>Timothy Garton Ash’s long and winding road

>Timothy Garton Ash argues in yesterday’s Guardian that, despite the rise of Islamicist parties through democratic elections, we should not give way to the siren voices of ‘realism’ emerging on both left and right. There should, says TGA, be no kneejerk reaction against democracy promotion in foreign policy just because it is now a favoured theme of the Bush White House or because in its ‘hard’ military imposed variant democracy promotion has failed in Iraq. We can, he says, engage with elected terrorist (supporting) regimes because there is always a social and politic element in the ruling parties in question, which can be cultivated and cajoled into peaceful politics as happened with Sinn Fein or Kosovo Liberation Army. The Balkan experience, argues TGA, shows that ethnic conflict and state building problems par for the course but can beseen as part of a long, winding and very rocky road to democratization.

It’s hard not to feel that Garton Ash is waging something of an intellectual rearguard action here. His arguments have a rather plaintive ring about them and come across – without wanting to sound too much like a cynical ‘realist’ as Panglossian. Like the neo-cons he is critical of, TGA does not quite seem to have grasped that the (South) East European experience is not a universal template that will sooner or later prove true everywhere, if the we just go on believing hard enough – a sort of 21st century geo-political version of the Czech maxim that “Truth Will Prevail”.

Hard to disagree with his proposition that “the growth of liberal democracies is the best hope for the wider Middle East….. the best hope of modernization” but it this is ultimately anodyne. There is no EU sitting on the edge of the Middle East able to leverage change with the incetnive of membership – and legitimate because it (sort of) embodies values and cultural identity that all the belligerents share. Hezbollah would, self-evidently, not sign up to European or liberal values even in theory. Can there be liberal democracy without liberals or some rooted traditions of liberalism?

As theorists of democratization stress, many outcomes – including new forms of authoritarian are possible or violent breakdowns of political order – can result from elections and democratic transition. These may, moreover, be long term outcomes perhaps best not seen steps on a long and winding road leading to democracy other than in most convoluted, long term historical perspective… In the Garton Ash view, for example, the collapse of Russia’s democratic experiment in 1917 and the establishment of Soviet Union are mere step on the road, not a defining historical period

Some form of tougher minded democratic realism would seem to be in order…

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