Democracy Hijacked

by Col. Dan Smith, USA, Ret.

Imposing democracy from above – especially by military force – contradicts the very essence of democracy: "the people (demos) rule (kratein)."

Runnymeade, England 1215. Having alienated his barons by ignoring traditional feudal economic and military relationships – levying special taxes and demanding the nobility fight and provide troops for foreign wars – King John agreed to remedy the grievances the barons had listed in what is known as the Magna Charta.

Democracy it was not, for the Greek demokratia is "the people (demos) rule (kratein)." But in the Anglo-American tradition of governance, the Magna Charta was an early recognition of and counterweight to Lord Acton’s famous dictum: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Listening to President Bush, one might get the idea that he, and not the Greeks, discovered – and therefore is entitled to define – democracy. This rhetorical usurpation was foreshadowed November 19, 2003, in a presidential speech delivered in London’s Whitehall Palace Banqueting Room.

The President called for the U.S. and Britain in particular, and for all democratic countries in general, to create "a forward strategy of freedom" in which democracy and free markets will develop and spread, overturning tyranny wherever found. The words have dominated subsequent presidential addresses.

Over the next 16 months, beginning with his 2004 State of the Union speech, Bush dramatically expanded the themes of U.S. exceptionalism and the country’s divinely-ordained mission to spread freedom and democracy around the world, starting with Afghanistan and Iraq. Nineteen days later (February 8, 2004), during an interview on "Meet the Press," the President spoke of his duty to lead the world’s march toward freedom and democracy.

This statement marked the launch of a concerted rhetorical effort to link domestic security to external adventures: "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

"Freedom" and "democracy" became the mantra. During the February 8, 2004, interview, the President used these words 24 times, almost doubling his usage (13) in that year’s State of the Union. The words have dominated subsequent presidential addresses.

The President’s instincts are right, but his single-minded insistence that the U.S. can create a "democracy domino effect" among Middle East countries (and eventually others) contains a basic flaw: it rests on the involvement of an exterior military power whose regional presence is dictated more by pragmatic national interests than by the inherent virtues of a political philosophy.

Imposing democracy from above – especially by military force – contradicts the very essence of democracy: "the people (demos) rule (kratein)." Moreover, the President’s focus, particularly in his speeches this year, is more on the superficial manifestations or forms – parties, campaigns, elections – and less on the supporting institutions and civic infrastructure that drive democracy beyond "one man, one vote, one time."

The indispensable keystone of any successful system of governance is justice. While its application might be considered uneven in individual cases, the touchstone for democracies is the public’s "sense" that, conceptually, the system is consistently equitable in toto.

But such constancy in justice requires that democracy be open to change within the parameters of each culture and tradition in which it emerges. A democracy that does not incorporate and reflect the indigenous setting with the principles of individual rights and responsibilities and majority respect for minority views will find its "democratic processes" – and its security – resting not on bedrock but on sand.

The house of true democracy and freedom can never be finished, for to stop expanding its practice – even in the name of "security" – is, like a deflating balloon, to contract exponentially. Democracy lives and flourishes in the action-reaction cycle of transparency and accountability, of informed dissent, of diversity and difference, of the right to risk insecurity and death over a rigid – and equally insecure – conformity.

The fundamental question of democracy is not "what is worth dying for," but "what is worth committing one’s life to?"

This analysis was prepared by Col. Dan Smith, U.S. Army (Ret.). Dan, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is FCNL's Senior Fellow on Military Affairs.

Friends' Committee on National Legislation

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Posted March 22, 2005