DEMOCRACY, SAYS FOREIGN SECRETARY Dominic Raab, is “in retreat”. His comments come as part of a foreign policy overhaul which sees the UK shore up its military commitments and ramp up its New Cold War rhetoric: Boris Johnson warned that we must “relearn the art” of competing with countries bearing “opposing values”.
The headline announcement is the abandonment of earlier commitments to reduce the nuclear weapons stockpile. Instead, the plans are to increase the cap on warheads to 260; it was previously scheduled to drop to 180. You might expect that any increase in the state’s capacity for mass destruction would be subjected to robust parliamentary scrutiny. However, true to form, for Keir Starmer “opposition” meant accusing the Government of spending too little on the military. This escalation, said Labour, was too little, too late.
Crucially, none of these dynamics are unique to Britain or even to the right-wing. Cold War belligerence, interventionism and rhetorical moralism are all issuing from Biden’s centrist administration in the United States and fanning out across the world system. Liberalism is more bellicose today than at any time since the Iraq disaster.
Raab’s talk of “democracies” under threat has obvious Cold War overtones. The plural is especially revealing. It turns the problem of democracy into a narrow dichotomy of countries who are “democratic” and those who aren’t, and the perceived clash of freedom-loving, democracy-sustaining value systems with those of our adversaries (the Chinese dictatorship and the formally democratic Russian regime being lumped together for practical purposes).
Which ignores the real problem of democracy today. This is less about the clash between democratic countries and their geopolitical rivals. It is far more about the decline of democratic meaning, quality and efficacy within “democracies” such as Britain, America and the European states. Public cynicism, apathy and (more recently) rage have been growing, not coincidentally, since 1989, the end of the Cold War. This was the precise date when “democracy” ceased to be a useful ideological battleground for Western elites. Since then, states have been slowly withdrawing democratic rights from their citizens.
Equally, the paranoid mindset of foreign policy competition has always been a threat to genuine democracy, from the Zinoviev Letter and McCarthyism to more recent instances of mass hysteria like the War on Terror and Russiagate. As a general rule, those who are most invested in “spreading democracy” by force are also those who are most invested in trashing democracy wherever it exists.
Paranoid fear of foreign plots is corrosive to all democratic norms. Britain’s defence review offers further evidence for this. The BBC reports that the UK plans to stop publishing figures on the size of its nuclear stockpile, “to maintain ‘deliberate ambiguity’ for adversaries”.
The sad truth of today is that our “democratic” orders are in a mess. There is a vast “void” separating politicians and the people. After 9/11, Neoconservatives and Blairites sought to correct this by drumming up loyalty to the state through interventions in sovereign countries and implausible conspiracy theories where rogue states were joining hands with mobile terrorist actors bearing dirty bombs and miniature nuclear bombs.
Far from rebuilding the social contract, the War on Terror was utterly corrosive to public trust. Most memorably, there were the lies that took our countries to war. But also consider how Islamophobia mutated from the unstated rationale for ongoing Wars into the populist right fixation that has warped Euro-American politics. Consider the related impact of refugees fleeing from the post-War breakdown of political order in the Arab world.
And consider the vast financial outlays on “regime change” crusades, totalling in the trillions. Money that could have been spent on schools – or a humane public health system for the United States. So, be wary of politicians who speak on behalf of “democracies”. All the laws of history say they will give democracy a kicking.