Partnership for Human Rights
Civil Society and National Human Rights Institutions
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
Association and Assembly in the Digital Age
Douglas Rutzen and Jacob Zenn
NGOs in Azerbaijani Legislation as Institutions
Bob Rae, Exporting Democracy: The Risks and Rewards of Pursuing a Good Idea
Reviewed by Edward T. Jackson
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Bob Rae is the best Foreign Minister Canada never had. A prominent Member of Parliament, and former Rhodes Scholar, labor lawyer, and Premier of the Province of Ontario, Rae is one of his country’s most gifted politicians. But his Liberal Party, already in decline, was crushed in the 2011 federal election, the victim of its own inertia and infighting, Conservative attack ads, and vote-splitting on the center-left. Now, as its Interim Leader, Rae is devoting his time to rebuilding the party and to holding Stephen Harper’s increasingly right-wing national government to account.
In the meantime, Rae has given us his new book, Exporting Democracy, an erudite tool to think more deeply—“more strategically,” in his words—about the idea of democracy and its underlying principles: pluralism, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, respect for constitutional order, and equality and human rights. It’s not an academic, book, though. Instead, as Rae writes, it is “a reflection by a practicing politician who occasionally likes to think.”
And think he does. The early chapters take us on a sweeping, insightful tour of the history of democracy, beginning in ancient Greece with the Athenians’ narrow-gauge system of citizens’ rights, through the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, and then focusing much of his analysis on the ideas of the conservative British statesman Edmund Burke. Working some 250 years ago, Burke understood the balance of competing forces that underpinned the British Constitution. He also held that equality and utility are the twin foundations of law.
Next, Rae examines the work of Thomas Paine, “democracy icon” and activist of the American Revolution, whose writings attacked the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the evils of oppression, declaring the rights of a citizenry of equals to throw out any government that didn’t heed the will of the people. The author then moves on through the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, Karl Marx (whom Rae says offered a powerful critique of capitalism but noxious, elitist political solutions), the First and Second World Wars, and into the Cold War and its global chess game of proxy-driven, contending “isms.” Indeed, Rae develops a thoroughgoing analysis of the contradictions and exploitative nature of British colonialism and later American imperialism as the West tried to impose its values and culture on subjugated peoples across the world—even as it attempted to manage democratic unrest within its own borders.
Although he generally understates the role that an ascendant and non-democratic China has already begun to play in the world economy, Rae does, in fact, observe that the independence and subsequent development of China, India, and many other nations have underscored the fact that, for better or worse, the era of Western political and economic dominance is over. Accordingly, he maintains, it is essential that Western advocates of democracy work more humbly with their counterparts in other countries as peers, listening carefully and offering a menu of options that may or may not be accepted, and understanding that lasting political change takes decades rather than months. Rae’s contribution lies in locating this guidance within the long arc of world history.
The second half of the book is quite different from the first. These chapters survey sites of protracted conflict around the world, with a focus on countries that Rae himself visited as an advisor on democratic constitution-building and federalism. Reflecting on his work with the Canada-based Forum of Federations and the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, he takes us inside his interactions with the protagonists in Sudan, Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka. Rae is deeply committed to using constitutional negotiations and legislation to establish and maintain peace among contending military adversaries and to build pluralist, democratic societies. Yet he is also a realist. For example, although there was duplicity and horror wrought by both sides of the Sri Lankan conflict, he cites the decision of the Tamil Tiger leadership to assassinate India’s Rajiv Gandhi, its ruthless eradication of internal rivals, and its sole focus on a centralized, unitary homeland for Tamils all as key factors undermining the prospects of a negotiated peace, setting the stage for the final, brutal defeat of the Tigers by the Sinhalese national government.
Rae also includes a chapter on why the Canadian experiment matters. While he understands better than most the limitations, contradictions, and complexity of Canadian democracy, federalism, and multiculturalism, he also argues that the continuous negotiations and expenditures to maintain functional relations with Quebec (a nation within a nation), Aboriginal communities (a network of “first nations”), and the great wave of new Canadians that has diversified the country’s cities, as well as between the federal and provincial levels of government, all help maintain civic participation and social peace and keep the experiment evolving and moving forward. “Federalism is about self-rule and shared rule,” writes Rae. “It sanctions autonomy and requires cooperation. It constitutes the foundation of every institution and structure in Canada.”
The final chapter asks: “Is global democracy imaginable?” Rae traces gains in the democratic agenda in Latin America and South Asia. He notes the obstacles it faces in places like Burma. Authoritarianism in Russia and China are significant factors in the world today, as well. And he affirms the lesson he takes from the Iraq war: that democracy cannot be imposed in the Middle East or elsewhere by force by the West. Nonetheless, Rae argues that the ideas and advantages of human rights, the rule of law, and open markets “are widely understood in a way that was inconceivable even twenty or thirty years ago.” Today, and into the future, new forces must be understood and addressed by the international community. These include the rise of the new economic powers (especially China, but also India, Brazil, Indonesia, and others), extreme poverty and the mass migration which it triggers, borderless and lightning-fast pandemics, environmental scarcity driven by climate change, the international trafficking of drugs and human beings, and the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons.
All of these problems call for more rather than less global governance and multilateralism—the collective action of nations. For Rae, this means the increased use of a stronger, more effective United Nations and its pivotal instruments, notably the Convention on Genocide, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Criminal Court.
Exporting Democracy is not a perfect book. Its pacing is uneven, and Rae’s voice shifts from political historian in the first half to political practitioner in the second, though that is fair enough. More serious, however, is his lack of attention to organized civil society as a key element in democratic practice. Apart from some early references to social movements of workers, women, and gays and lesbians shaping modern Western politics, and the important role of humanitarian NGOs in conflict zones in the South and East, Rae fails to incorporate a detailed, systematic examination of civil society into his analysis. This is a curious omission.
Still, the value in this book lies in its ambitious and instructive interrogation of the large, framing concept of democracy and its underlying principles, which can, and do, set the legal and institutional context for the flourishing of civil society. In turn, a robust civil society can counterbalance the excesses of elites, the state, and the market in the interests of peace, fairness, and opportunity.
The global struggle for democracy, Rae writes, “is an arduous journey that takes us through difficult terrain. We shall need much courage and wisdom along the way.” Governments cannot be sustained by brute force, he concludes. “Legitimacy and authority are the real coin of politics, and that is what the democratic conversation is about.”
At one point in Exporting Democracy, Rae refers to Edmund Burke as “a man of influence and inspiration.” The same can be said of Bob Rae. And, while he may never become Foreign Minister (though in politics one never knows), Rae has produced a wise and sophisticated road map that places democracy, law, and equality at the center of progressive international policy.
—Reviewed by Edward T. Jackson
School of Public Policy and Administration
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada