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The Complacent Democracies

The display of disorder and impotence provided by the international community in its failure to deal with the Yugoslav war has a larger meaning that must be confronted.

What has been demonstrated is a fundamental inability of governments responsive to popular opinion to deal with problems whose consequences lie in the future. There will be no new international order, no new European order that requires enforcement, because no willingness exists to enforce order. Even when there is wide international agreement over what that order should be, as in the case of Yugoslavia, it will not be imposed against significant opposition.

This has been true in Yugoslavia from the start. Security Council resolutions a year and a half ago, which ordered troops withdrawn from conquered regions of Croatia and the return of both sides’ refugees, were never enforced. Why? This would have been resisted. The United Nations’ humanitarian convoys progress, when they progress, by negotiation and bribery. When they are attacked, the United Nations withdraws. Nothing has ever been done in Yugoslavia that did not have the consent of whatever combatant controlled the territory.

The new UN-proclaimed “safe havens” for Muslims in Bosnia have no actual military protection and will not be given it. When UN forces are present in such a “safe haven,” they have no authority to fight other than in their own defense. The United States has offered air strikes—but not to protect the Muslims in these havens, only to protect the UN soldiers who are not protecting the Muslims. The situation would be farcical were it not laden with tragedy.

The Security Council ordered aggressive action in Somalia to punish those responsible for the deaths of twenty-three or more Pakistani soldiers on UN service. The principle at stake is no different from that in Yugoslavia, but the responsible Somalian warlord is a bandit with limited military resources. There seemed little risk in taking him on. A comparable episode in Yugoslavia would have had no sequel.

There is no will to act in Yugoslavia because to do so would be dangerous. Had the Western powers wished to halt or punish aggression, the resources could easily have been found to do this. NATO is on the scene, with an overwhelmingly military force, and is eager for a post-cold war mission to justify its existence. The Gulf War armada could have been reconstituted if the West had thought aggression in Europe comparable to aggression in Kuwait.

This was not the judgment. Not one government in Western Europe or North America, or among the non-Western powers who have interested themselves in the affair, including the Muslim Turks and Arabs, has been willing to propose serious sacrifice, or even to accept the risk of such sacrifice, to change the course of events in Yugoslavia. Proximity, shared political values, evident implication in the consequences, religious or historical attachment, all have been ignored.

Moreover, this outcome probably correctly reflects public opinion in these countries. In any case it has been the politically safe course for these governments to follow. There is nothing surprising in this. In the 1930s there certainly was no popular clamor for the democracies to block Hitler from remilitarizing the Rhineland, or annexing Austria, or partitioning Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain and Daladier were the popular politicians, calm and reasonable men who refused to take risks over distant issues and improbable dangers. The public turned to Churchill and De Gaulle only after all the combinations of appeasement (and collaboration) had been tried and had failed.

So there is nothing new in what is happening. But it does reiterate a lesson. Governments that are passively dependent upon public opinion, as democracies are as a general rule, are incapable of dealing with long-term threats requiring the sacrifice of lives, or even the serious risk of lost lives, even when a reasoned case can be made that this will save lives in the longer term.

They can mobilize sacrifices only in war itself, or in exceptional circumstances of perceived imminent threat, as during the cold war. American and European opinion supported the Gulf intervention because the threat to Western oil seemed palpable, but popular support for that war was also fully understood by the Western governments to be extremely fragile.

Those governments that can mobilize their people to make resolute sacrifices for distant future causes are those led by the Slobodan Milosevics, Saddam Husseins, and Hitlers of our world. They tell huge lies, censor and manipulate the press and broadcasting, exploit the real grievances of their peoples, recall past and present national injustices, and invoke the great patriotic myths of national destiny and national persecution to obtain vast sacrifices for the glorious future. They generate the popular support that carries them through long wars of aggression and conquest, and sustains them despite internal resistance and external defeats. They are never stronger than when they defy the international community and repeatedly succeed.

There are certain complacencies by which the democracies justify their aversion to sacrifice. We say that because the democracies are virtuous they will always win out in the end; the cold war has proved it. We say that awkward as the system may seem it’s still better than all the rest. We say that democracies never fight democracies, and the world is getting more democratic. We say the people always know best.

The fact is that democracies compete badly with despotisms. Democracies don’t like sacrifices, or the politicians who demand them. Democracies are no good at looking after their security interests when a gun is not pointed at their heads. Democracies don’t like to listen to bad news. Democracies don’t want to think about bad possibilities in the future. Democracies don’t want their comfort or profits interfered with. Democracies may or may not win out in the long term. It is entirely possible that until now they have merely been lucky.

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