A Speech Given to the Woodrow Wilson Center on Democracy
by Victor Davis Hanson
Part II: Spreading Democracy in the Modern World
Now coming to more germane questions, what in the world would the United States think they’re doing trying to promote democracy in areas in southeastern Europe, Turkey, and especially the Middle East that have no such tradition? Because before we got democracy in 507 B.C. in Athens, we had, as I said, 200 years of timocracy, or a slow, consensual government evolution to radical democracy. And before we had the present-day European experiment of the E.U., we had to go through everybody from Hitler to Franco and the Inquisition. What makes the United States think that they can implant this finished product almost instantaneously? I think there are some reasons why they think they can, and I’d like to review them in closing.
The first is, after the Cold War, when we really didn’t have 7,000 nukes pointed at us, the old realpolitik that said in the case of the Middle East, pump oil and keep out communists, was not longer the operative principle. In other words, the United States had leeway for idealism. I’m often loathe to criticize the cold warriors who’ve made odious deals with a Somoza or a Shah. I think they were mistaken in retrospect, but I say that in retrospect that I didn’t have the responsibility for the security of the United States against the Soviet Union and a system that had killed 30 million of its own and was nuclearly armed, and pointed at us. But now that that system has collapsed, it seems to me that there’s a lot more alternatives in supporting real grassroots democratic movements, where there is no longer the old warning of a cold warrior that this socialist is not really a socialist, he’s going to turn into a communist and a Stalinist and invite in the Soviet Union. There were more options after the Cold War. That was one reason I think promotion of democracy is very important.
The other is the diagnosis of the problem of Islamicism. I think it would be fair to gauge that the predominant exegesis in the 60’s and 70’s was that Islamicism was a product of post-colonial Arab world, or corporate exploitation, or enforced poverty from the West. Of course, if we had this discussion in 1960, we wouldn’t be talking about Islamicism, we’d be talking about the dangers of the Soviet-imposed totalitarianism on tribal societies and traditional societies, or pan-Arabism. There would have been other -isms, in other words. But the constant through all these metamorphoses is the lack of consensual government in the Middle East, and it’s our responsibility or our burden or our bad luck that we came of age in the period of globalization, where people all over the world could see through CD’s, computers, televisions and movies relative affluence, relative freedom, and all such imbalances instantaneously. And in this region not only was there oil that distorted some of the economies, but there was no democracy. So people in the Middle East, if they once had a comparable gross national product to a Korea or a Venezuela or a Brazil in 1950, at least in Egypt or North Africa, the absence of democratic government, open markets and transparency meant that by 2000 they were way, way behind. Israel is a larger gross domestic product than all of the Arab states of North Africa. Or Egypt had fallen far behind South Korea, even though 40 years earlier they were more or less comparable. And this knowledge of failure now is projected into the living room, and it challenged people to re-think why this was so.
And along with this dilemma was this Western virus that we’ve talked about, of freedom and license and affluence, the good and the bad. And this dynamism questioned the patriarch, who said somebody could marry at a certain age. It questioned the mullah, who said that somebody should pray in a particular way. It questioned every type of hierarchy in the Middle East. One of the solutions with dealing with this awful truth in an undemocratic society was to blame Israel or blame the United States or blame the West for their own, in some ways, self-induced poverty. And if you have autocratic governments who make a devil’s bargain with Islamicists to divert responsibilities, in exchange for sanctuary or in exchange for subsidies to divert that frustration toward the United States, I think you have the calculus for 9/11, but more importantly, you also have a vision of the solution.
After all, we’re not worried about terrorists in democratic societies. We’re not worried about, to the same degree, that France has WMD or England, or even to the same degree that Russia now has more WMD than it did during the Soviet period. I think there was the thinking that a democratic solution might be comprehensive and systematic and eliminate these pathologies and get the Middle East back on the bus of history, so to speak. But that still doesn’t explain why we thought we could do it after 9-11.
Just as globalization, I think, brought the matter to the fore, it also offered some solution, that unlike the 19th or 17th or 15th centuries, people could not only learn of the relative impoverishment of the Middle East that they suffered under, but they could see people voting in Ethiopia, they could see people voting in the former republics of the Soviet Union, and they can see Western institutions, Western think tanks, Western governments who can lend expertise to sort of jump-start this long 2,500-year process, even though it’s foreign, even though it’s implanted by strangers The belief was that in a globalized society there were new tools or methodologies or protocols that might give us a pass from this hard ancient truth that democracy is an epiphenomenon of a larger cultural tradition and not so easily grafted.
Of course there was some evidence that in the case of Turkey there had been consensual government. Most of the world’s Muslims today perhaps vote under consensual societies in India and Turkey and to a degree in Indonesia and Malaysia. So there was the idea that there was nothing antithetical necessarily between Islam and voting or constitutional government. As I said earlier, in the 50’s the problem wasn’t Islam as much as pan-Arabism that was antithetical to democracy. So there was at least the alternative view that Islam could be compatible with democracy.
And finally there was this age-old truth that if you think about it, democracies really don’t attack other democracies. We can quibble about the war of 1812 or the Boer War or the American Civil War and say there were senates or houses or parliaments, but on examination there was really one society that was open and free, the United States, in a way that Great Britain by 1812 still wasn’t. And the Boers were a very different society than Victorian England. I think the North was a very different society than the South. In that context, not since either republican city-states like Florence and Venice fought each other or Athens invaded democratic Sicily in 413 have you seen a democratic society attacking, another democratic society. They can attack non-democratic societies, but the thinking was there was historical precedent that if you created a nucleus of democratic societies, then there would be less likely problems not only with terrorism and WMD but wars against one another.
And all of that together I think after 9/11 explains our present policy, not as the first resort — because remember that we have tried realpolitik, we’ve tried bribery, we’ve tried arms sales to particular governments, we’ve tried just cash infusion. So this idea that democracy was thought up well before 9/11 and then implanted in some conspiratorial fashions I think wrong. It was not the first choice. It was the last choice. And I think it was the last choice of desperation after 9/11, and it was done with some reluctance, because I think that most of the people in the administration came in as realists and realized from a whole body of academic work that democracy is not easily transferred from the West to the non-West, but felt for the reasons I outlined that it was (A), their last choice, and (B) there was some optimism in this 21st century that it might just work.
And there we have it, a policy that tries to graft, implant and transfer the imagination of the Greeks, fast-forwarding 2,500 years to a vastly different geographical location, a religious tradition, and a political heritage that’s not only alien but in some cases antithetical to the original aspirations of the Greeks.
I’ll just finish by, will it work? I don’t know, but I think the better question is, does anybody have a better alternative? Because as we saw in the Balkans, as we saw in the case of the Middle East, I think realpolitik or simple neglect or giving subsidies or cash grants to dictatorships give a short-term stability but a long-term instability. And that this messy solution, however difficult it seems in the here and now, offers the only possible way out of this paradox in the Middle East, of a society that is traditional and highly religious and yet autocratic and has the ability to witness what’s going on in the world instantaneously.
Let me just finish by saying that I think for all of the horror of the last three years, I’m optimistic If we look at elections in parts of the former Soviet Union, or we look at Ethiopia or we look at Iraq or Afghanistan, and we look at the elections in the Netherlands and France, there does seem to be a commonality. Communism is dead. The great communist power of China seems to be more like America in 1870. It’s hyper-capitalist, laissez-faire. It’s on some type of metamorphosis, but it’s drifting away from a communist mode of production. Fascism is gone from its birth in Europe. I think we won’t see a Mubarak II or an Assad III, instead we will see what we saw in Lebanon and the pressure on the Gulf states. So I think fascism is dead. Islamicism is nihilistic. It offers nothing. Can’t house anybody, it can’t educate anybody. It’s just devolved into a hypercritical reaction to Western affluence and success. It leads nowhere. There is no 8th century caliphate that’s going to reappear.
And the other strain which I mentioned at the very beginning, this other strain of Western culture that seeks an equality of result, I think we’re seeing in Europe that whether it’s demographic crisis or low growth or high unemployment, or most importantly fear of an 80,000-man unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels dictating things from the size of a banana in Greece to an EU-approved beach in Spain, that that’s not going to work either. In other words, when we get down to it all, what’s left is Western liberal government coming from the Greeks and the Romans, and then evolving to an Anglo-Saxon model of open markets and individual liberty. For all its excesses, it’s really the only paradigm that works. I think that the world is slowly coming to that acknowledgement. .