Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Democracy, Hypocrisy and the Arms Trade

Last week, David Cameron showed that he doesn't know the meaning of the word 'democracy', when he described Kuwait as being one. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised, since Cameron also wants to reduce the number of MPs in parliament by about 10%, thereby making every vote worth 10% less. If this is a good idea, then surely reducing the number of MPs by 100% would be ten times better? Still, the number of MPs is only one small factor in what determines the quality of a democracy. Merely having an elected parliament does not make a country 'democratic'.

Economist Intelligence Unit produces a comprehensive report on the state of democracy around the world, in which every country is scored on numerous indices, grouped into five major categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. It then produces an overall score and ranks countries by this, dividing them into four major groups: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. I must point out to Mr Cameron that Kuwait is, unsurprisingly, in the 4th division and designated as an authoritarian regime, according to the EIU, on a par with Morocco and Ethiopia, well below Russia and Pakistan (both in the 3rd division). On the plus side, Kuwait is doing quite well this season, in second place in the 4th division, so there is hope that it may some day get promoted to a 'hybrid regime'.

Cameron was trying to justify arms sales by saying that democratic countries were entitled to defend themselves. His extremely broad definition of 'democracy' makes it perfectly clear that we will, in fact, sell arms to absolutely anyone who wants them, for whatever purpose. Until a few weeks ago, we were still selling arms for internal repression to Bahrain and Libya. Bahrain is only 8 places below Kuwait and Libya is 10th from bottom of the world democracy league. Over the past three years, the UK has sold over £13 million worth of arms to Bahrain and
£73 million worth to Libya.

We have also sold over over
£1.85 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia over the same period, which is even below Libya in the league table. By the EIU's measure, there are only 7 countries in the entire world that are less democratic than Saudi Arabia, including the Central African Republic and rock bottom North Korea. If North Korea were to embrace capitalism and stop scaring its neighbours, we'd be selling arms to them too. The only reason we've temporarily stopped approving sales to Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain is that those countries are now in open revolt, which would make it a bit embarrassing. In short, they're all good friends and customers until their people rise up or they oppose our foreign policy interests, just as Saddam Hussein did. For more detail on these states and their reliance on Western arms sales, see this excellent blog post by Cafe Thawra.

What this illustrates is that there is absolutely no moral imperative when it comes to doing business. More importantly, there is no affinity whatsoever between capitalism and democracy. In fact, the two are often in conflict. If we want a thriving arms industry, we can have no moral qualms at all. Our foreign policy also has no ethical dimension and it has never had one, whatever self-righteous nonsense Tony Blair may have spouted about bringing democracy to Iraq. For the record, Iraq is still well short of being a democracy, and is now classed as a hybrid regime, bottom of the 3rd division, only two places above Kuwait: that's after a decade of occupation and a war costing countless lives. Things may be better than they were under Saddam, but not by all that much. Is Afghanistan doing any better? No. It's doing much worse: still classed as an authoritarian regime, one place above Sudan. It seems we're not very good at imposing democracy on the countries we destroy, which just confirms that spreading democracy has nothing to do with the reasons why we are there.

David Cameron's new-found enthusiasm for democracy in the Arab world is purely a response to media pressure and public opinion. It's all highly inconvenient, because until now we have been happily arming autocrats to the teeth. It's not that we don't have strict official guidelines for approving arms sales; it's just that we completely ignore them, in routine acts of nauseating hypocrisy.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Britain itself is not as democratic a country as it should be. The UK only just makes it into the 1st division of 'full democracies', with a score of 8.16 (the threshold is 8). If we are not careful, we will follow two other big arms exporters, France and Italy, down to the 2nd division of 'flawed democracies'. One of the reasons why the UK is slipping towards the relegation zone, according to the EIU report, is that there has been an erosion of civil liberties in recent years, partly as a consequence of the spurious 'War on Terror'. Only South Korea and the USA score worse than the UK on civil liberties in the top division: this is New Labour's legacy. Likewise, the 'Land of the Free' turns out to be nothing of the sort. The other reason for the UK's poor rating is our pitiful record of low turn-outs in general elections and generally low level of political participation, no doubt due in part to our appallingly undemocratic voting system, which no other full democracy uses, apart from Canada and the US, which also has a problem of low participation.

So, when British and US leaders claim to support democracy in the Arab world, the hypocrisies are multiple: they show a total lack of understanding of what democracy means in its broad sense, both at home and overseas. Support for liberation movements in Egypt and Libya cannot coexist with support for absolute autocracy in Saudi Arabia, bolstered by arms sales. Nor should the erosion of civil liberties in the UK be used to excuse the fact that Israel, officially a 'flawed democracy', has a civil liberties record worse than that of Uganda. Israel may still be the only democracy in the Middle East; but that is mainly thanks to the support Western leaders have shown for tyrants. Contemporary events serve to expose these hypocrisies and we can only hope that they will lead to greater democracy here, as well as in the Arab world.

Addendum: If you want another example of hypocrisy, consider the oft-repeated fear of many Western commentators that the Arab uprisings will lead to Islamic fundamentalism in those countries. Now, guess which Islamic country is the most fundamentalist theocracy in the entire world, by far? Here's a clue: it's the same state to which the UK has sold £1.85 billion of arms in the past three years. Yes, Saudi Arabia again. The Saudi authorities make the Taliban look like a bunch of liberal atheists. Indeed, the Taliban took inspiration from Saudi Wahhabism. The West really doesn't give a hoot about fundamentalist Islam. It does give a hoot about whether these countries will support them in the UN, buy their arms and, most importantly, allow their oil companies to exploit their natural resources.   

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