Since the end of World War II, a large proportion of the conflicts in which the Western powers have become involved have been based on an ideological background, namely the notion of protecting and propagating democracy to parts of the world where people are denied what we have come to see as a right: to be involved in deciding who governs us. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “Democracy is worth dying for, because it is the most deeply honourable form of government ever devised by man.” Many have died in this fight to spread democracy, but was it truly worth it?
Democracy, as it was when it originated in ancient Greece, was the involvement of all men in making decisions as to how Athens was run. In today’s world, such pure democracy is totally unfeasible but the compromised version of it that we have in many countries is based on the same basic premises of equality and inclusiveness. It is a perfectly fair system in that each citizen of a certain age has the same right to vote and his or her vote is of equal significance regardless of social standing, wealth or any other variable. Candidates for election are given the opportunity to put their policies across to the public, who then decide which they like best. In most democratic countries, voting is optional, citizens are not obliged to choose, but simply encouraged to take an active role in determining the course of their society. The major benefit of such a system, aside from its inherent treatment of all people as equals, is the stability it brings. This comes about in two ways; on a larger scale, the socio-economic development of a nation is predictable and smooth, since any radical policies or major shifts from promised motions would result in loss of support and, eventually, power. To a smaller degree, a democratic society tends to be more stable and prodcutive as its citizens are happier in a system where each has an equal voice.
Like any system of government, democracy is not perfect. Based as it is on people, themselves imperfect, it never can be. The citizens of a nation are not necessarily the best equipped to know what the right policy for the country is and they can often be swayed by the wrong arguments. In an election, some choose their candidate based on little more than how he/she looks or behaves in public rather than on what he/she proposes. Also, the various different systems in place around the world, designed to make democracy a more practical and manageable concept for populations of many millions, have flaws of their own. In the USA, presidential elections use a system of ‘college’ votes divided among the states in proportion to their respective populations. Whichever candidate gets most votes in that state gets all of its college votes. This means that it is possible for the candidate who earns the most college votes, and therefore wins the election, is not the candidate who receives the most individual votes throughout the country. Outside of electoral processes, a major problem for democratically elected governments is the role of public opinion in decision making. In some cases, general demand for a or against a policy can take precedence over the greater wisdom of those in power, who do not want to lose their grassroots support.
An imperfect system then, but is there a better option? Was the Cold War and is associated conflicts worthwhile? Have subsequent fights to defend democracy been sacrifices justifiable by their results? True, democracy isn’t perfect, but consider the alternatives tried throughout history: hereditary rule inspires little but a sense of injustice and is frankly nonsensical in modern times, totalitarianism has been shown to stunt progress and disillusion the public. That said, disillusionment with democratic governments is also rife, so what can be done to improve matters? Some nations, Belgium for example, have compulsory voting- if you are eligible to vote, you are legally bound to do so. It seems almost contrary to the concept of democracy to force people to vote but, from the outside looking in, Belgium appears no worse off for it. Another possible change would be to abolish the party system, which can create false associations in people’s minds and can also restrict the ambitions of those running for election.
In short, democracy is the best we’ve managed to come up with so far but has room for improvement. As for the question of whether or not it is worth dying for, I certainly feel it is worth protecting but sacrificing lives in order to ‘export’ it is questionable at best.