In a recent attack on the Bush administration Danielle Pletka and a co-author strongly condemned the resumption of full bilateral relations between Libya and the United States. Pletka believes that it represents a certain pulling back in the Bush administration’s canpaign to spread democracy around the world.
Pletka says the following: “At his second inauguration, President Bush declared: `The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in the entire world.’" (This is a clear echo, almost a plagiarism from a statement by Woodrow Wilson.)
I, for one, do not believe that democracy is the ultimate fate for all of mankind, I also suspect that what spurs the Bush belief that it is likely to be is provincial national arrogance. America has always been reluctant to define its interests solely in terms of merely expanding its power. It has always been reluctant to simply calculate clearly what its purely national interests were and what was required to safeguard them. Instead, America has always seen itself, not simply as a country, but as a principle dedicated, in the words of Woodrow Wilson, to rejecting “the standards of national selfishness that once governed the counsels of nations and that demand that they give way to a new order of things in which the only questions will be, `Is it right?’ `Is it just?’ `Is it in the interest of all mankind?’
In saying such grandiose things, Wilson was right in line with U.S. diplomatic history. As John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State, said in 1821, “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will America’s heart, her benedictions and her powers be. But she does not go abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. (Instead) she is the well wisher to the freedom and independence of all.”
Wilson was the first American president to believe that the character of a country’s domestic institutions determined a state’s behavior internationally. In other words, the way it behaved at home, strongly influenced the way it behaved abroad, he said.
Wilson' had acquired this idea from Thomas Jefferson who believed that Europe’s constant clashes were due to its unprincipled and cynical methods of diplomacy. By contrast, in Jefferson’s eyes, republics like America were more peaceful and reasonable by nature than other countries, and the goal of American policy should be to promote democratic institutions because democracies did not make war on one another. (This ignores, of course, the 1812 War and our attempt to gobble up Canada.)
In fact, Jefferson, like Bush, at one point made the statement that he believed that America would atrophy at home unless it was active in promoting democracy abroad, and President Woodrow Wilson also took up this theme. Like Jefferson, he foresaw a world in which states would act as cooperative partners, not distrustful or covetous rivals. He rejected the idea that the morals of states should differ from or be allowed more license than the morals of individuals. For Wilson, America’s foreign policy should serve as a “beacon of liberty for the rest of mankind” and he stated that the “foreign policies of democracies are morally superior because the people are inherently peace-loving.” But America’s values were universal and the country, he said, had no right to “hoard its values for itself” but instead he envisioned America as a “beneficent global policeman.” In fact, Wilson believed that unless America actively spread its idea of democracy around the world, U.S. power might atrophy at home.
To me this is extremely dubious. There is little evidence that democracy is the most natural or foremost form of political association among human beings. Its origin in terms of time and located is historically very limited. Democracy as we know it began not in Greek city states, but in the 17th and 18tth centuries in countries that bordered the North Sea or the English Channel. From there it extended into Central Europe and North America. In other words, democracy is hardly a universal phenomenon.
For a great many of the world’s peoples, personal freedom has proved far less of a concern than economic security or material prosperity. Often, to secure these, people looked to authoritarian governments. In George Kennan’s view, authoritarian regimes have sometimes been better able to improve the lot of their peoples than a democracy would have, and he cites China under Mao, and Cuba under Castro as examples. I don’t know if I agree, but confess that I lack enough knowledge to have a firm opinion of these instances.
Nevertheless, I do believe that the Bush administration’s automatic advocacy of democracy around the world does not fully take into consideration the vast array of cultural and political traditions of other countries and appears to be yet another species of the delusion that makes us believe that what we as Americans want is what other people want, a self-conceit that avoids examining our own beliefs, values and habits to determine if they are relevant to people so very different from ourselves.
DeGaulle once said of Franklin Roosevelt, “…he cloaks his will to power in idealism.”
I believe that this is what drives Pletka and the Bush war hawks. America is, at bottom, only a country, not a glorious cause lying outside the stream of history. Like any other country, we have had selfish and inglorious episodes in our past; the Mexican War, the handling of the “liberated’ Philippines after the Spanish-American War and others. There certainly have been times when we have been noble, morally generous and clear thinking.
But there are have been others when we have been greedy, brutal and squalid.
No two societies are completely alike, and it is a mistake to think that the institutions, traditions, and cultures of other countries are not revered and prized by their inhabitants as much as we revere and prize our own.
The belief that each and every foreigner secretly hungers to be an American is to me one of the most ludicrous of ideas because it flatters our conceit, and, if widely believed, will prove to be a block to our moral growth as a nation.