Democracy today is imperiled by new autocrats: gangsters who occupy the apparatus of states, terrorists who seize and pervert peaceful faiths, and militias who collaborate with traffickers.
Canadian foreign-policy makers have demonstrated the courage to commit the lives of Canadian soldiers in places such as Afghanistan to defend the values of democracy. The tools by which democratic expression is realized must be shared as well.
By making democracy-training and assistance part of Canadas foreign policy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government could underscore historic, hard-fought and hard-won Canadian values in its relations with governments around the world.
Why Canada? In the 1980s and 1990s, Canadians actively debated new constitutional provisions, and discussed various species of federalism. Canadians have also grappled with the politics of natural resources and commodity prices, often a divisive issue in developing countries. Canadians have firsthand experience creating new political parties (e.g. the Reform Party, the Bloc Québécois, the Saskatchewan Party and the Action démocratique du Québéc), revitalizing parties (e.g. the Canadian Alliance) and managing party coalitions and mergers (e.g., between the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives). Canadians have institutional experiences balancing divergent political interests through periods of great political realignment and have direct experience with nationalist separatist movements. And the Canadian experience with blending Westminster-style parliamentary institutions with a federal structure, and with a constitutional charter that may be used to challenge the legislation passed by Parliament itself, is as complex as it has been (generally) successful. Canadians are comfortable today with having a serious, national discussion on democratic reforms and electoral systems. These are experiences no American and few Europeans could claim, and they resonate with the challenges of managing many new and emerging democracies around the world today.
The demand is growing as more countries adopt democratic forms of government. Three centuries ago, there were no democracies at all. In the early 1970s, there were about 40 democracies in the world. As the 20th century ended, there were around 120 democracies, and today some 140 countries operate based on some form of democratic institutions.
However, The Economist Intelligence Units 2006 Index of Democracy shows just how thin the democratic veil truly is today around the world. Only 28 states, accounting for just 13% of the world’s population, are considered to be full democracies, while the remaining states and territories are considered to be authoritarian or hybrid democracies.
Often, foreign-policy makers are tempted by the so-called tyranny of the short term: Support the fellow you find least objectionable, and ignore the rest. This not only is an affront to the ethical principles of democracy assistance, but is also out of synch with the long-term strategic interests of coaxing all perspectives toward democratic expression, rather than violent expression.
Democratic political parties are also vulnerable to usurpation by autocratic political interests often from regional neighbors as by Syria in Lebanon, China in Asia, Russia in Eurasia and Eastern Europe, Iran in Iraq, Venezuela in Peru and so on. Behind the religious, nationalist or populist cloaks are often purely autocratic political interests.
A challenge for Canadians is to navigate through these issues. Imagine a Canada reanimated in its foreign policy aligned along the axis of democracy assistance.
The Liberal government led by Paul Martin, and now the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, promised that Canadian foreign policy would change to better reflect the values of Canadians. Doing so would place Canada in good company among those established elder democracies, and those vibrant emerging ones prepared to share their experiences with others, who long for peace, order and good government for themselves and for their children.