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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Way Most Democracies Work

Technorati tags: , , , , the 's doesn't always work the way the would like

"Why does Lebanon allow Hizbollah to operate along the southern border?"

I've noticed that there's a very deep misunderstanding of the nature of non-western states leads people to ask that question. In fact, a lot of people who should know better ask the question. Pundits and 'experts' on cable news use the question to shift blame to Lebanon. But the fact is that most nations of the world don't work the same way as western nations.

Think about the US prior to the civil war. States had militias which raided nearby states. Political battles fought in Washington were literal battles fought across borders. The Kansas-Missouri border war is an example. People didn't think of themselves as americans as much as they did citizens of their states.

Most of the nations in the world don't represent a national identity, but a coalition of ethnic, regional, linguistic, and religious identities. These coalitions tend to be fractious. Even countries as close as Mexico have groups like the Zapatistas to deal with. In order to maintain the coalitions, many nations are forced to cede control of areas to these militias - it's either that or fight a civil war without a predictable outcome. At other times, it would mean the dissolution of the ruling government.

If you want an example of a government that went too far in one direction or the other - ceding too much control or trying to centralize it too much - look at Somalia or Sri Lanka. The consequences of messing with the balance can be disastrous.

So you try to strengthen the coalition and, with luck, build a national identity. But a national identity won't happen if you keep falling into rebellion and civil war.

This is why most nations tend to be parliamentary democracies. Parliament's are all about building coalitions and ruling by consensus, not majority. In Europe, where parliamentary democracy is by far the most common form of government, this concept of ruling consensus is easier to grasp. But in the winner-take-all US, the idea may be harder to get a handle on.

Operating as a US-style liberal democracy outside the US would be catastrophic in most of the world's democracies. There's a reason why the model for Iraq was parliamentary. The only way Iraq could stand a chance of remaining a single nation is a national consensus. Unfortunately, it looks like that consensus is missing.

In Lebanon, this consensus required that Hizbollah defend the southern border. Disbanding and disarming the group would've been far too costly, both in terms of lives and in terms of government.

Parliamentary democracy may not be pretty and national consensus may not always go the way we'd like, but we need to understand that it's the way that most of the world's democracies work.