by Randy Wanis*
Several academics critical of the Bush administration’s foreign policy have begun to ask very basic questions regarding the president’s strategy in the Middle East. Namely, “What is so good about democracy and why do you think it can work in the region?” This question extends from a worldview prominent in academia—that the essential division in the world today is the line that separates those who are religiously fundamentalist from those who are not. America’s fervent fidelity to democracy is equated with Islamic fundamentalism. Although this comparison is false and intellectually dishonest, it is useful in that it forces those within the Bush administration to defend the value of what they are doing. At the very least, being able to provide a sound and reasoned answer to those critical of democracy-spreading can only help to solidify in the minds of its champions – as well as to persuade those who are unconvinced – why democracy is not merely worth defending, but spreading and building, often at significant costs in terms of blood and treasure.
Disturbingly, however, an indication of a desire for this healthy debate has not been forthcoming. Given the complexity of the conflict between Islamism and the West, famously described by Samuel Huntington as a “clash of civilizations,” a look into America’s embrace of democracy and its implications for the future of the Middle East is greatly warranted.
Today, many in America think, wrongly, that democracy, or rather democratic processes, has led to the prosperity and stability of the United States. Those who make this correlation tend to view the promotion of democracy as tantamount to the promotion of American values. Thus, justice, equality, and freedom are seen as wedded to American values such as individualism, entrepreneurship, and pluralism (to name only a few). This marriage, although a happy one, is natural only to the extent that it is proprietary. Democratic values and American values have rightfully intertwined through the passage of time within the United States, upholding and refining one another, and American society has flourished. These American values, however, define who America is rather than what America is – i.e., they reflect this society’s “personality traits” and not its governmental structure. This distinction is vital to understanding how democracy is viewed by dissimilar cultures and why there may be misgivings about democracy in societies that do not share or appreciate American values.
Another helpful question about American foreign policy in the Middle East has arisen due to the difficulties of implementing democracy: “If the greatest danger is populist religious fundamentalism and if opening the door to democracy means inviting fundamentalist forces to participate in politics, why should anyone urge democracy?”
In order to answer that rather tricky question, a standard definition of “democracy” must be established. James Madison, for one, held a rather dim view of the classical definition of democracy when compared it to America’s form of government: “Such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”[i] Certainly, this is no longer the popular understanding of the term. It is therefore helpful to examine how Americans’ collective view of democracy has shifted over time.
In the past century, Americans’ conception of democracy witnessed three distinct phases. The first phase was introduced by the modern age, which brought with it a belief in the ability of mankind, through reason, to perfect itself and to govern as equals with beneficence toward all. Woodrow Wilson is without a doubt the iconic figure of this era. The second phase began when this illusion came crashing down in the interwar period, during which foreign democratic movements were shown to be corrupt, inefficient, fraudulent, and easily consumed by demagoguery. During this period, a collective ambivalence about the democratic form of government existed among policy-makers as well as average citizens. Such cynical disillusionment in turn crumbled, however, as European dictators were found to be more corrupt, equally as inefficient, and brutal to an extent hardly fathomable in democracies.
The third phase emerged along with the Cold War, and democracy was called forth with nearly as loud a voice as that of the Wilsonians. This occurred largely because the alternative was shown to be so bleak, most especially because nuclear weapons could not be trusted in the hands of a corrupt and single power and because personal rights and liberties were shown to be incompatible with despotism. America came to the conclusion, through painful experience, that democracy is worth defending and promoting – not because it is inherently good, but because it is generally less bad. Essentially, democracy was spread in tandem with, yet subordinate to, US security interests.
Due in part to the success witnessed in the third phase, Americans began transitioning into a fourth phase following the collapse of the Soviet Union that looks eerily similar to the first. Many today—particularly those with influence in the US government—have begun to resuscitate the idealistic rhetoric that was earlier used to promote U.S. interests. Fluid and smooth sounding phrases are becoming policy due to an unquestioning belief that they convey axiomatic, universal truths.
Democracy, however, must be questioned and vetted if it is to remain a viable form of government that is worth promoting. If America loses sight of this realistic view of democracy, or if it fails to temper the tendency toward sentimentalism, it can expect painful experiences that will be eerie echoes of the past.
* It should be noted that while rights in America are conceived as non-religious with respect to enforcement by the state, religious citizens in America believe the rights to be rooted within religion.