exporting Democracy is Rae’s attempt to measure the state of democracy and democratic institutions in today’s world, and it’s safe to say that the assessment he comes up with is, at best, mixed. China is in the ascendant as an economic force, but the brutal containment of student protests in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 testified to the “continuing gap between economic freedom and political repression” that persists in that country. In the Middle East, the continued inability to reach an effective peace settlement between Israel and Palestine means that “[d]emocracy is undermined and extremism is encouraged.” And Rae quotes Gérard Prunier on the subject of democracy in Africa:

The problem is that democracy as a form of government presupposes a certain degree of social integration, the existence of a political class with some concept of the national interest, and a minimum of economic development. None of these existed. The African political class was largely made up of “tropical gangsters,” and the continent’s economy was a stagnating swamp. Attempts at democracy, although inherently hopeful, tended to end badly either through violence or, more often, through the deliberate perversion of new institutions, which were promptly emptied of any democratic content.

While remaining cognizant of democracy’s benefits as embodied in what he refers to as the “federal idea” (“because the –ism in ‘federalism’ has a way of limiting debate and understanding”), Rae is too much of a realist to pretend that it is easily exportable to developing nations, or to nations that may not want it in the first place. He freely acknowledges the problematic colonial histories of countries like Britain and France, and points out that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the American Declaration of Independence and one of the heroes of democratic change in the New World, was a slave owner. Writing about the American adventure in Vietnam, Rae quotes J. William Fulbright:

I do not question the power of our weapons and the efficiency of our logistics … What I do question is the ability of the United States, or France, or any other Western nation to go into a small, alien, undeveloped Asian nation and create stability where there is chaos, the will to fight where there is defeatism, democracy where there is no tradition of it, and honest government where corruption is almost a way of life.

Fulbright’s comments are eerily prescient of the American experience in Afghanistan, and Rae is careful to note that one of the most intractable problems with bringing democracy to that troubled country is tied up in George W. Bush’s unfortunate and irrational decision to abandon the Afghan front in his “global war on terror” in favour of an ill-advised invasion of Iraq. On the subject of Bush’s “dangerous adventure” in Iraq, Rae writes,

The failure to consider beyond the immediate justification for a policy to its practical consequences is always costly in human lives, dollars, and increasing insecurity. The refusal to put the question of whether a policy will work on an equal plane with the question of whether it is right will always lead to decisions that are surrounded by a self-righteous aura but have little prospect of eventual success.

“The creed of self-satisfaction” to which many in the West subscribe, says Rae, “is ultimately bankrupt, but not because it is morally unedifying. It is worse. It is unwise.”

All of this is the product of a clear-eyed realist bringing his experience and substantial intellect to bear on one of the thorniest problems of our time: to what extent is it possible to ensure that countries throughout the world have access to the means and institutions necessary to provide not only responsible government, but the essentials of life itself? Does the West have a responsibility to intervene in areas of the world that are subject to tyranny and despotism, and is such intervention ultimately doomed to failure? Rae’s final inability to come up with a definite answer to these questions is perhaps understandable, but it does leave a reader with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. The best that Rae can do in conclusion is to admit that in the struggle for democracy “[w]e shall face setbacks, just as our ancestors did over the centuries since the democratic idea was born. But none of us can remain aloof from the struggle.”

In addition to a contingent element in its close, Exporting Democracy‘s diffusion of focus results in a fractured reading experience. In broad strokes, the book is divided into three parts: a history of Western democracy, beginning with the American and French revolutions and running through the two world wars of the 20th century and the Cold War; a survey of democracy’s inroads into problem areas of the globe, such as China, Pakistan, the Middle East, and Sri Lanka; and an assessment of Canada’s role in advocating for future democratic change. While the author is good at detailing the difficulties democracy has faced throughout its history, when he turns his attention to Canada he begins to sound like a politician making a stump speech, which denudes his argument of much of its power. Furthermore, the ambitious breadth of focus Rae undertakes results in a lack of cohesion among his various chapters, and his central arguments frequently go missing.

Rae has first-hand experience visiting troubled areas around the world, and his compassionate vision and sensible approach to policy issues mean that he is able to put complicated historical and political problems into context. But the scattershot aspect leaves the book feeling overly baggy and unkempt. In his acknowledgements, Rae thanks David Cameron, chair of the political science department at the University of Toronto, who apparently read an earlier draft and said, “There’s a book in there somewhere, but it’s not there yet.” Cameron’s assessment, I fear, continues to hold.


One Response to “Green Books Campaign: Exporting Democracy”
  1. Excellent, detaile and well thought out review! This sounds like a fascinating read. Are any of the democratic countries in the world though actually truly good at democracy? Does the UK, with the largest number of CCTV cameras on our streets compared to any other country (or so I beleive) have a right to talk to other countries about their intrusions on their citizens’ lives? It is a very interesting area to ponder….