Against Democratic Interventionism

| September 2015
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In Justice and Foreign Policy, Michael Blake argues that liberal states are permitted to insist that all other states become liberal democracies. According to Blake, democratic governance is a basic moral right of individuals (p. 3). A liberal foreign policy that uses coercive means to pursue democratization abroad, he argues, does not show any objectionable lack of respect for other societies or their inhabitants.

At first blush, this may seem a defense of liberal imperialism. But Blake adds two caveats that soften this conclusion. First, he holds that there are powerful prudential reasons to hesitate about coercive intervention in favor of democracy, and he points to eight such considerations: (1) intervening may induce the government to do the opposite of what the interveners demand, worsening the situation; (2) after an intervention, citizens may “rally round the flag” of a nondemocratic regime; (3) intervention creates a perception of hierarchy in the international system, since the “core” states intervene in the weaker periphery; (4) it is difficult to coerce attitudes of norm acceptance that are necessary for a successful transition; (5) interventions are inherently unpredictable; (6) liberal interventions may induce “copycat” behavior by illiberal states; (7) states are prone to intervene for self-interested reasons, so it is wise to require a high burden of proof; and (8) it is difficult to understand a society’s practices well enough to be sure they merit intervention (pp. 52–59). Blake thinks these prudential reasons ground a strong presumption against intervention, given the high probability of bad outcomes. But this strong presumption is defeasible. There will be rare cases where a coercive intervention is both proportionate and likely to succeed. In these cases, Blake insists liberal states have no principled reason to refrain from using coercive means to promote democracy abroad.

Blake’s second caveat is that there are some (limited) principled reasons for toleration in the international system. States do not have a general right to coerce erring regimes to implement the correct view of justice. Where an erring regime is a liberal democracy, Blake thinks it should be tolerated. Thus, while the United States and Sweden disagree over what market regulations are fair, Blake holds that neither country has a claim to coerce the other “to convert to its own particular interpretation of liberalism” (p. 64). Yet what precisely is the difference between Sweden coercing the United States and the United States coercing a nondemocratic regime?

Here Blake draws an analogy between domestic toleration and international toleration. In the domestic case, we tolerate “mistaken” ethical and religious views because of the importance, in an individual’s life, of the project of asking and answering questions about ultimate value (p. 60). These commitments are entitled to principled respect, “because of the importance of these mistakes for the people who live them” (p. 31). Analogously, it is an important project for a liberal society to ask questions about how best to treat persons as moral equals (p. 62). “Just as individual persons must develop and pursue a plan of life based upon their own conceptions of the good, so individual states must develop and pursue a conception of equal treatment,” and this project has “value for a people” independently of the answer reached (p. 63). We have principled reasons for not coercing other liberal states to adopt our conception of justice, then, because a liberal political society is “a shared project of the individual persons of that society, such that respecting these people involves respecting that which they have made together” (p. 63).

I think Blake’s account of the principled reasons for international toleration is broadly correct. But why draw the line at liberal democracy? Working out together a shared conception of justice can be important in a society that is not fully liberal and democratic, so long as this society makes a good-faith effort to respect all citizens and to include them in a cooperative process of political reasoning. I therefore believe Blake’s own account of the principled reasons to respect “even wrong visions” (p. 4) of justice grounds a wider conception of international toleration than he himself endorses. Some nondemocratic regimes represent shared political projects that all citizens (including minorities) willingly participate in, and reasonably value. If so, then I believe they are entitled to international toleration, for principled (not just prudential) reasons.

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Category: Book Symposium: Justice and Foreign Policy, Issue 29.3

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