Balancing democracy with national interest

Balancing democracy with national interest

By Professor John Haberson

Kenya’s current imbroglio with Somalia and its own Somali communities calls attention very dramatically to a huge gap on democratisation in sub-Saharan Africa and other world regions that, astonishingly, has appeared to go all but unrecognised for, perhaps, at least half a century. The literature on contemporary democratisation does not address the question of how democracy should be practised and measured when a country is facing threats to its internal security and stability emanating from a neighbouring country. 

This yawning chasm in the literature is remarkable for many reasons. Everyone recognises that a balance must be struck between secrecy and openness, between upholding human rights fully while recognising that some limits on freedom in wartime circumstances are inescapable.  Yet, somehow, the contemporary literature on post-Cold War democratisation takes no account of the circumstances in which Kenya finds itself, embroiled in a war in Somalia from which it is facing internal blow back.  

The democratisation literature has also been absorbed with its philosophical opposite – authoritarianism – whose ubiquitous manifestation survives and coexists with elements of democracy in many countries. There’s been a certain fascination with the idea of “developmental states” that some see exemplified by Ethiopia and Rwanda, models which have seemed to imply not only governments actively managing economic development but justifying limits on civil and political liberties for that purpose.  But no corresponding model entailing limits on liberties to defend against external threats has been outlined, to my knowledge.  

Blindness to this philosophically and practically challenging problem is especially remarkable and unfortunate in the context of developing countries for other reasons as well. First, there has been widespread recognition in the quarter century since the end of the Cold War that external international encouragement has been a significant factor in promoting democratisation.  In his classic 1991 work on democracy’s “third wave,” the late Samuel Huntington found that at least in the 20th Century, democratisation had taken place in waves at the end of the two world wars just as it was doing at the end of the Cold War.  

Conversely, a wealth of contemporary literature has confirmed that any two democracies are less likely to go to war with each precisely because they are democracies, confirming, in this respect, the thinking of the 18th Century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, that democracy is the key to peace. Thus, while the international factors supporting democracy and connecting democracy to peace have been exhaustively explored, beyond recognition that “bad” neighbourhoods are bad for democracy in countries in those neighbourhoods, the question of how democracy can be sustained in adverse international and regional circumstances has received very little attention.  

The critical question becomes not just how any country can defend its democratic institutions and practices against neighbouring external threats, but how a new democracy can do so.

Second, the problem of how to sustain democracy when it is under external threat becomes a deeper one when embryonic democracy emerges in a weak or fragile state, when the integrity of the state itself is also endangered externally, particularly by the circumstances of a still-failed state such as Somalia.  One might reasonably expect that the assiduous practice of democracy might strengthen a weak state by lending it greater legitimacy and binding its citizens more closely together by institutionalising methods and practices for mediating conflict and solving problems. But prominent scholarship has argued precisely the opposite:  that democratisation in weak states is likely to exploit ethnic and other fissures in those states, weakening them further and even increasing the likelihood of inter-state conflict.   

So, the deeper question becomes what governments and civil societies should do to strengthen weak states and embryonic democracy, or at least preserve them, from external threats, for example those emanating from Somali for contemporary Kenya.  Existing scholarship supplies very little policy guidance for this profound and complex problem. The attendant risk is that in the absence of such reliable guidance, faced with those circumstances, governments will act unwisely, even counterproductively, where the state itself, as well as democracy, is concerned.

Third, the problem of how nascent democracy in a weak state can be preserved while repulsing an external threat from a neighbouring country becomes still more profound and complex when prevailing patterns in the international political and economic order as a whole at very best offer mixed support for this objective, quite apart from the specific threat posed by a neighbouring country’s circumstances. Democratic peace literature has suggested that democracies tend to prevail in conflicts with authoritarian regimes, other things being equal, but other things are not equal when the state itself remains weak and democracy nascent. 


For the above reasons, Kenya’s situation today seems to have become a case study for a complex set of problems for which contemporary scholarship have not only so far not supplied adequate answers but have, to date, barely confronted.  As a friend of Kenya throughout my adult lifetime, corresponding more or less with the span of Kenya’s independence, I worry that some of the legacies of past authoritarian rule that have weakened the state and made pursuit of democracy more difficult may be exploited and possibly exacerbated from abroad. None of this is to take any position on whether Kenya should or should not have intervened militarily in Somalia.  I do wonder, however, to what extent the true domestic costs and risks were fully weighed in advance.^

John Harbeson is Professor of Political Science Emeritus as well as a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is a current member of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies Research Council 

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