So You Want to Build a Democracy

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Ryan is a a writer for the History News Service. He is also an associate of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge.

We hear constantly these days that the United States will build a city on a hill in Iraq, a constitutional democracy whose example will change the Middle East. We built democracies in West Germany and Japan after World War II, and that, people say, proves we can do it in Iraq. But the differences between Iraq and Germany or Japan are far too great to make them credible models for this task.

Both Germany and Japan had had important experiences with democratic institutions within memory of their postwar populations. The Weimar Republic's parliament, the Reichstag, governed Germany after World War I until Hitler seized control in 1933.

Japan developed a strong democratic movement in the late 19th century. It created a parliament with a house of representatives whose members after 1925 were elected by universal manhood suffrage and who eventually formed Japan's cabinets, much as in the United Kingdom, for example. The Japanese military usurped the parliament's role in the mid-1930s.

Although these democratic institutions were too fragile to resist the militarism that swept much of the world in the 1930s, we were not introducing new concepts of government in those defeated nations.

Iraq is a different matter. That country has seen incessant military takeovers, assassinations, political executions, and factional and ethnic rebellions since the mid-1930s. No one there can remember an extended period of guaranteed human rights, freedom of expression or the rule of law so essential to modern democratic institutions.

Both Germany and Japan had literate, talented, industrially and technologically competent populations, a huge help in building a modern democratic society. Iraq does not have them to nearly the same degree, although its population is relatively advanced for the region.

Both the German and Japanese populations were far more homogeneous than Iraq's, which has profound religious and ethnic divisions. And in the case of Germany, the people had close cultural, religious and historical ties with Americans, which eased the post-war relationship. Iraqis certainly do not.

Germany and Japan were devastated by prolonged total war, in a way we assume Iraq will not be, making them more prone to accept the Allies' democratic program. The Japanese emperor, who still had enormous prestige, even called for cooperation with the victors. Saddam Hussein, if he survives, is unlikely to follow that example.

Those who believe democracy-building in Iraq is a feasible U.S. war aim should remember that in Germany and Japan the process was not a quick one. Forming the new governments involved Allied administrators for a decade in Germany, work admittedly hindered by the Cold War, and for seven years in Japan. American officials today talk of a one- or possibly two-year commitment in Iraq.

After World War II the vanquished regimes lacked any influential sympathizers who could possibly have challenged us. Quite to the contrary, fear of Soviet expansionism encouraged them to cooperate. Iraq, by contrast, has multitudes of sympathizers throughout the Muslim world. They undoubtedly view our invasion and occupation as oil imperialism, a blow against Islam and a major strike in support of Israel. In that emotional environment we can expect terrorist groups to gain credibility. Indeed, our increased security precautions at home it make clear that we do.

So even if, theoretically, we could build the complex infrastructure needed for democracy and the protection of human rights, we are likely to end up in a hostile sea with terrorism complicating our task. The Americans may well be seen as the new crusaders linked with the old imperialists, the British.

If it takes a leap of faith to believe we can turn Iraq into a democracy any time soon, it takes an even greater one to imagine that Jeffersonian democracy will spread simply by example to the other autocracies in the region. And if it did it would create a conflict of interest for Washington because many of those regimes are aligned with the United States.

The German and Japanese examples prove only one thing -- building democracies is not an easy job. There is good reason to believe it will be harder than ever in Iraq.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

mark safranski - 4/1/2003

So, the "natural" political system of Arabs and Muslims is dictatorship ? There is something inherent in Islam that prevents a Muslim citizen from deciding whether government policies have made his life better or worse ? By that logic American Muslims and Arab-Americans should not be voting either. Perhaps there is a magical transformation that occurs when an Arab crosses into the Western hemisphere that renders them fit to participate in a democratic polity when they step off the plane at LaGuardia.

Iraqi democracy will be a rough road but if the Russians could make progress let's give the Muslims the benefit of the doubt

Gus Moner - 4/1/2003

I agree the author has done a good job of laying out the facts and adding perspective.

Perhaps the only reason for the difficulty ahead in democratising Iraq based on the German and Japanese models is that the Iraqis have a unique and different set of circumstances not resembling those in Germany and Japan. The main difference between Germany & Japan and Iraq is that there was homogeneity in the population in the former two. In Japan the people were ethnically similar, had a common ethical base and the same religion was practised by most. In short there were no internal conflicts or contradictions.

In Germany there were numerous non-conflicting Christian sects that were not at odds. Germans were quite similar culturaly, and ethnically. Eventually, the territory of each one was coherent and well defined and territory ceased to be an issue.

Moreover, the political pressure to not become another USSR satellite was an enormous positive influence in Germany and Italy, and less but nevertheless important in Japan.

Iraq, with its often-at-odds multi-ethnic makeup, and conflicting Muslim sects, with Muslim Kurds who do not consider themselves Arabs or Iraqis and Shiites who think of themselves more akin to Shiite Persians, presents a quite different puzzle. There are no logical borders since the British cobbled it together illogically and it makes no sense as a nation. Any alteration of borders would affect so many neighbours as to be a clear invitation to further conflict.

In Iraq, the outside threat is the invader who wants to impose a political system that goes against their Muslim precepts and culture, making anything they do a target for religious leaders wishing to retain influence and religious control over all aspects of life. In effect this puts the USA in the role of the USSR trying to impose an alien system to usurp each ethnic group’s core values. The scenarios are so different as to obviate comparison.

David Salmanson - 3/31/2003

This has been one of the best exchanges on HNN in quite some time. Reasoned, calm, and evidence driven but still with a healthy dose of theory. As someone who knows little about Japan but has to teach it as part of a world history course, I have been constantly puzzled by the collapse of constitutionality in Japan. This discussion helped clarify the issues for me and will improve my teaching. Thanks folks!

Jonathan Dresner - 3/31/2003

My father always said: he who defines the terms wins the argument. And it was Aristotle who said that most disputes could be reduced to single paragraph, if the sides defined their terms first. The tricky thing about defining democracy is that there are two crucial components -- structure and participation -- and strict definitions of either tend to exclude societies which we DO consider democratic.

I think that Japan, particularly from 1919 to 1931, did experience something meaningfully democratic, but the Meiji Constitution was too vague and unbalanced for a parliament-centered model to remain stable after such a brief and inconsistent supremacy.

mark safranski - 3/31/2003

Illiberal democracy is an interesting concept - and one that may have increasing relevance today as formerly authoritarian nations democratize while experiencing a rising sense of nationalism.
However I'm not certain that Japan in the Taisho era was really democratic - unless we are using a definition of democracy so broad as to encompass nations like Wilhelmine Germany which also had a parliament with real power under an authoritarian-paternal monarchy ( and one where the Kaiser had a far less fundamental role constitutionally than the Emperor of Japan). So I suppose part of the disagreement depends upon how we define our terms.

The Diet did, I agree, reflect a nationalist sentiment though not one that matched the virulent extremism of the military factions or of the Court which ultimately were in the driver's seat when Hirohito replaced his father as Emperor. Reflecting on the assassination of Takahashi, the extremist elements in the late 1920's-1930's could not tolerate moderation even when expressed as sincere agreement as to ends - Japanese domination of the East.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/31/2003

Though I agree with Mr. Ryan's main points, I disagree with his conclusion. Japan, Germany and Italy before WWII experienced quite tumultuous politics, including "assassinations, political executions" and uprisings. And all of them evolved into single-party totalitarian governments, which then had to be recast into three rather different liberal democracies. Many have said that India was a poor candidate for democracy, but it remains a dynamic and active political scene. Taiwan and South Korea made the transition from autocratic regimes to democracies with little violence or outside pressure (in the case of Taiwan, actually, powerful outside pressure against democratization).

There are many kinds of democracy: I agree that Iraq is unlikely to follow the path of Japan and Germany, but I don't see why democracy is fundamentally less likely there than it was in those earlier regimes.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/31/2003

Actually Benedict is more popular among the Japanese, who love to talk about "Japaneseness," than she is among Western scholars, who take the small kernels of truth that she offered and discard the layer upon layer of essentializing and overgeneralization.

Though the government of Japan under the Meiji Constitution (and I believe I had the honor of being the first person to digitize it in English)was a strong monarchy, it was not an absolute monarchy. Elected representatives had real authority and leveraged that into real power. Japan's aggressive Imperialism succeeded not because the Diet was too weak to oppose it, but because it fairly represented the Japanese people who generally supported it.

Japan was a functioning democracy, but not a liberal one in the 20th century sense.

mark safranski - 3/30/2003

Doesn't anybody read Ruth Benedict anymore ?

Like all critics of the attempt to transform Iraqi into a democratic polity, Mr. Ryan vastly overstates the democratic practice of not only Taisho but Late Meiji (!) Japan. The "democratic " period where parliament gained strength was due more to Emperor Taisho's insanity, Prince Hirohito's regency and the decline of the Genro statesmen. In short, the power arrangements of the Meiji restotration were temporarily in disarray that allowed parliamentarians of the lower house ( the upper house were the peers ) a wedge but even then they had the support of a powerful Genro, the liberal Prince Saionji. Democratic trends of the Taisho era were counterbalanced not only by rising nationalism as Mr. Ryan suggests but by Japan's extremely hierarchical social system. In 1946, SCAP not only democratized Japan in 1945, it swept away Japan's stultifying class structure.

Read the Meiji Constitution if you think Imperial Japan was ever democratic.