Democracy and The West: History, Theory and Practice

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Emanuel L. Paparella | Tuesday, September 23, 2014, 18:56 Beijing



The Signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776


In the light of the frequent disagreements witnessed nowadays in the transatlantic Western community as concerns the NATO Alliance and its relevancy, especially as it concerns Russia’s intentions toward the Baltic countries, the question arises: does the idea of the West include a community of values and if so which are they? Could it be that the disagreements arise out of ignorance as to what those common values might be? One of them is undoubtedly the idea of democracy which goes back to the ancient Greeks. Why then the vehement disagreements and misunderstandings? Let us briefly explore the issue searching for historical data, theory and practice.

Geographically speaking it cannot be asserted that Europe as a whole has always been or is now a community of values. During the Cold War any nation in Europe East of the Iron Curtain was designated at East. Those included nations who formerly were historically part of the West; countries such as the three Baltic states, Poland the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary. After the Cold War seven of the eight Eastern European countries would join the EU. Those on the West side of the Iron Curtain were designated as the West. But some, such as Turkey and Greece were not part of the historical West which in Medieval times comprised the land of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne. Most of them were democratic and were members of the Atlantic Alliance named NATO. So, at first glance it would appear that democracy was the common glue or the common value. But things are not that simple.

What comprises the historical West? It was the part of Europe that throughout the Middle Ages looked to Rome as its spiritual center. That is to say, the old West was the part of Europe that belonged to the Western church. Only that part of Europe, knew of pre-modern forms of power separation, that is to say, the separation of spiritual and temporal power. That part of Europe also experienced, the late medieval and early modern emancipatory movements dubbed the Renaissance and the Reformation, humanism and the Enlightenment. The domain of the Eastern church, that of Byzantium and, later, of Moscow, followed a very different trajectory. It  experienced the subordination of spiritual to temporal power and did not know the  system of reciprocal fealty between lords and vassals known as European feudalism. It knew nothing of the Investiture Controversy, of the revolution of of Gregory VII as the first European revolugion resulting eventually in the victory of the temporal over the spiritual power which took place in Western Europe. This dualism of temporal and spiritual power may be considered the beginning of the West’s spirt of individualism, it planted the seeds of freedom which may be considered the West’s distinguishing characteristic. That distinction, to be sure, is already in nuce in Christ’s reply to the Pharisees: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” That, if anything is, is a rejection of theocracy and the announcement of secularization, or the refusal to concede to religious authority secular powers, considered autonomous. Neverthless, a secular brotherhood without any kind of fatherhood is also incongruous. So, it appears that religion, or more specifically Christianity who posits a God who is our father, is also a glue needed to give substance to the concepts of brotherhood, liberty, and equality. That glue needs to be analyzed, independent of one’s religious beliefs.


Montesquieu (1689-1755)
Montesquieu, a French Enlightenment thinker, argued that moderate governmentwas far more compatible with Christianity, while a despotic government was more compatible with Islam. “It is a misfortune to human nature when religion is given by a conqueror,” affirmed Montesquieu. Like Christ Montesquieuappeals to the original separation between the spheres of God and the emperor: “We ought not to decide by divine laws what should be decided by human laws; nor determine by human what should be determined by divine laws.” Leaders must be measured by such a yardstick.

The modern separation of legislature, executive, and judicial powers developed by Montesquieu in The Spirit of Laws continued the process that began with the pre-modern separation of spiritual and temporal, and princely and estate powers. Montesquieu was in fact the first classical thinker to grant the judicial branch the status of an autonomous “third” power. He did not live to see the birth of the country in which his views on the separation of powers would appear: the United States of America. In the Federalist Papers, a series of articles by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison drafted at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, Montesquieu was by far the most cited author. To be sure Montesquieu himself had drawn from the ancient Greek historian Polybius,  of the second century- B.C. who had promoted the concept of a mixed constitution. Polybius saw in the Roman Republic an ideal combination of monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic virtues—a combination, so he believed, that shielded Rome from the dangers inherent in the pure forms of monarchy as well as pure forms of aristocracy or democracy. This idea would be called in the US “checks and balances,” as first mentioned by John Adams in 1787 in the preface to his A Defense of the Contitutions of Government of the United States; that is to say, all parts of the government would keep an eye on each other to prevent abuses and corruption.

The Constitution was followed by the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights,which appeared in 1791. Hence the claim of the United States that it is the birth nation of individual rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights from June 12, 1776, began its catalogue of basic rights, the first comprehensive catalogue of its kind, with these words: “That all men are by nature equallyfree and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Three weeks later, on July 4, 1776, the delegates of the Constitutional Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.

The declaration combines a concept of human rights with a consequent principle of popular sovereignty to form a single but momentous sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain un-alienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” With this sentence, the Declaration of Independence brought together millennia worth of experience and insights, making self-evident truths into a project to change the

world and the American Revolution into history’s first modern revolution. Like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and many of the other signers, Jefferson drew on an intellectual tradition shared by natural rights philosophers since the Stoics, by the teachings of more recent thinkers such as Locke and Montesquieu, and by the general Americans’ ideas about the necessity of religious and political tolerance. But the question persists: why had the idea of inalienable rights arisen in America at the level of constitutional articles? Could religious freedom as a human inalienable right be the roots of the idea rather than the French Revolution? Here too things are not so simple as invoking the French Revolution as the beginning of individual rights.

To be sure, most of the fathers of the US Declaration of Independence were not pious observing Christians like the Puritans but they believed in the likelihood of a God, or some higher being, capable of reward and punishment, though not all of them believed in the divinity of Jesus or in the Trinity. Properly speaking they  were deists and not opposed in principle to the ideas of the champions of religious freedom such Roger Williams and William Penn. What obtained in America was something unique: a sort of marriage between the secular Enlightenment and extensive reading of the classics on constitutional law and religious freedom. This was indeed uniquely American, not French, not European. Consequently the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that inalienable rights are bestowed on individuals “by their Creator,” thus expressing more than a mere credo that enlightened deists and devout Christians could agree on. For indeed the very idea of an individual dignity common to all originates from the Judeo-Christian belief in one God who created human beings in His image and who loves all as his children.

Historically, therefore, the declaration of the equality of all individuals before the law presupposes the equality of all individuals before God. There is indeed an historical link between Christian religion and the Western idea of freedom which could develop because there existed in the historical West a tradition separating spiritual and worldly temporal power looking askance at state religions. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote in his 1952The Irony of American History that the two major religious and moral traditions that shaped early American life—the Calvinism of New England (Puritanism) and the deism of Virginia—arrived at conspicuously similar conclusions about the meaning of America’s national character and the intended purpose of the United States: “Whether our nation interprets its spiritual heritage through Massachusetts or Virginia we came into existence with the sense of being a ‘separated’ nation, which God was using to make a new beginning for mankind.” A new beginning for mankind, indeed it must felt that way in the Athens of four centuries BC.

This identification of the roots of the rights of individual citizens in Puritanism and Deism contradicted of course France’s assertion that it alone was the original pioneer of individual rights. Indeed, it is historically undeniable that the American declarations of rights passed by Virginia and other former British colonies in North America had done much to shape the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted by the National Constituent Assembly on August 26, 1789 during the French Revolution. The idea of passing such a declaration before writing a constitution was first proposed on August 11 by Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought for the American revolution, with the active assistance of Thomas Jefferson who was at the time US ambassador to France.

During his trip to America at the beginning of the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was surprised to observe that in the United States two otherwise sharply opposed elements had interpenetrated and connected with one another in a marvelous way: the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom. Even today, parts of American society tend to derive political freedom from religion, underestimating the contributions of the Enlightenment to human rights, the constitutional state, and democracy. In Europe, by contrast, there is a tendency to neglect the fact that Western values and Enlightenment ideas are embedded in their own tradition, one depending just as much on Jewish and Christian values as on ancient ones. Both views are one-sided and require correction: they must recall what connects the “old” European West with its “new” American counterpart. This may go a long way in explaining the current misunderstandings mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Knowledge of the historical record may go a long way in correcting those biases.

After the Declaration of Independence, over four decades elapsed before the United States as a whole became comfortable with the concept of democracy, no longer perceiving it to contradict their deliberately chosen representative system. Political progress seemed assured but slavery, for its part, existed for nine decades of US history and its eradication in the south required nothing less than a bloody civil war in 1860. It took another hundred years before an energetic and successful movement (The Civil Rights movement) arose against the racial discrimination of the slaves’ descendents.


As mentioned, Europe tends to neglect that Western ideas depend on Jewish and Christian values. There is an unfortunate tendency to forget what connects the “old” European West with its “new” American counterpart. The Declarations of the Rights of Man of the late 18th century were the result of transatlantic collaboration. Together, both sides laid the groundwork for the political project of the West. To forget that fact is to end up in anti-Americanism which is usually a caricature of that the US is all about, or anti-Europeanism, disparagingly dubbed “Old Europe” at times.


Signing of the EU Constitution (17 June 2004)


The American revolution was modern history’s first revolution but it was not connected to the defeat of any particular class and so there were never any antidemocratic sentiments after independence. The revolution was never against the principles of traditional English constitutional law, but rather it was a protest against their infringement by England. That was not the case with the French Revolution which because of the excesses of the Jacobins  produced an anti-revolutionary right-wing. In Great Britain, it took 30 years for a parliamentary monarchy to establish itself after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In Germany it took Nazi dictatorship, and Germany’s second defeat on the 20th-century global stage to undercut the antidemocratic biases still harbored by elites and large portions of the general population. Moreover, when the opportunity to learn from the failed Weimar Republic and to create a functional parliamentary democracy finally came after 1945, not all Germans were able to take advantage of it—just those who lived in the western occupation zones, the future Federal Republic of Germany. The other Germans belonged to the East or the Soviet dominated part of Europe, hardly democratic.

When Germany was finally reunifies it promptly joined the Atlantic alliance. Moreover, eight East European states, which had been under Communist rule, joined the European Union.  In some way the reunification of the West was accomplished. All the countries that had belonged to the West were back in the West after 1989. As Willy Brandt put it a day after the fall of the Berlin Wall: “now what belonged together could finally grow together.” Indeed, with the reunification, what “belonged together” could finally “grow together” but as mentioned above this was not a mere European political phenomenon, it was based on common values which were transatlantic and even global.

After World War I, democracy was not able to take firm root in most countries of Eastern Europe, including Germany. In West Germany, it took four decades after the end of World War II before a public figure like the philosopher Jürgen Habermas could declare  that “The unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the major intellectual accomplishment of the postwar era, of which my generation in particular can be proud.”

It was this “unreserved opening to the political culture of the West” that would become the criterion used by the European Union to measure both its members and those nations that wanted to become members. For a country to open itself to the political culture of the West, it does not need to be a part of the historical political West. This was the case neither with Greece, which joined the European Union in 1981, nor with Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007). But values and political cultures have their history; those who profess the Western values embodied by the 1993 Copenhagen criteria for EU membership must know that history and accept its legitimacy. The political culture of the West is pluralistic, which means that it must tolerate and foster a culture of debate and free speech. A pluralistic democracy depends, practically in its very existence, on political differences being dealt with peacefully. In that sense an authoritarian country like Russia which partly European geographically speaking, is hardly Western. In fact what Putin emphasized in his search for the lost greater Russia is that Russian civilization is different from decadent Western civilization, and it is in fact superior to it.

A pluralistic democracy thus requires both: on the one hand, a non-controversial sector of state and society, a “codex of values generally accepted as valid,” on the other, a controversial sector that needs regular deliberation and approval. The question we asked at the outset of this analysis returns: can the West be considered a community of values, but one in which the political consequences of those values remain—indeed, must remain—in dispute? After all, it can hardly be denied, unless one is hopelessly afflicted by historical amnesia that Western values are the product of a transatlantic experience and viewpoints that are subject to change.

The common grounds of the West become especially noticeable in comparison with other societies and cultures. The European Union and the United States do not need to invent a common foe to remain together. It would be enough to know the history of democracy and the history of its religious tenets. And then all that would remain to be done is to defend the values and institutions of the West against all threats and attacks; even promote them around the globe. But there is a caveat here: a policy that aims to spread Western values and forms of life by force and coercion or by CIA covert operations is doomed to fail. The United States, Great Britain, and France were successful in helping West Germany rebuild a democracy because they were able to tap into the free, constitutional, and democratic traditions that German history had already brought forth. On the other hand a country like Iraq simply lacks the historical experience necessary to become a Jeffersonian democracy while one like Turkey, on the other hand, may possess enough of it to be able to perfect it.

What we need to keep in mind is that democracy is much more than majority rule. A Western- type democracy is predicated on a pluralistic civil society that agrees to adhere to inalienable human rights and the rule of law. The laws referred to are both written and unwritten and include the the nomoi ágraphoi of the ancient Greeks and the norms of Christian and Enlightenment natural rights. Sadly, what we have today in the EU Parliament are parliamentarians on the extreme right who have been elected democratically but basically envision a non democratic future. That is an abuse of democracy and free speech. Indeed, time and again, the West has blatantly violated the very values it claims to profess. The West cannot afford to not forget its history of racism, colonialism, and imperialism, and the sad consequences of that history—not if it wants to stand by its professed values with any kind of credibility. Some US founding fathers, by retaining slaves, did not help their democratic cause. To profess ideals and values only in theory and not in practice is to run the risk of being branded a hypocrite.

Today Western achievements like the constitutional state, the separation of powers, and democracy have already been adopted by many non-Western societies. At this point in history the West no longer dominates the world. It merely represents one form of life and political culture among many. However, theclaim of inalienable human rights remains a universal value. Since it would be contradiction to implement those rights by force, the West can do nothing better than adhere to its own values, promote them, and, where possible, to oppose their most crass violations with all means, including humanitarian intervention and perhaps even military intervention. Consequently, the West must strongly support the reform of the United Nations and the reworking of its charter. Yet, as mentioned above, the West is far from having sufficient unity and insight into the importance and cohesive power of non-material interests to take decisive action. If NATO is there merely to defend economic interests it would indeed be an irrelevant institutions. The West can certainly learn from its own history; perhaps the non-Western parts of the world can also learn from that history. But the project of the West on human rights remains incomplete; it can be perfected and advanced not by empty slogans but by building a community of values which are taken seriously and are not a cover-up for crass political-economic agendas. Those values are not geographical; they are not  valid because they are European, or American, or Australian, or Canadian, but because they are universal. They can historically be characterized as Western but doing so only increases the responsibility of Western countries to lend them validity by their loyalty to them.



Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella

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