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

The second contribution that foreign forces can make is to bring security. War is one of the great enemies of democracy. Control of the military is fundamental to the rule of law. But in situations of national emergency, under threat of attack or under popular enthusiasm for righting the wrongs imposed by foreigners, democracy is at risk. It was the dominance of the military in Japan in the 1930s that undermined its struggling democracy. In Europe both fascism and communism came out of war. For communism it was through revolution brought by defeat. Fascism's appeal in Germany was to those who believed Germany had been betrayed rather than defeated; in Italy it was to former officers who felt they had won Italy's first victories only to surrender them to a cowardly parliament and a peace-mongering church. In both countries the slogans and imagery of the anti-democratic movements were warlike (as was also the case for communism). In South Korea, military coups have characteristically been justified by the need for a "strong" government to deal with the threat from the North. Perhaps in this light it could be argued that it is not an accident that democracy has best developed and survived in countries whose geography gave them some natural protection: Britain and the United States relied on navies, which are inherently less destabilizing than armies; Scandinavia was remote; and the Netherlands had the option of defending itself by breaching the dikes.

Thus, the United States made a vital contribution to democracy in postwar Europe through the creation of NATO. By giving assurance of security to the countries of Western Europe, it removed the military from domestic politics and herded them into a multilateral world. This was not entirely successful in the case of Greece, where the perceived threat from Turkey remained a source of insecurity, or in Turkey, where some combination of external threat and the Kemalist legacy gave the army a special position. But for the rest of Europe, armies became increasingly removed from politics. Later, a similar process was applied in Spain: Following the death of Franco, Spain left fascism behind by entering into the European Union, while the Spanish army escaped its anti-democratic past through integration into NATO. The importance of the external environment, including its security dimension, was demonstrated again in 1989. The revolutions of Central and Eastern Europe were not democratic by chance. That most of the countries concerned had some, albeit short, democratic experience probably helped, but what mattered most was the security offered by the United States in the form of NATO membership and the existence of a community of democracies in the shape of the European Union (which also offered both incentives and practical help with reform). As a result, the outcome was very different from that of the 1920s and 1930s, when the same countries were sandwiched between communism and fascism and were threatened by both.

In Japan, when introducing the "peace constitution", General MacArthur said: "By this undertaking and commitment, Japan surrenders rights inherent in her own sovereignty and renders her future security and very survival subject to the good faith and justice of the peace-loving peoples of the world." Fortunately for Japan, it has been the United States, rather than the peace-loving peoples of the world, that has safeguarded its security. Possibly Japanese democracy would have done well without the Security Treaty, but by taking responsibility for Japan's security, the United States removed the military threat to democracy that had been so destructive in the 1930s.

This raises the question of why the transition to democracy was so slow in the Republic of Korea. Unlike postwar Japan, Korea's external environment remained a negative factor, in spite of the U.S. security presence, resulting in a state that was too militarized to make it easy for democratic aspirations to bear fruit, even when it had achieved the high-income levels that normally seem to point towards democracy. Yet without the secure environment provided by U.S. guarantees and their visible embodiment in the U.S. force presence, the process might have taken much longer.

The Korean experience, like that of many countries, illustrates that democracy faces external threats as well as internal challenges. The latter are of course essential. No matter how favorable the external environment, democracy will not take root unless some basic compromises can be reached between different groups, classes and ethnicities that establish the rules of the game. The losers in elections must believe in the constitution sufficiently to accept defeat--in the confidence that they will get another chance later on to contest elections. The winners must be sufficiently committed to the constitution not to abuse it and use their power to oppress or disadvantage the opposition. In achieving a settlement of these fundamental questions, outsiders cannot play much of a role.

Some of the enemies of democracy--dictators and their military backing--can be defeated by armies. But not all. Sometimes the real enemy is traditional society in its different forms; sometimes it is a modern oligarchy bringing together politics, especially nationalist or ethnic politics, and economic interest. The spread of ideas and the spread of the market are the most important means to defeat these (which is why modern oligarchs seek to control both). Assisting those who are seeking fairer courts, freer media, genuine elections, better protection for human rights and better commercial law may not produce instant success. But it must be worth trying. Scholarships, libraries and other ways of spreading ideas may also have a part to play in the Middle East, as they did in Korea. They may be slow, pedestrian, uncertain--but no more uncertain than the use of force. In the long run, democracy succeeds because of its success. Its product is the Mercedes Benz rather than the Trabant, education and cultural exchange rather than isolation and starvation. People want democracy because they want a better life; consumerism is not beautiful, but it too is an image of liberty.

Every country is different, and there are as many routes to democracy as there are countries. India took to it naturally; Pakistan has struggled. Indonesia looks increasingly like a success story, against all expectations. Thailand, Chile, Taiwan, South Africa and Spain all have different stories. In many cases the position of the army has been a vital factor. It may be that foreign forces will succeed in bringing democracy to Iraq. It is always a mistake to underestimate either America's will or its capacity for getting things done, and the enthusiasm of most Iraqis for elections is clear. But the choice will in the end be the Iraqis', and there is no way even the most powerful of foreign powers can guarantee the outcome. We all hope for success, but in historical terms it would be a rare case, and it would be unwise to build too much on it. Indeed, we should be careful about using the threat of force to press for democratic change: Nothing is more likely to strengthen the tyrant and legitimize the illegitimate than a foreign threat. No communist regime collapsed as a result of outside pressure; internal change comes easier when people feel more secure externally.

It is not a question of abandoning the Wilsonian vision of encouraging the spread of democracy so much as being realistic about what an outside actor can achieve. Foreigners, especially foreign armies, are not equipped to broker domestic constitutional settlements, but they can create a positive external security environment in which such a settlement will have more chance of prospering. The inability to create an adequate security environment in the 1920s and 1930s was a major reason for the failure of the original Wilsonian package. At that time the failures included the incomplete defeat of Germany, the defects in the Versailles Treaty, the absence of the United States and Soviet Russia from the League of Nations, the League's somewhat cloudy ideas, and the failure to put muscle behind those ideas.

But the basic Wilsonian package was not wrong. Self-determination, democracy and the institutionalization of international security go well together. Self-determination is a precondition for democracy; unless there is a sufficient sense of community, democracy on the basis of majority voting will not work. Democracy in turn contributes to peace. The idea that the peace will be kept by "the force of international public opinion"--on which ultimately the hopes for the League rested--makes sense only if public opinion has a chance to make itself heard. But democracy itself is most likely to prosper in an international environment that creates trust between states.

"Trust between states", the classical realist may scoff, "is impossible." One of the (many) weaknesses of Wilson's rhetoric is that he seemed to base his plans on the idea of a natural harmony of interests among nations. Nothing of the sort exists. Nor, however, is there any natural harmony of interests among men. The triumph of the rule of law is that it manages these natural conflicts. It is the legal framework that enables markets to channel greed into constructive economic activity. In the end, men discover that for all their natural conflicts, they have a common interest in upholding the law. But markets are not natural: They are the outcome of man-made laws.

Essay Types: Essay