To Advance Democracy, Take Step Back

By Neil E. Weisfeld

(published in the Times of Trenton, March 28, 2005)

To promote democracy in the Middle East, the Bush administration lately has relied less on force and more on diplomacy. Instead of merely balancing these two approaches, our country should revert to its tried and true way to guide the growth of democracy – and should recognize that global democracy is no panacea for U.S. problems.

At this moment the two-pronged strategy of force and diplomacy may seem successful. Enthusiasts of the administration’s foreign policy efforts, for example, may feel invigorated by the most recent developments in Lebanon, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern venues.

Clearly, though, recent tilts toward democracy are transitory and limited in arc. It would be unwise for any country, and unworthy of a superpower, to overreact to modest moves toward, or against, democracy.

Neither force nor diplomacy lends itself easily to building democracy abroad. On the one hand, threatening and applying force generates more enmity than friendship – as we’ve learned. In any event external military action seldom produces internal freedoms.

A diplomatic strategy, on the other hand, is a complicated, dynamic mix of trade advantages, economic policies, international loyalties, military needs, attitudes toward human rights, and other sensitivities. This mix is too delicate to withstand much ideological pressure.

Yet Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives should be able to agree on a foreign policy goal of promoting democracy in those nations still unlucky enough to be ruled by hereditary or military dictators. Agreement can center on the historic American symbols of freedom: the Statue of Liberty, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.

The Lady Liberty who shines her torch between Jersey City and New York is our best resource. She has symbolized freedom to generations of people around the globe, inspiring even the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tien An Men Square. She is a beacon and not a warrior or a manipulating negotiator.

The Declaration of Independence is an unsurpassed political statement, as relevant today as it was when Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin struggled over its fiery wording. The very first sentence revolves around “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” The Declaration works as an appeal to the world and not as a rationale for American claims of superiority.

The Constitution is a carefully crafted set of compromises, unique to circumstances and rooted in notions of popular sovereignty and separation of powers. Its astonishing opening words, “we the people” – echoed at Gettysburg by Lincoln’s ringing phrase “of the people, by the people, for the people” – demonstrate that good government is homegrown.

As these shining examples show, we can best promote democracy abroad by sharing, showcasing, and shoring up our own democratic institutions, including a free press, an independent judiciary, and an open political process.

Our country has inspired others to follow our best examples. We pollute those examples when we try to bully or contrive our way into the building of foreign governments. And, we then pay high costs for military action or sacrificing other diplomatic objectives.

And we can have confidence that democracy will prevail in the end. As de Tocqueville wrote, “There is no more invariable rule in the history of society: the further electoral rights are extended, the greater is the need of extending them; for after each concession the strength of the democracy increases, and its demands increase with strength.”

Let’s recognize, too, that our international problems would endure even if Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and all the other dimly led countries of the world embraced democracy tomorrow. Many people in these and other nations view us negatively, equally aware as we of differences in religion, economic status, social customs, racial mix, and education.

There is, in short, no need for us to criticize foreign governments as undemocratic, or to try to pressure them into following our own prescription for freedom. Indeed, self-righteous criticism and clumsy pressure, coming from us, would weaken the voices for democracy within many proud countries.

We should promote democracy in other countries because we believe it is in their interest and not our own. We should promote it modestly. We should promote it by practicing it.

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Neil Weisfeld is a principal of the consulting firm NEW Associates, LLC, Princeton.