Skip to main content
review: non-fiction

In this erudite, judicious and lively book, Bob Rae examines the promise and peril of democracy promotion in the modern world. The spread of democracy, a preoccupation of the West in general and the United States in particular, has become tarnished in recent years because of George W. Bush's misadventures in Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Rae offers a wise and compelling alternative vision.

Rae's approach is to use history as moral philosophy. His account begins in the 17th century, with the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and moves briskly from the American and French Revolutions through the ideological upheavals of the 19th century to the genocidal horrors of the 20th. Along the way, his narrative turns on the major political arguments of the time. One chapter centres on the great debate over revolution and liberty between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke; another channels the political spirits of John Maynard Keynes and George Orwell. Through such debates, Rae draws out the best aspects of the democratic tradition and reveals the abuses to avoid.

In a direct challenge to those who would export democracy by force, Rae offers the more staid, sober, reasonable - well, Canadian - alternatives of tolerant pluralism, patient federalism and good governance. He would like us - meaning Europeans and North Americans - to nurture democracy elsewhere from the bottom up rather than impose it from the top down.

"Short-term power might come from the barrel of a gun," he writes in what might be his guiding philosophy, "but long-term authority and legitimacy require something else: a deeper and shared acceptance of the rule of law based firmly on the principles of equality and utility, on a shared humanity and on what will work in practice." Surely nobody would disagree.

This is a signature Canadian viewpoint, and Rae believes that it can offer Canada a greater role in world affairs. An increasingly complex, globalizing world needs democracy because it offers the best means for conflict resolution. Democracies, we assume, don't go to war with each other, and the process of democratic compromise can offer a way to settle internal conflicts. Thus, war and civil war can be reduced through the patient spread of democratic government.

Moreover, Canadians have not been tarnished by democracy promotion in Iraq (though Afghanistan is turning out to be a somewhat different story), we have a long history of solving complex ethnic and political disputes through democratic compromise and we have been able to generate economic growth while avoiding capitalism's worst excesses.

In short, Rae says, Canadians have a lot to offer. And with authoritarian alternatives gaining credibility in China and elsewhere after the twin debacles of Iraq and the Great Recession, the world needs Canada now more than ever before. This might seem like a nationalistic conceit (and of course it is), but he has a point.

This is a splendid book that should be required reading in Ottawa, Washington, London and beyond, but it is not flawless. There are remarkably few factual errors for a book of such admirable range and learning. (Only one stuck out as important: Syria and Hamas are not in fact "predominantly Shiite" but overwhelmingly Sunni despite their strategic alliances with Shiite Iran; the distinction is critical to Middle Eastern politics, as the Bush administration discovered belatedly in Iraq.)

In a larger sense, however, Rae mistakenly assumes that democracy promotion was the driving force behind U.S. foreign policy and, in turn, sees U.S. foreign policy as a major problem for world politics. In a particularly powerful chapter, he uses three presidential speeches - by John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush and Barack Obama - to illuminate the dangers of waging war to spread democracy. It is a common assumption, and Rae is certainly not the first to make it. But it is mistaken nonetheless.

The United States did not go to war in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq to spread democracy. Had that been the case, U.S. officials might have paid democratic reform more than lip service, especially in Vietnam. Instead, in each case the United States went to war for security reasons - containment, 9/11 and "weapons of mass destruction" - and tacked on democracy promotion afterward, when problems mounted, to justify policies that were otherwise difficult to justify.

The problem was not that Washington waged ideological wars on behalf of democracy, but that it clumsily used democracy as a cover for controversial strategic decisions, thereby discrediting democracy's good name. It is significant that one of Rae's three presidential speeches is Bush's Second Inaugural of January, 2005 (not 2004), delivered well after it was clear that there were no WMDs to be found in Iraq.

The point is not to criticize U.S. hypocrisy, for Americans are by no means alone in committing this sin, but to highlight the inherent, perhaps irresolvable tensions between power and legitimacy in the modern world. In other words, the problems with democracy promotion run much deeper than Washington's occasional blunders in executing its national security policy.

But these are relatively small quibbles. Over all, Bob Rae has given us much to think about. And, with any luck, he will have given policy-makers in Ottawa even more: a future for Canadian foreign policy.

Andrew Preston teaches modern history at Cambridge University, where he is a fellow of Clare College.