A lot has been made of President George Bush’s new plan to spread democracy across the globe. This push started as a re-casting of the war in Iraq, after Saddam Hussein was taken down and it was revealed he was not as large a threat to our national security as had once been promised. So, in a very smooth PR transition, we were no longer hunting for WMDs, but were promoting democracy to this oppressed nation. All in all, a very noble objective for Americans to undertake, especially as it has come, and is still coming, at such a high cost to our own country both in terms of raw dollars as well as human costs.
However, in a larger sense, it has brought me back to considering the basics of democracy itself. This post is not about our President per se, nor about the war in Iraq. It is about democracy, that part of our country that some have called “our noblest export.” And it is truly a good thing. But, what are the conditions for democracy? What does it take for a country to move towards a democratic future?
Whenever I think of the onset of democracy in a country or region of the world, I often think back to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. In it, there was a series of socio-economic mathematics developed that could predict, with varying degrees of accuracy, the course of a civilization. A most ingenious and interesting idea, that statistical analyses can work together to provide a model for future empires, rebellions, market changes, etc.. Fun in the science fiction arena, unfortunately it does not exist in the real world.
There comes a time in the history of any civilization that the people desire to make more of themselves. They desire to become citizens rather than subjects, rulers as opposed to the oppressed. Whether this democracy they form is the final form of government or not is irrelevant (it is often not; even our own country has undergone numerous changes to its democratic foundations – we continue to augment it still). The underlying principle that becomes evident is that democracy is an evolutionary process. As such, it takes both a significant pressure to force change as well as an environment conducive to respond to that pressure and begin the necessary change. This environment is a social and mental state of the people, rather than any physical attribute they (or their enemies) may possess (or lack).
But, as an evolutionary process, democracy is not going to be easy. It will put up a fight, especially as there is usually a considerable amount of forces arrayed against its maturity. There are times it will fail, and then must be resurrected in the future when the environment is more receptive. Or it may gain headway, then be pushed aside by despotism or foreign invasion, which are always a threat. Again, it is not destroyed altogether, merely delayed. But in virtually no case is achieving democracy easy.
America’s example is very illustrative. A colony of the mighty British Empire, Americans felt consistently marginalized and subjugated by the imperial power. Finally the dam broke, and the loosely-enjoined colonies rose up against that empire. Through sheer willpower and drive to be free, we defeated the British and took control of our own destiny. But to get through to that point, we endured a lot – militarization, taxes, tariffs, poor representation and reception from the main government – many of which we attempted to solve with the Articles of Confederation, then the Constitution. It is not perfect, but it is functional.
The point of our own sojourn to democracy is that we, the people, wanted it and made it happen. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In that one statement, Dr. King accurately encapsulates all that is wrong with the American agenda. I would take King’s statement even further, adding that freedom cannot be given by anyone, oppressor or liberator. Democracy, and the freedoms that lie within its protective borders, is one of the greatest boons to society imaginable. But these boons, like any reward, must be earned by the people. It takes a will to change, a resolve to see it through, and the vision to plan out a new democratic future. The will arises from the evils of unfair government, tyrannical leadership, economic hardships, or other socio-economic factors that pressure the people until they are unwilling to be subject to that treatment anymore. The resolve is needed to follow through, as usually the oppressor is better equipped to put down movements that attempt democracy and has a desire not to lose its own “vaulted” status in the country and on the world stage. Most important is the vision, a symbiosis of various disciplines that are needed to create the new government out of the old, sometimes starting from scratch. This vision must also balance (in this modern day) global influences, cultural differences, historical pressures, and future directions. Not an easy task. Putting these three together and you have the beginnings for what might be a successful revolution.
However, these qualities must be an organic part of the populace; they cannot be supplied from outside. For a country to approach democracy, it takes years, sometimes decades or even centuries, to cultivate these organic attitudes and mentalities and to forge them into a cohesive revolution. For another country to supply these elements from the outside, or to prematurely “liberate” the country before these facets are in place, leads to a country which requires intensive support, as we are finding out in Iraq. In that, it is not unlike a premature baby. The liberator then becomes the life support, trying through artificial means to keep the country alive until its democratic organs develop from within. And yet there is no guarantee that the IVs put in place will carry out their intended function. Whereas a “natural” democracy has a good chance of achieving stability, one that is sown by another has a high chance of debilitating problems, including civil war, anarchy, fractionation, feudalism, or totalitarianism. And those could set back the onset of democracy even further than if no intervention had been attempted in the first place.
Giving a people democracy prematurely, while a good idea in theory, fails to take into account the necessity for a country to earn its freedoms. It if is merely handed to them, they will not possess an appreciation for what it means, having not had to endure the trials and tribulations associated with gaining democracy. This lack of appreciation can lead to numerous other futures other than a democracy; some of the more unpleasant ones are listed above. The truth is, it takes a long time of introspective growth to reach democracy. There are no shortcuts. It is an unfortunate truth, especially seeing some of these arduous steps (including a civil war) that we had to wade through repeated elsewhere. It is tough to stand by and watch the process in action, as it can be a slow process. Some of the countries in Africa are finding this out the hard way, complicated by years of civil wards, despots, genocides, and other horrible pressures put upon the people. You want to jump in and help, being one of the strongest nations in the world. But do not forget that in the midst of our own civil war, France was poised to step in and aid the Confederacy, but refrained. Had they butted into our affairs, being a powerful empire with large resources, imagine what this country would look like today. Thus, perhaps we should assist in ideas, financial assistance where needed, but allow them to move forward through the flames of their own democratic processes. It may seem inhumane, or unfair, but it is in this fire that strong democracies are forged. Anything less is too brittle to withstand the forces of time.