Every American soldier who served from World War I through Vietnam and into the 1980s was familiar with the M1911 Caliber .45 Colt semiautomatic pistol. The sidearm was the technological legacy of a nasty little war fought more than a century ago, designed and issued to U.S. forces in the Philippines after Admiral George Dewey forced his way into Manila Bay in 1898. Today the rationale for that incursion, not to mention its aftermath, sounds familiar: America felt an obligation to bring democratic self-government to the Philippines. It was nation building, with all the attendant dilemmas we have so recently rediscovered in Iraq. American soldiers fought against a viciously nationalistic independence movement while trying to promote education, economic development, and a new set of cultural and institutional values. We spent lives and treasure, delivered services and hope, proselytized for new institutions, and committed atrocities.

The Philippines are, of course, an independent nation now, one with its own unique variant of democracy. But as journalist James Traub writes in The Freedom Agenda, the most penetrating look yet at the historical and theoretical basis for democratization, the war there was an expensive, messy, and long entanglement for the United States, and we never really changed the social structure that had formed during the countrys four centuries of Spanish occupation. We hadnt the heart to uproot it directly, and lacked the resources and time to overcome it.

In short, George W. Bush is not the first American president to attempt to nurture democracies elsewhere in the world, nor is he the first to discover firsthand the perils of doing so. The Bush administrations cowboy rhetoric, its rushed invasion of Iraq and haphazard follow-through, and its stubborn refusal to dialogue with those who disagreed have, in the eyes of some nations, robbed the United States of its moral authority to promote democracy. But, as Traub argues, it would be damaging to allow the Bush administrations clumsy execution to permanently tarnish the idea of democratization. This is in part a matter of national security, which is a function of our leverage and influence in the world: if we retire to our own borders and forego the enlargement of our democratic legacy, we are likely to find ourselves increasingly isolated and adrift in a world beset by other titanic economic, cultural, and geophysical forces. More importantly, without democratizationby which I mean the promotion of self-government in which powers are restrained by staunch guarantees of freedom of speech, association, privacy, and other human and civil rightswe lack a moral basis for our foreign policy beyond self-interest.

In hindsight, its relatively easy to pine for what we had before 2003: America could claim a principled denial of self-aggrandizement, a generosity of spirit, and a respect for the opinions of others combined with a pride in our own democratic institutions. This had historically given us an authority in world affairs well beyond our economic and military strengths. Reacquiring this influence after the debacle of Iraq is no easy task: the United States is engaged in two hot wars, a new Cold War with Russia, a worldwide counterterrorism campaign, and a global economic competition.

Just how urgent is it that other states become democracies? Lets try to learn from experience, Traub suggests. Starting with the Philippines and working his way forward into the twentieth century, Traub illustrates the difficulties and risks of aligning national interests with a particular form of government abroad. In the aftermath of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson tried to internationalize the democratizing impulse through the creation of new countries and the League of Nations. He lacked the health and the power, at home and abroad, to succeed. World War II made clear, however, that dictatorships and autocracies were threats to world peace. This time there was sufficient resolve not only to forge new democracies from defeated Axis powers but also to internationalize collective security in a more effective organization, the United Nations.

Democratization succeeded in Germany and Japan in large part because of those nations modern, educated populations, which were readied for reform by the demoralization of total defeat and devastation in war. Elsewhere, democracy faced a rocky road after World War II. Eastern European representative governments like Czechoslovakia were subverted by Communism. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Harry S. Trumans doctrine of aiding states battling Communist aggression complicated matters, tooU.S. allies like South Korea were democratic in form only, which is to say they held elections. The United States changed governments by coup, and “tilted” against a largely democratic India in 1970 in favor of the often-autocratic Pakistan for purely geostrategic interests. Africa went from colonialism to dictatorship, as did some of Southeast Asia. Strongmen, many allied with the United States, came to dominate Latin America.

It was the end of the Cold War that saw a real wave of democratization wash around the world, principally in Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States. In Eastern Europe, which had had a strong democratic tradition in the interwar period, the transition was relatively easy. There was also a genuine will to help from the United States: the Clinton administration was convinced, rightly, that our security would be improved if more nations in the world shared our values. But in Russia, Traub writes, we probably couldnt have mustered the vast resources needed to really impact democratization even if we had fully understood the magnitude of the need. This was another case where the underlying culturewhich had long been state centered and never really penetrated by the democratic norms and expectations of the Westwasnt broken. Democratic forms were imposed without the cultural and economic basis for a truly modern, liberal state.

When it came to nation building, the record was similarly mixed. Just as America discovered in the Philippines, it was one thing to bring down the bad old order, but another thing entirely to build something better in its place. Traub correctly points out the difficulties in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. But the basic motive behind our involvement in those placesand I speak from personal experiencewas to alleviate suffering and end conflict, rather than to create glittering models of democracy.

The Bush administrations deployment of democratization as a key weapon in the war on terror was clearly a step too far. It was a fallacy to believe that asymmetric threats couldnt emerge from more democratic statespurple fingertips do not mean the end of terrorism, as we found out to our sorrow in Iraq three years ago. And rushing into elections risked neutering the authority of governments on which the U.S. had relied for support and leadership in troubled regions. It is here that Traub is at his strongest, recognizing the colossal, naive blunder of the Bush commitment to wholesale democratization in the Middle East. As a policy it was simply unworkable, because there were no mass parties or movements in the region that, if boosted democratically into power, would suddenly align their countries with Americas interests. In fact, Traub notes, the opposite appears to be the case: mass movements in the Islamic world at this point tend to be fundamentally anti-Western. The result was Hezbollah gains in the Lebanese elections, Hamas gains in the Palestinian ones, and a frustrating start-stop policy of pressure on Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

In his writing on Egypt, especially, Traub highlights a grave policy failure of the Bush administration that has slid from public notice very quickly. Again, the problem seems to be that the culture was simply not oriented toward individual freedom, the necessary foundation for a truly liberal state with clearly limited government authority. This is not to say, however, that the conditions on the ground in the Islamic world are uniformly hostile to democracy; Traub explores the strange case of Mali, where a surprising degree of democracy has flourished. The combination of factors that have made this possible is instructive: Malis uniform poverty seems to have created a climate of respect and restraint; the nation has been spared the “resource curse” that has afflicted other African and Middle Eastern nations; and democracy in Mali doesnt have conspicuous American fingerprints on itthat is, elections arent viewed as referenda on Westernization.

If there is an area of this excellent book that needs more development, its in the lessons that Traub derives from these experiences and the prescriptions he offers. Traub simply asks us to take democratization on a case-by-case, step-by-step basis, pragmatically, and slowly. But the fact is, I agree with that. Theres no one-size-fits-all solution.

The kind of change we want to promoteand that will promote our securityis for nations to work toward limited, pluralistic governments that impose the rule of law but also respect individual rights and freedoms, systems in which the heavy hand of the state is restrained by respect for freedoms of the press, association, and privacy. Without these, holding elections doesnt help us all that much. The National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, and the other nongovernmental organizations that export these political values are useful, even vital, but must be seen in a larger context. It takes a couple of generations or longer to change a culture, as we Americans should understand from our own experience in Reconstruction after the Civil War. There are no quick fixes.

Instead, we must set the example of good government, prosperity, transparency, and tolerance. Everyone wont see it our way. But if we are steady and persistent, and if our policies are fair minded and generally work at home, then we can reach out with scholarships and fellowships, exchanges and visits, and, working ever so carefully, help others achieve what we prize so highly.

Regardless of who takes office in January, American foreign policy will continue to seek a higher, more legitimate purpose than the simple protection of American interests. But a McCain presidency is likely to have a sharper edge in this than an Obama administration. Candidates who speak of strengthening a society of democracies to sidestep the United Nations and expelling Russia from the G8 sound naive and exclusionary. I would hope that an Obama administration would show more tolerance and patience while we built the institutional framework at home and beefed-up teams of civilians abroad to augment the nonmilitary aspects of American foreign policy, including preventive diplomacy and support to fledging democracies. But neither candidate is likely to persist in the simplistic illusion that the act of voting will, in itself, prove a silver bullet in defeating terrorism.

So far, in all my travels abroad, Ive only had one man tell me that America must do to his country what we did to Iraq. He was a Syrian diplomat-politician in exile. I told him to forget it. We have learned that painful lessonor at least, I hope we have.

This site and all contents within are Copyright 1969-2011 Washington Monthly
Editorial offices: 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20036

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Wesley K. Clark is a former NATO supreme allied commander. He is a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International