So who are these liberal democracies, and what are their values? It’s easy enough to list the states who routinely self-identify as liberal democracies: the United States of America (which is a republic, not a democracy; the framers of its constitution explicitly wished to avoid creating a democracy); the United Kingdom (which is an oligarchy with some window-dressing); the members of the European Union (well, most of them); Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
What interests me here is the question of values. Now most of us, it’s true to say, have two sets of values. There are the values that we profess to have, and the values that we actually live by, as shown by our actions. Of course there’s usually a lot of overlap between the two sets – I not only say that murder is wrong, but I abstain from going around murdering people – but perhaps only saints manage to walk the talk without exceptions.
When it comes to political regimes, however, there is often much less overlap. The values espoused by the Soviet Union, for instance, were far more pleasant than the reality it inflicted on its citizens. Likewise, the values which the liberal democracies claim to espouse are not often evident in their foreign policy – or even in their domestic policies, as Canada has recently shown us.
I’m mostly going to talk about the UK government here, because that’s the example I’m most familiar with, but I imagine you can find plenty of parallels with your own government’s behaviour, wherever you happen to live.
Consider the international equivalent of murder, which is the invasion of one country by another. This is topical at the moment, given the unpleasant events occurring in Ukraine as I write this. What is less topical are the equally unpleasant events occurring in Yemen. Only one of these is currently being loudly deplored by Western governments. Why is that? After all, both the Russian Federation and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are major exporters of petroleum. Is Saudi Arabia a shining beacon of liberal values? I don’t think so.
Britain sells lots of arms to Saudi Arabia. In the quarter following the decision to resume exports of arms in 2021 (after a brief episode of pretending to give a damn), £1.4 billion quid’s worth of sales were authorised by the UK government. Given that the Saudis have been trying to bomb Yemen into oblivion since 2015 and still haven’t succeeded, I’m not sure that they’ve been getting their money’s worth. The Russians, on the other hand, make their own.
When Britain formed part of the “coalition of the willing” assembled to invade Iraq, a good deal was made of how unpleasant Saddam Hussein was. We might have taken that into consideration when the West installed him as leader of Iraq, so that he could fight another war with Iran. The reality is that he was welcome to gas as many Marsh Arabs as he liked until he started to think he could formulate policies of his own based on oil revenue. As soon as he wanted to sell Iraqi oil in a currency other than the US dollar he had to go.
Indeed, choosing your own path is rarely a good career move in international politics. Look up what happened to Salvator Allende, for example. It sometimes seems to me that what the liberal democracies really have against Vladimir Putin is that he won’t do what he’s told. If only he would let us pillage his country freely as we used to in the good old days of the 1990s, we wouldn’t really care what he did domestically. Alas, he has nukes, so we have to pretend to be at least a little bit nice to him.
The UK will probably be hoping that nobody is paying too much attention to what we do domestically, for that matter. Legislation is currently making its way through Parliament that will effectively criminalise public protest. I grant you this is pretty milk-and-water stuff compared to the drastic emergency powers recently taken by Justin Trudeau to suppress the truckers’ protest in Canada, but it still isn’t the sort of legislation we would normally approve of in other countries.
The fact is that most, if not all, of the self-styled liberal democracies are becoming ever less liberal and less democratic. They are effectively oligarchies, and behaving like oligarchies. I might have more respect for them if they were at least honest about it. The good news is that I can’t see this state of affairs continuing for much longer. Now that we have reached the point where even Canadians are taking to the streets the writing is surely on the wall.
Oligarchies fail because they pursue policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many, and the many are – well – many. As the Canadian truckers have reminded us, they also do all the stuff we can’t get along without. Even oligarchs need to eat. Yes, the elites have the machinery of repression at their disposal, and as we have seen that are eager to upgrade it, but that machinery may not be as effective as they imagine. Even Trudeau found it expedient to abandon his emergency powers before they were voted on by the Canadian Senate.
I don’t suppose we will ever see a world in which governments really pursue what the late Robin Cook called “an ethical foreign policy.” We may however get one where governments have to be a bit more careful about what they do because they are actually answerable to the people they govern. But that’s a long way off, and as the proverbial Irishman said, “I wouldn’t start from here.”
Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.