Our current idea of democracy encapsulates three critical aspects: the moral imperative upon which it is founded, the economic system that it demands, and the political machinery through which it is implemented. If one is missing, all will fail. Thus, if the United States wishes to promote democracy as defined above, it must seek to do so on all three levels.
During the past fifty years, the United States has become fairly adept at globally promoting the third aspect of democracy. Political machinery, however, cannot breathe the life of democracy into a society. Without the implementation other two aspects, the use of this tool is frequently counterproductive.
For example, in 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front won the first round of a national election in Algeria and promised to introduce a theocratic regime, although the existing Algerian government cancelled the next round of elections with few objections from Western governments.[i] More recently, Hamas was democratically elected to represent the Palestinian people. Hezbollah continues to maintain immense electoral power in Lebanon.
The question arises: is America wrong to shun any leadership that was democratically elected? No, but that makes US foreign policy and rhetoric appear to be inconsistent. The United States must recognize that democracy as it is currently being promoted – almost solely through democratic elections and without an understanding of the nature of the people – is effective only to the degree that it represents the immediate whims of a society. The results have been as contrary to the broader democratic ideal as they have been predictable.
The question asked regarding democracy “opening the door to populist religious fundamentalism” ought to be countered by this statement: True democracy mitigates the influence of populist religious fundamentalism. If religious fundamentalists are able to be elected within the society, then the society is not a true democracy and ought not to have elections. If the moral foundation for democracy is strong, the question should not have to be asked.
The first aspect of democracy—the moral aspect—is much more difficult to promote. It is, however, much longer lasting. If it is in America’s interest to promote democracy across the globe, then it must seek to discover the customs, mores, and values of those people who shall be democratized as well as the nature of what it is to be a democracy—a Tocquevillian conception rather than an electoral conception. After this period of discovery, America is faced with the challenge to influence, persuade, and even direct the minds of those who would be democratized. Though democratic and American values often correspond, the democratic values are those which ought to be promoted.
Public diplomacy has been a tool used toward this end. In March of 2005, President Bush stated, “We must do more to confront the hateful propaganda, dispel dangerous myths, and get out the truth.”[ii] In an effort to achieve this worthy goal, President Bush appointed his longtime adviser Karen Hughes to the position of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Hughes’ two predecessors – Charlotte Beers (an advertising executive) and Margaret Tutwiler (James Baker’s press secretary during Bush Sr.’s presidency) – both surrendered the office amid embarrassing failures to achieve even modest goals. Beers fled after an informational film she produced was mocked and booed by her intended audience, and Tutwiler lasted a mere six months before she too left for a more comfortable job. The problem wasn’t with Beers or Tutwiler, but with the assumption that their background was suitable in the first place.[iii] No matter what advertising scheme is employed to sell American values, societies which are fundamentally and culturally different will not buy them.
Hughes failed to learn from her predecessors’ failures. When speaking to a group of Saudi women, she assured them that one day, they too will be able to drive cars. Insulted, they replied that they were perfectly happy to have others drive them around. Hughes made the false assumption that because American values are good, then all people would like to have them. Her tactics are abysmal, likely due to her background as a political strategist. The ideal diplomat would be someone who speaks the language and knows the culture of the target audience. In the case of the Middle East, it would also be more advantageous for the public diplomat to be male. Hughes possesses none of these traits.
Current public diplomacy had offered only a minimal amount of help, but has caused a large amount of damage to America’s image around the world. If public diplomacy is vital to the spread of democracy in the Middle East, as President Bush has said, then the United States cannot continue to act with naiveté.
An idea similar to public diplomacy, yet with a track record of success, is political warfare. The United Stateshas successfully waged political warfare since the War of Independence, and its tactics have been successfully employed in the past century by the administrations of presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan. Reagan’s sustained political warfare initiatives, for example, eroded the ideological foundation of the communist countries. His use of “free radio stations” to expose the economic failure of the Soviet Union was instrumental in these efforts. The Soviet Union’s response to the carefully crafted strategy employed by the Reagan administration was the principle reason for the downfall of the Soviet regime.[iv] Conversely, the United States lost the war in Vietnam because they failed to fight the political war. Essentially, the Vietcong convinced Americans that the war could not be won. After the political will to win had dwindled below the level for which a war can be sustained, battlefield victories no longer mattered and the war was lost.
It is a fact that those who employ terrorism as a tactic have learned from America’s experience in Vietnam and seek to achieve their goals by applying the strategy of the North Vietnamese. The United States must employ the same strategy and seek to destroy the political will of those with whom it fights. This war requires the destruction of an ideology; a war of ideas, words, and symbols – not merely bullets, soldiers, and smart bombs. In order for a moral foundation of democracy to exist in a region, its inhabitants must be convinced of the ideology and find it a worthy substitute for their current ideology.