Wednesday, August 7, 2013

American Exceptionalism - The Myth Exploded, Part II


In a previous post, I discussed why American exceptionalism is a myth ... that the data show clearly that Americans are not better off than those of other developed countries in the areas of health, education, income equality, social mobility, and equal opportunity.  The promise of the Declaration of Independence has not been realized by large segments of America’s citizenry.

Another way in which American exceptionalism presents itself is in our undying belief that our system of government, democracy, is the best system of governance in the world and that all people should live in a democracy and experience its benefits.  Connected to this is our belief that from a geopolitical perspective, a government will more likely be our ally if it is a democracy than if it is not.

In the cases of Russia and Iraq we see the absolute fallacy of this reasoning.  Russia was a Communist dictatorship.  It was the evil empire, our blood enemy for half a decade.  But for all the failures of the Soviet Union’s Communist system regarding the lack of freedom of its citizens and the weakness of its economy, as well as of course the horrors of Stalinism, it provided important benefits to its citizens ... order, security, jobs, normalcy, a sense of place.  

After the fall of Communism and the overnight transformation of Russia into a democracy, everything fell apart.  There was no more authority and Russia became a gangster state, overrun by criminals, thieving oligarchs, and politicians whose only concept of governance was personal enrichment and absolute control.  Far from becoming an ally of ours, Russia has remained a thorn in our side, although a less powerful one.

Iraq was without question under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein a terrible place ... at least if you happened to be viewed as an enemy of his.  But even more so than in Russia, Iraqis benefitted from order, security, jobs, and a sense of place.  There was no freedom, but people were able to live their lives for the most part in an atmosphere of normalcy.  

After the American invasion and the introduction of democracy, Iraq fell apart as a country.  It became instead a place of warring factions, continual violent conflict, with no security, no order, no normalcy, and not many jobs.  America’s experiment in exporting democracy to Iraq has been a dismal failure.

Freedom is a wonderful thing, and every person on earth should be able to live in an atmosphere of free speech, religion, politics, etc.  But if you talk to people on the street, what is more important than freedom is order, security, normalcy, jobs, and a sense of place.   In some cases, notably in most of the former Eastern bloc Communist countries, the introduction of democracy has been beneficial to its citizens.  But in many others, we have seen the introduction of democracy in a country fail miserably to benefit the people.

The United States government must learn, as it apparently hasn’t, that for a democracy to function as intended and deliver its promised benefits requires a combination of societal background elements.  For example, if, as in Iraq and many other countries, you have a population divided by religion, ethnicity, or tribe with a history of violence in dealing with conflict, the implementation of democracy will be almost impossible.  If you have a country, such as Russia, in which the populace has gotten used to and wants a strong authoritarian government, democracy will produce the same.  If you have a country, such as the Gaza Strip and Egypt, in which Islamic fundamentalist forces have a strong presence, democracy will produce a government of that nature.  Note:  Recently Secretary of State John Kerry said that the military coup in Egypt deposing the lawfully elected president was restoring democracy; is there something I’m missing here?

In many cases, democracy is not the form of government which will best meet the needs of the people for order, security, jobs, normalcy, and a sense of place.  I remember the point made in a Political Science class in college that often countries need a transition government, such as a benevolent authoritarian government, to allow the necessary elements for a functioning democracy to develop.  In other cases, the democracy it championed may turn out to bite the U.S., but that makes it no less legitimate.

So both from a humanitarian standpoint and a geopolitical perspective, the exporting of democracy is of questionable value except in carefully considered circumstances.  The United States should both have other options that it is open to and when democracy produces an undesirable result from a geopolitical perspective, as in Egypt and as in Chile in the 1970s, it needs to respect the legitimate expression of the wishes of the citizens of that country.