Imperial Liberalism

Imperial Liberalism

Mini Teaser: Covenants without the sword are but words. You can do anything with bayonets but sit upon them. And both truths must be heeded.

by Author(s): Robert Cooper

U.S. policy in occupied Germany after World War II was not directed primarily towards democratization. The Morgenthau Plan for the de-industrialization of Germany was, fortunately, abandoned before the occupation began. Nevertheless, some of the thinking that inspired it remained: JCS1067, the document that set out the main policies for the U.S. occupation, states, "Germany will not be occupied for the purpose of liberation but as a defeated enemy nation." Lucius Clay, the American military governor, wisely ignored both the spirit and the letter of U.S. policy. His main motivation for seeking to transfer authority to German politicians seems to have been the wish to end his responsibility for tasks for which he felt thoroughly unprepared. His efforts to get guidance from the State Department on what exactly was meant by either democracy or federalism were fruitless.

This did not matter very much. Adenauer and Schumacher not only knew more about Germany than did any of the occupation forces, they also knew more about democracy--having watched and suffered under its decline in the 1930s. Perhaps Americans in general, coming from the only state to have been born democratic, are less aware of the difficulties and travails of the process of becoming a democracy. Clay himself made this point: "I think we have a peculiar idea of our government being perfect without knowing really and truly how it works." The process of creating a new German constitution--based largely on Weimar--was essentially a German one. The British had concluded that the best way to deal with postwar Germany would be to ensure that its government was decentralized, but it was Adenauer's commitment to federalism that mattered. Take the case of Trade Union legislation. Although it was the British Military Government that first agreed to the creation of unions, they were created on a German model, which learned some lessons from the pre-war period, rather than following British ideas. The Germans also had their own ideas in education: The minister for culture in Lower Saxony complained at receiving orders from foreigners when the best vision of reform was German. In Bavaria they simply ignored Allied directives in this area. And so on.

The Allies (not just America) played a part in re-establishing German democracy. First they defeated Hitler; then they occupied Germany in a largely benign fashion and took a benevolent attitude to the rebirth of democratic institutions--both quite different from what happened in the Soviet Zone. But the democratic development of Germany after 1945 was first and foremost a German event. To claim otherwise is not only to underestimate the Germans, but also to overestimate the degree to which an occupying military power can control developments.

The constitution of postwar West Germany was a German product. The same cannot be said of the Japanese constitution, which was drafted by Americans working for the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), and--according to some Japanese--still reads like a translation. Nevertheless, the politicians who made it work were authentically Japanese. In an analysis of the occupation period, the scholar Thomas A. Bisson, who himself had worked for SCAP, wrote:

"[T]he occupation authorities came prepared to play the role of firm but benevolent guardians of a docile and oppressed people that had no conception of the meaning much less the practice of democratic rights and responsibilities. The general consensus of opinion was that the majority of the Japanese would be meek and apologetic and would willingly accept the tutelage of their liberators. As it turned out however, the release of political prisoners from jail, the granting of free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of organization, and other rights produced a popular movement that startled the occupation by its vigor and independence, and by the far-reaching character of its demands for political and economic reform."

On the whole, the reformers were disappointed by the extent to which the old political and economic structures remained. The purge of politicians and officials thought to be "undesirable" had limited effects. The Japanese government originally identified some 200,000 candidates, but by the time the occupation ended in 1952, just over 8,000 were still banned from office (including some communists who had opposed Japanese militarism). Many of those banned, like Prime Minister Hatoyama, later returned.

Two measures did have a lasting impact: the dramatic land reform, which changed the structure of village society--and also helped ensure a permanent conservative majority in the countryside--and the effective abolition of the armed forces. This last measure made a real difference, since the army had been at the root of the instability that brought down Japanese democracy in the 1930s. It is doubtful that the Japanese people would have done either of these things on their own--even if they have been happy to accept the results.

As in Germany, U.S. policies played a part in the restoration of Japanese democracy, but anyone examining the whole period will reach the conclusion that Japan was rebuilt as a successful democratic society by the Japanese themselves. On reflection, it is difficult to imagine anything else. A few hundred foreign officials, most of them initially ignorant of Japan, few of them able to speak the language, were hardly likely to bring about the complete transformation of Japanese society in a seven-year period.

The third example quoted by Krauthammer, Korea, is more complicated. The United States never had the role or powers of an occupying authority in Korea, though it did have operational command over the Republic of Korea's armed forces. How much the United States can claim credit for South Korea's democratic transformation over the forty years from the end of the war is questionable. On the one hand, the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Seoul urged progress towards democracy from time to time, and the United States probably saved Kim Dae Jung from execution (and then gave him asylum in the United States). On the other, the United States seems to have had little difficulty in working closely with successive corrupt and authoritarian regimes and at critical moments did nothing to prevent the use of the military against demonstrators. Given the complexity of its security responsibilities and the relationship between Washington and Seoul, there was perhaps little alternative. Nevertheless, this does not look like an active policy of promoting democracy. But while U.S. military power may have done little directly for democracy in Korea, American influence worked a slow and lasting transformation. The contact with American society and government over the forty years following the end of the Korean War played a positive, possibly transforming, role in Korean thinking. And the transition to democracy is above all about changes in ideas.

It should not be surprising in any of these cases that democracy came from within rather than in the baggage train of a foreign army. Democracy is rule by the people, and who else but the people themselves could be responsible for its establishment? You can use force to impose your "sonnovabitch" but not to impose democratic politics.

This does not mean that foreigners and military power have no role at all. The first role that foreign armies may play is in the defeat of an undemocratic regime. Few regimes survive a major military defeat. What happens then depends on local circumstances. Often there will be a reaction to the values of the regime that has lost the war and so failed in its primary duty of providing security. The Prussian defeat of Napoleon III brought the return of democracy to France. And when the Third Republic was defeated, it gave way, briefly, to Vichy amid disillusion with democracy. The defeat of the czar in World War I brought a revolution that started with an incompetent attempt at democracy and finished with Lenin. China in the 20th century suffered innumerable defeats at the hands of the Japanese and the West, bringing a series of revolutions that culminated in that of Mao Zedong. The defeat of the Kaiserreich brought a period of democracy, but the incompleteness of that defeat also gave legitimacy to the extreme Right. After World War II, Italy reacted against fascism and created a shaky but ultimately enduring democracy. Force was indeed necessary to establish a new regime in Germany, but that was in the East, where the role of the military was to suppress moves towards democracy. In Greece in 1974, the colonels wisely did not wait to be defeated by Turkey, but resigned pre-emptively. In the same year, facing unwinnable wars in its colonies, the Portuguese army revolted and began a revolution against the right-wing authoritarian government. The result was very nearly a communist government but in the end settled into a democracy. Thatcher's victory in the Falklands War brought the overthrow of the military regime and a return to democracy in Argentina, an event that seemingly unleashed a democratic domino effect in South America. Military defeat is not the only kind of shock that can destabilize a regime--in the Soviet Union it was loss of empire, in Indonesia a financial crisis--but it remains perhaps the worst shock a country can suffer and one of those most likely to delegitimize a regime.

Essay Types: Essay