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Societies cannot be simply rebuilt into the form we want.
Democratic societies require a foundation of attitudes and beliefs that penetrate deeply into their culture. Even Thomas Jefferson, probably among the most enthusiastic of democrats, wrote soberly and perceptively of the prospects for democracy in Latin American after their inhabitants broke away from Spain: “As it respects their own liberty, peace, and happiness, we cannot be quite so certain. Whether the blinds of bigotry, the shackles of the priesthood, and the fascinating glare of rank and wealth, give fair play to the common sense of the mass of their people, so far as to qualify them for self-government, is what we do not know. Perhaps our wishes may be stronger than our hopes.” (Jefferson to baron Alexander von Humboldt, June 13, 1817) Recognizing this, our Founders realized America’s greatest impact would be setting a good example, thereby offering a powerful critique of monarchies and tyrannies abroad. Other peoples would have to find their own way to a free society.
In part due to technocratic hubris of those weilding power and in part from oligarchic desires for empire, over the past 150 years the US has disregarded our founders’ wisdom and attempted to build democracies in twenty four nations by forcibly occupying their lands. Virtually the only attempts that succeeded were in countries that had already experienced democratic institutions with indigenous roots, such as in Germany, Italy, Austria and Japan after World War II. A small number of Latin American nations became democratic after we occupied them, but other Latin American nations we had not occupied were also becoming democracies at the same time. Costa Rica, central America’s biggest success story, owes nothing to the US for its democratic institutions.
Other nations have never become stable democracies despite many US invasions. Even before invading Iraq, most of our efforts have been complete failures because the countries involved did not possess many democratic institutions or customs. Long after our occupation had ended, some of these countries developed into reasonably democratic societies, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines. But they did so in their own way and in their own time. Of all America’s efforts forcibly to impose democracy, Iraq was perhaps the most likely to fail because the country did not enjoy a strong sense of national unity, it never had internal democratic institutions, its dominant religious groups rejected liberal values of tolerance, and its people perceived American and western troops as representing very different religious traditions. These problems existed even if the American effort had been competent, which no reasonable observer would say has been the case.
Corruption of Our Constitution
Also bad is war’s negative impact upon the democratic institutions of the nation waging it. Wars always undermine democracies. War is always a tragedy, even if very occasionally an unavoidable one. Again, the genuine American tradition has plenty of wisdom relevant to this issue, from our Founders to President Eisenhower and to a long history of American war critics from at least the time of the Mexican American War.
One prominant opponent of the Mexican American War, Abraham Lincoln, argued “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose.”
In words amazingly relevant today and in contrast to George Bush and John Yoo, Lincoln also argued “The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”
And of President Polk’s arguments for war with Mexico, Lincoln said “that taking for true, all the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter, that the truth would not permit him.” For the complete texts of Lincoln’s statements, see here and here.
James Madison described the kinds of people Neoconservatives examplify when he wrote in Federalist 10 “In a democracy, to the ambitious intrigues of their executive magistrates, tyranny may well be apprehended on some favorable emergency, to start up in the same quarter.” Madison was writing of the death of direct democracies. But all that distinguished direct democracies from republics was the principle of representation that made the separation of powers possible, and the Republican Party has attacked the separation of powers and refused to check the executive branch with the legislative. Today we have the characteristic of direct democracy that most troubled Madison. And as the executive branch has consolidated its power, Madison’s warning has become as relevant to us as it was to direct democracies.
In 1793, Madison wrote: “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known implements for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended, its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplies; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. . . . No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
The Democratic Peace
To all these arguments by some of the greatest Americans neoconservatives might reply we have no choice. Big nations are the captives of their times, and the modern world requires us to become more like the hegemonic states of old. But in making this argument they ignore the most important development to have ever taken place in international affairs: the passage in the 1980s of the overwhelming preponderance of the world’s military and economic power, and even of its population, into the ranks of democratic countries. Unlike other forms of government, democracies do not fight one another. The reasons why are also important.
Unlike states that are organized as power hierarchies with powerful executives at the top, in democracies power is diffused throughout society and the executive is firmly subordinated to the legislature. As a result, planning aggression is difficult, there are always critics around to challenge and publicize belligerent acts, and the political system tends to favor leaders and representatives who are good at compromise and cutting deals rather than imposing their will and refusing to budge from their position. In complex societies these traits help to undermine the likelihood of escalating tensions. When both countries are democracies, the result so far has been to defuse the kinds of tensions that could escalate out of mutual control, leading to war.
Crucial to this dynamic is the inability of a powerful executive unilaterally to bring his country into conflict. This was Germany’s fatal weakness before pre-WWI, where domestic politics had been largely democratized, but foreign policy was still under the control of the Kaiser. And, of course, this is the kind of executive the neoconservatives are doing all they can to create and justify in the United States. My own peer reviewed article on the democratic peace can be downloaded here (scroll down to “Democracy and Peace…”) There is also an excellent bibliography, and a discussion of arguments against this view pput together by R. J. Rummel, the pioneer scholar in exploring this issue.
Because democratic nations have never waged war upon one another, and are the only form of human governance where this is true, the possibility of world peace is with us if democratic nations do not cease being democratic. The neoconservatives deepest assault on humanity as a whole, an assault their self-righteous fervor to force others to conform blinds them from appreciating, is that in seeking to strengthen democracy they are seriously weakening it from within. Yet today the only remaining serious threats to democracies come from within. Neoconservatives are not only traitors to their own country, without intending it, they are enemies of the human race.