No. 43

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Three Dilemmas of Democracy

My doctoral thesis Pääsemine ja häving: Demokraatia mõju Soome ja Eesti julgeolekule aastatel 1918–1948 (Escape and Destruction: Impact of Democracy on the Security of Finland and Estonia 1918–1948) argues that the link between democracy and security cannot be reduced to the three classical dilemmas: freedom vs. security, freedom vs. sovereignty, and sovereignty vs. security. The aim of the article is to examine these dilemmas by bringing examples from Estonian and Finnish history.

The first dilemma, which can be described as the dilemma of the security of democracy, is a corollary of the freedom of opinion, the sine qua non of democracy. And yet it leads to the impossibility to achieve complete security in a democracy. There is always the possibility that conflicts caused by different views can lead to anarchy and loss of security. If people are forced to make a choice between democracy and security, most people choose security. The challenge is to solve the dilemma in a way that preserves both: security and democracy.

In the democratic Finland, the state authorities had grown unable to stop vigilantism and political violence in the summer of 1930, while the democratic Estonia experienced violent clashes between the Social Democrats and the Union of Participants in the Estonian War of Independence in the summer of 1932. In both cases, the dilemma was solved by restricting the freedom of opinion as well as democracy. One party of the conflict was excluded from the public life – the party whose removal was supported by the majority of the society.

The second dilemma, which we can call the dilemma of the sovereignty of democracy, is based on the unlimited sovereignty of a nation. If the majority of a democratic society has set out to destroy democracy – it is of no importance whether willingly or unwillingly, by action or inaction – it is very difficult to stop this. The challenge is to solve the dilemma in a way that preserves sovereignty, i.e. the power of the majority, as well as democracy.

Finland encountered the dilemma of the sovereignty of democracy in 1930, when the majority parties in the parliament refused to restrict the socially divisive activities of the Communists. Estonia found itself in a similar situation in 1932 and 1933, when the majority rejected the amendments to the Constitution at referendum. In both cases, this caused a conflict between a popular movement and the parliament. In Estonia, this led to abandoning the democracy; in Finland, democracy prevailed.

The third dilemma, described in the Perpetual Peace by Immanuel Kant, also comes from unlimited sovereignty, except not in internal but international relations. Kant attempted to envision the conditions for the freedom and security of nations. Kant saw the perfect solution in republican states, but because this would clash with the sovereignty of nations, only a “substitute” remained possible. Kant’s league of nations is a compromise solution, aimed at ensuring security, but in a way that would preserve sovereignty as well.

Between the two world wars, the majority of the society in democracies repudiated Kant’s solution. The citizens of democracies did not want to assume the responsibility to fight wars in defence of other nations, and held on to their right to make decisions, i.e. their sovereignty. Estonia and Finland failed to find allies who would have enhanced their security.

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