It’s hard to believe that nearly a century later, credence is still given to the notion that one nation can deliver the conditions for democracy to another.
As Americans we have spend billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives try to do just that, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, in Africa and in the Middle East. While the idea is laudable, it is also notable for its failure to work.
If history has taught us anything – which it arguably hasn’t – it is that to be successful, the desire for self-government has to come from within. It cannot be imposed. Politicians, particularly past the moderate state of right, will argue that America can influence the conditions that foster democracy.
This is true, but only if the object country is at a certain stage.
Lawrence Kohlberg set out his stages for moral development, defining the steps that humans take in the development of their moral sense. Not all people take all the steps, but they all start at the same place, and cannot “skip” steps, but have to proceed through each one, depending on age, cognitive development, education, experience, etc., until they reach their maximum capability.
It is this notion of not skipping steps that is at the heart of our foreign policy failures. We first assume that every country a) wants to be democratic, and b) is capable at that time to become democratic, and c) that they want a democracy like ours.
American policy has no clear criteria to define at what stage a country is to becoming democratic before intervention. Only now is there a glimmer among Americans that it may, under some circumstances, to trade liberties for security, but rather than apply that when looking externally, we tend to use it for our own internal bickerings.
Where a country is on the road to democracy needs careful assessment, and any intervention by foreign powers who would help the process need to be aware that they will only be constructive if they militate towards the next stage, and not directly to the end state.