Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective

6 February 2009

The ruins of Athens contrast strikingly with the ruins of Sparta.

The ruins of Athens. Thucydides wrote, "I suppose if Lacedaemon were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power... Still, as the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is."

Recently in my Ostracism and Deselection I mentioned my listening program in Greek history. There I discussed ostracism in the formal political system of Athens, and the sense in which this realizes the full potential of the franchise. Every pollster knows to distinguish between the “negatives” and the “positives” that a polled topic inspires. Public perceptions are not uniform, and an individual or a topic may have high positives and high negatives at the same time. Anyone who inspires strong reactions — whether for or against — is in this situation. Incorporating ostracism into a political system gives the voters an opportunity to express their high negatives, just as they express their high positives through election to public office. This seems to me to be a good idea.

While on the subject of ancient democracy, and the details of its operation, the past and the present came together for me today as I listened to lecture 14 of Kenneth W. Harl’s series of lectures The Peloponnesian War. The lecture is titled “Triumph of the Radical Democracy”, and Athens was radical indeed in its day. Also today, there was a full page spread in the Financial Times trumpeted on the front page as “Goodbye, Axis of Evil: Barack Obama’s foreign policy is set to embrace ‘smart power’.” Now, who can possibly argue with “smart power”? Certainly it is a wonderful slogan, of the sort that politicians seize upon, as no one is going to argue for “stupid power.” What is “smart power”? On the full page spread, one of the articles is titled “Clinton signals a smart retreat from democratisation.” There’s that word “smart” again.


It seems that smart power is to be a retrenchment from the ambiguities of the Bush Doctrine. Now, the Bush Doctrine is controversial in part because no one really knows what it means. When Sarah Palin was asked in a television interview about the Bush Doctrine many felt that this was an unfair question. (Apparently it never occurred to the critics of the question that someone well-versed in foreign policy might have been able to rattle off a list of possible meanings of the term from the top of his or her head.) One of the possible meanings of the Bush Doctrine was the promotion of democracy abroad. This is both vague and admirable. Like talk of “smart power,” few people are going to argue with promoting democracy. Except now things have changed. If the Bush administration’s foreign policy is what it means to promote democracy, people have decided that they don’t want to promote democracy.

How does this tie in with our ancient democratic forebears? As Athens made its transition under Pericles from being the strongest city-state in the Delian League to essentially dictating the terms of the league and becoming the Athenian Empire, it was engaged in an active program of democratization. When a city-state attempted to defy the Delian League or to leave the Delian League, Athens would, by force of arms, re-take the city, stand up a democratic government, and make that city-state subject to tribute that would be paid to the Delian League, which meant paying tribute to Athens.


Athens was a unique democracy in many ways, and a democracy from which we can still learn, as I implied in my discussion of ostracism. It is difficult to imagine how revolutionary Athens’ actions were in setting up democratic governments throughout its sphere of influence. It was, in fact, so revolutionary that it didn’t take root, and it didn’t spread of its own accord. In fact, democracy mostly disappeared from history after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (with some exceptions such as democratic institutions among non-state entities like Vikings and pirates, both of whom lived by raiding others). Democracy did not re-emerge in history until 1776, more than two thousand years later. And it is still revolutionary today. The world was not ready for genuine democracy in Pericles’ day, and the world is not ready for genuine democracy in our day.

It is a lesson for all subsequent Western history that Athens, the source of our culture and our ideals, lost the Peloponnesian war to Sparta. Today we still read Athenian books, imitate Athenian architecture, attend Athenian theatrical productions, and visit Athens itself to see the Glory that was Greece. No one reads Spartan poetry. No one admires Spartan architecture. The Spartans themselves had little use for such niceties. The Spartan state was organized for the purpose of war, and for the purpose of war only, although it was in no sense eager to engage in wars. The Spartans mostly followed the advice of Polonius to, “Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.”

The Delian League is in pink; Sparta's power was mostly limited to the Peloponnesian peninsula.

The Delian League is in pink; Sparta's power (in purple) was mostly limited to the Peloponnesian peninsula.

While the triumph of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War is due at least in part to Spartan military discipline, Athens was a formidable military power itself, especially in regard to its navy. Historical accident also played a role in Athens’ defeat, such as with the famous plague that struck the city during the war and grievously weakened the city. But there is also a sense in which democracy played a role in Athens’ defeat. Not only were there ancient oligarchic and aristocratic regimes that were threatened by Athens’ democratization program, and in threatening them Athens turned powerful vested interests against itself, but there is also another sense of democracy that worked against Athens.

The democratization program of the Delian League under the leadership of Athens set up democratic governments in many ancient cities that had never witnessed anything like it before, and the enfranchised masses appreciated this novel political participation (even if it didn’t last very long). However, the Delian League itself was profoundly anti-democratic, and its policies were dictated by Athens. Athens called the shots, and often acted with impunity in pursuing its interests. In other words, the Delian League was a “Coalition of the Willing.” The Peloponnesian League, under the leadership of Sparta, was much less dictatorial toward its members. Nor were member city-states of the Peloponnesian League forced to conform to the Spartan model. Corinth, an ancient city famed for its wealth, commerce, and art, was a member of the Peloponnesian League. (Corinth was invoked as a symbol of elegance by Gracian, and eponymously named Corinthian capitals, the third of the three orders of Greek architecture, were perfected in Corinth.)

The ruins of Sparta. Note the contrast to the ruins of Athens (pictured above).

The ruins of Sparta. Note the contrast to the ruins of Athens (pictured above). Thucydides (quoted above) was more right than he could have imagined.

Ideally, there is no reason that we cannot combine the democratic system of Athens, in which each political entity is ruled on the basis of popular sovereignty, with the more democratic practices of the Peloponnesian League, in which members of a confederacy united for a common interest all have a say in the policy of the larger political entity. Ideals, however, are elusive. (The early American republic tried a loose confederation of states and it didn’t work very well.) Also, mollifying the most powerful elements of society, aristocrats and wealthy landowners who are used to having things their own way, is always fundamentally in tension with any efforts to enfranchise the masses. Every society eventually comes to one kind of compromise or another, or it fails.

It is not enough to say that one is going to promote democracy. One must decide what kind of democracy — what kind of democratic institutions and what kind of democratic transparency — one is going to attempt to promote. A foreign policy of democratization might promote actual democratic regimes, or it might seek to create a democratic consensus among existing regimes. Both have been tried in history, with mixed results.

It seems that the emphasis in US policy is going to shift from the Athenian model to the Spartan model. The idea of seeking consensus and collaboration among allies, as has been much emphasized in reaction to the policies of the Bush administration, is clearly a shift in approach. But the exclusive pursuit of either the Athenian model or the Spartan model will ultimately alienate one set of interests or another. It is not so much about making a “smart retreat” from democratization, as the Financial Times would have it, as it is about choosing one model of democratization over another.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective”

  1. Follement attractif : je crois que ce post intéresserait
    ma gonzesse

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