Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Sunday, February 15, 2004  

Nation Building, Part 3
Promoting Democracy

1. Introduction
2. Self-Determination

US foreign policy depends on two generally conflicting interests--the desire to exercise control in strategic regions and the implied goal of promoting democracy throughout the world. To Americans, the conflict isn't as obvious. Public campaigns in the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Afghanistan, and Iraq--all of these fostered in the breasts of Americans a soaring pride of the national commitment to democracy. But the US politicians don't use their partnerships with countires like Saudia Arabia, China, or Kuwait in those same PR campaigns. It is these latter relationships that the rest of the world knows is actual US foreign policy: control of regions through partnerships with stable tyrannies.

And, as Iraqis themselves learned after Gulf War I, the US rarely has the stomach for long-term, systemic solutions that would ensure democratic governments not only emerge, but survive. They know that once politicians in America have gotten their bump in the polls, they abandon the hard work and turn to the next adventure for additional cheap PR.

A recent New Yorker article touched on some of these points. In it, George Packer argues that these failings come from both sides of the ideological spectrum because both hold incomplete visions of what democracy means.

The dominant theme of American politics since the nineteen-sixties has been freedom: cultural freedoms under Democrats, economic freedoms under Republicans. The pursuit of happiness became a private affair, and the sense of civic responsibility withered among liberals and conservatives alike. The political choice was between two versions of hedonism.

In the conservative case, ideological creep has led to a kind of democratic totalitarianism in which the urge to democratize comes at the point of a sword. The US no longer participates in international democratic institutions and foreign policy has become the "coalition of the billing"--the US dragging along whomever it can buy off. Thus the conservative vision offers conquered nations little hope of self determination. Weakened vassal state are dependent on their "liberators," and countries like Afghanistan and Iraq have little choice but to accept democracy on American terms.

But if the conservative vision offers too little self-determination, the liberal vision offers too little structure or support.

Certain mental traits that have spread among Democrats since the Vietnam War get in the way--not just the tendency toward isolationism and pacifism but a cultural relativism (going by the name of "multiculturalism") that makes it difficult for them to mount a wholehearted defense of one political system against another, especially when the other has taken root among poorer and darker-skinned peoples.

Liberals, for very different reasons, have not been willing to put in the effort to rebuild democracies, either. Stung by past quagmires, they are unwilling to stick around and do the hard work, hoping that liberation will become the source of democracy. Their impetus is further limited by the relatively smaller bump they receive in the polls at home.

The dimension Packer doesn't mention in his article (which has a different focus) is this: sincere regional commitments to democracy ask that US foreign policy be reshuflled entirely. Holding the line on "evil" Iran while protecting "good" Saudi Arabia and Israel completely undermines US credibility in the Mideast. This exposes the real strategic disadvantage of promoting democracies: it's risky. The best symbol for this conflict is Iraq itself. While the US wishes to appear supportive of democracy there, it can't really afford it--at least not in the short term.

If you want to lose that unwanted beer belly, eventually you have to come to the reality of physics. Either you cut back on the beer, or you exercise more. There are a lot of other options, but solutions are finite.

So it is with democracy. If the US has a sincere desire to promote it, the reality has to be confronted. Without the foundation of physical safety, economic stability, education, functional services, and so on, the country will be lost to chaos. Without a national commitment to democratic principles--free press, minority rights, civil liberties--the country's nascent democracy will be lost to tyranny. And without confronting the power of ideological opposition within a culture--generally fundamentalism in the Mideast--the country's democracy will co-emerge with its opposite embedded into government and have to fight a downward spiral of internal conflict.

The US must also put greater systemic changes in its own foreign policy into place. It must begin leading in international cooperation (whether through the UN or independently), and it must abandon policies that coddle dictatorships in neighboring countries.

Without the long-term commitment to building these structures and changing its own policy, "promoting" democracy will remain confused and contradictory and function mainly as domestic PR.

posted by Jeff | 11:17 AM |
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