Don't Try to Spread Democracy
Conservatives don’t talk about it much anymore, but there was a time when “spreading democracy” was one of George W. Bush’s highest ambitions. The idea was that peace and democracy were bound together, and that any permanent peace (especially in the Middle East) required the existence of widespread democracy.
In fact, much of Bush’s second inaugural address addressed the vital importance of spreading democracy. He pointed out that “success in our relations [with other governments] will require the decent treatment of their own people" and reminded the nation that “we do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery.” Bush’s quest for worldwide democracy was (and is) inspired by the idea that totalitarianism is unacceptable and that lasting peace cannot occur without democracy.
Conservatives, for the most part, supported (and still support, though they are not nearly as vocal as they once were about it) that idea. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, many Americans congratulated themselves for giving Iraqis the gift of democracy. After the first Iraqi elections, pro-war types made the post-election purple Iraqi fingers a symbol of progress. Even anti-war Democrats jumped on the “spreading democracy” bandwagon; the only debate was over the most effective way to facilitate that goal.
It’s a mystery why so many conservatives jumped on board a cause that is so stupid, futile, and Wilsonian. Not to mention counterproductive. The dream of worldwide democracy is nice to think about. But it’s just that: a dream. There is simply no way it could ever become a reality, and there’s even less chance that deposing dictators by force will advance that cause much.
First, too many people forget that implementing a democracy—even in the most favorable circumstances—is hard. Take America. Our democracy was created by a set of absolutely brilliant men. America was a young land without an embedded ruling class or system of government, and came into existence around the time the Enlightenment vision (which stressed individualism and democracy) was at it’s most influential. And our democracy experiment still nearly failed. Had the Founding Fathers not called a constitutional convention, and had the first election been a power struggle and not a George Washington coronation, American democracy might well have failed.
Democracy nearly failed here in the best possible conditions. How much harder must it be to create a democracy in, say, Iraq, where there is literally no democratic tradition (the Middle East is mostly tribes and dictators), massive internal strife, and the ever present threat of invasion?
And even once the democracy gets off the ground, it isn’t out of the woods yet. Democracy is fragile. Those who count the votes must be honest, those in power must be willing to give it up. If both of these conditions aren’t met, democracy is meaningless. And they aren’t met very often.
And what about those places where democracy does take hold? That’s the tricky thing about democracy—things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to. Lebanon had some elections a few years back. Hezbollah won. Hezbollah is composed of brutal terrorists—but brutal, elected terrorists. So democracy isn’t a guarantee of peace.
It’s also worth noting that Hitler (along with Stalin, Mussolini, and most of the rest of the twentieth century’s bloodiest men) took power with significant popular support. The weakness of the democratic Weinmar Republic gave Hitler his opening, which led to World War II. However, when Germany was ruled by the Kaiser, well, there was still a world war, but at least there wasn’t any genocide. And France and Great Britain were democracies in World War I—but were every bit as senselessly brutal as the nondemocratic German Empire.
But nondemocratic countries such as Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, and Diaz’s Mexico were peaceful places; places where diplomacy could work. It’s clear that democracy and peace don’t correlate.
In practice, of course, Bush’s attempt to advance the cause of democracy was essentially a failure. We will probably succeed in putting in a reasonably stable democracy in Iraq, but I doubt anyone wants to go through that that again. Likewise with Afghanistan: there will probably be democracy there eventually, but at a great cost. Both democracies will be fragile in the extreme, and will probably have short lives. Bush’s democratic adventure didn’t work.
It’s indisputable that democracy is better than dictatorship. But it is also indisputable that not all countries are philosophically and culturally ready for democracy. It seems better to support the next best thing such—such as humane, progressive dictators (think the Shah of Iran)—rather than trying to reach the unachievable goal of creating a full-blown democratic state.