Democracy by Force, or by Example?

News Abroad

Ms. Appleby is emerita professor of history at UCLA and co-director of the History News Service.

Spreading democracy has become the nation's principal foreign policy goal. Yet there has been little sustained public discussion about this ambitious program.  A few op-eds perhaps. Neither house of Congress has taken it up. Nor have polls asked voters if they share their president's stated aim to promote democracy in the Middle East, by force if necessary.

It's a proposition that deserves some thought, and we're fortunate that in 1824 the House of Representatives actually gave it some. Those congressional debates ended up scotching the idea that the United States should determine the form of government of other countries. Things have changed a lot since then, but their arguments astutely canvass how best to serve democracy worldwide. Considering the pros and cons of this thorny issue would demonstrate how a democracy can develop a foreign policy.

In the 1820s the Greeks began fighting for independence from Turkey. Confounding predictions of instant failure, they became instead a new symbol of humanity's indomitable longing for freedom. Educated people in Europe and the United States had long cherished ancient Greece for its political and moral values. Here was a chance to act on that admiration.

Americans held public meetings where ardent speakers extolled the noble legacy they'd inherited from the Greeks. They raised money and sent clothes for the valiant champions of liberty. Some Americans even volunteered to fight. But many wanted the United States to do something official. Congressman Daniel Webster, ever attuned to public sentiment, proposed a resolution supporting the Greek revolt in the House of Representatives.

As today, when the war in Iraq dominates the news, foreign policy then was very much on the public mind. President Monroe had just announced his doctrine that European nations should keep out of the Western Hemisphere. Many countries in Latin America had recently thrown off Spanish rule to join the United States as independent nations. Abroad, in post-Napoleonic Europe, a conservative reaction, hostile to popular sovereignty, was gaining ground. Governments there reaffirmed the importance of order through the vigorous assertion of authority.  All these elements came into play when the House took up the question of helping the Greeks.

Webster argued that as the freest government in the world, the United States had little choice but to give aid to the Greeks. He spoke ardently about the momentum growing for popular political participation. "What is the soul, the informing spirit of our institutions, of our entire system of government," he asked rhetorically, but public opinion.  "Let us direct the force, the vast moral force of this engine, to the aid of others," he urged.

As in Congressional debates today, each speaker had to demonstrate that he hated evil and loved virtue. Congressman Joel Poinsett of South Carolina insisted that the bravery and enterprise of the Greeks equaled that of their ancient forebears before drawing attention back to House's duty to avoid doing anything that might involve the country in war. He even dared to raise questions about whether modern Greeks possessed the elementary principles of freedom necessary to govern themselves.

And so the debate went back and forth from appeals to respond to the cries of distress from a people yearning to be free to deflating remarks about the unimportance of anything that the United States might do about a situation so far away. Americans, one member said, should have nothing to do "with the wrongs committed by other Governments against those whom they govern" except to avoid their example.

Following a supportive speech from  Congressman Henry Clay, Alexander Smyth of Virginia posed the key question to his colleagues: "What have you to do with the liberty or any people, except the people you govern, unless the subjection  of a neighboring foreign people endangers your safety?" and adding, "You have nothing to do with religion, even here, and why should you meddle with it elsewhere?"

In the end Congress voted against the resolution, evidently agreeing when Silas Wood of New York, referring to the world and its oppressions, asked whether the United States must be "the Hercules that is to free it from the monsters of tyranny and slavery?" Evoking Don Quixote and his tilting at windmills, Wood insisted that American's help for mankind lay "not by embarking in a military crusade to establish the empire of our principles . . . but by the moral influence of its example."

In contrast with his promotion of Iraqi democracy through a "shock and awe" invasion, President Bush has used diplomatic means to chastise even allies like Egypt and Pakistan for suppressing democratic activists. Like his predecessors he has reminded the military junta ruling Myanmar that the United States opposes the house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet these initiatives in support of human rights and democratic rule work at cross purposes. Soft diplomacy rests on public respect which our invasion of Iraq has undermined.

In a reversal of Gresham's Law that soft money drives hard money out of circulation, hard diplomacy deprives soft diplomacy of its moral authority. If democracy is to be more than a shibboleth, we need to debate, as did the Congress in 1824, whether the United States is to lead by example or by force of arms.

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Arnold Shcherban - 1/11/2008

Mr. Garayev,

According to the formal logic one may get to polar opposite conclusions, starting from different premises.
Therefore, before debating on any issue the participants have to establish, first of all, whether they are starting off the same foundations, i.e. economic, social, and political/ideological axioms and terminology.
Otherwise, they will never agree or even narrow the gap between them making the whole debate puposeless, since sooner or later both parties will clash at those very foundations their positions based on.
But better sooner, than later, right?.
Now, I'm going to tell you what my foundations pertaining to the issue raised in the article are, and if you choose to follow you'll respond with
your own ones, if any different.
1) What I understand by "democracy".
Democracy is an economic, social, and politico-ideological regime/system which represents the will of the
(At least, that's how it was
initially understood by the creators
of the term - the ancient Greeks and how it is briefly defined in the contemporary dictionaries.)
2) "Free elections" - elections reflecting the free will/opinion of the voters, i.e. the will/opinion formed without the pressure of EXTRAORDINARY circumnstances (such, e.g. as hunger, desolation, threat of violence/war, foreign occupation/interference etc.). Specifically, if one does recognize the elections as being free
under one country's occupation, one has to refuse to recognize the elections as free under any other country's occupation. Otherwise,
the one is playing DOUBLE STANDARD game. Perhaps, one can say that those elections were CLOSER to free elections than the other ones, but not free, by common definition.

3) Justified war (country or group of countries outside of the UN jurisdiction against other country/countries)- a war that is either the response to a direct agression (as the latter defined in several internationally accepted documents/laws) or real and immediate threat of the aggression.
All other wars (excluding the civil ones) are ILLEGAL, not just <wrong>, and constitute AGGRESSION.
Certainly, there are more of this kind of foundations involved in the issue in question, but let us begin with these ones.

omar ibrahim baker - 1/9/2008

Well, Mr Garayev, if you believe that there was free elections in either Iraq or Afghanistan I suggest you do some serious reading and research!and reconsider !

Nijat Garayev - 1/9/2008

To answer your comment,

That there some realities exist in this world. There some truth that we cannot deny. You cannot simply say that Iraq, or Afghanistan had free elections before US invasion, right? Then how it can be a nemesis to US, as you said, even when it never had built a democracy in itself? When you talk about government systems of ME, you should be aware of the fact that there more than 5 different situations in ME, which has the influence of Religion, Interests of EU, Russia, USA, and other countries.

You should be aware of the fact that Oil incomes of US consist of 0.04% of total federal budget, which shows that the oil was not the fist reason that US wanted to invade Iraq.

You talk about invasion and tyranny of US, while you do not mention many horrible things that Arab countries against Israel, Each Other, and etc. I can give many examples, as 7 days war, Situation in Ethiopia, Situation in Sudan, Palestine, Iran, and Syria and so on.

If you look closer to the main 3 reason that White House showed the world, when she invaded Iraq, you can see none of them are non-important, especially to US Government.

I do not want to justify the things that US have done, or invasion at all, but I want to remind that Muslims, and ME countries are not the children of Angel, and that they have also done many incorrect things that lead to reaction of world countries.

I believe US administration have never imagined of such kind of results of the invasion, since even Devil, himself cannot agree with the death of 1 million people in 3 years (Even if its reasons has nothing to do with US military Intervention directly).

I also believe that Invadin Iraq was a wrong choice, however I do think that Beginning from Syria, ending at Phalastine – are not democratic at all, and there should something done with their governments systems, since it is a threat to democracy and peace around th

omar ibrahim baker - 1/8/2008

To contend that:
"Spreading democracy has become the nation's principal foreign policy goal"
(Democracy by Force, or by Example?By Joyce Appleby )
Is neither true nor correct neither in fact nor in intention!

This contention is another, US gallery pleasing , ploy cum slogan meant to justify further USA interference in the internal affairs of those countries and states that fail to toy the American line , mainly, but not exclusively, that are Arab and/or Moslem!

The US administration knows perfectly well that whenever given a modicum of free choice, the inevitable outcome of any elections in any of these countries is the triumph of declared anti USA forces.
The USA can not possibly nor reasonably seek the triumph of its nemesis ; the expression of free public will as democracy is supposed to be and implement
Pro US or US friendly regimes would be the first victims of democracy in the ME!

On the other hand, it is difficult to read which EXAMPLE Professor Appleby has exactly in mind when he states:
“If democracy is to be more than a shibboleth, we need to debate, as did the Congress in 1824, whether the United States is to lead by example or by force of arms. “

Could it possibly be the example of democracy as practiced in and by the USA???
As practiced IN the USA Democracy is the process through which if and only IF you have at your disposal several millions dollars you can entertain the idea of presenting yourself as a candidate to the House or Senate.
While on the other hand a presidential candidature stipulates not several millions but several tens of millions of dollars!

Alternately as practiced BY the USA Democracy is the process through which the USA allows itself to invade and destroy unprovoked whole countries and in the process maintain and manage US Army officially run detention and/or correctional facilities as for Abu Ghraib while totally ignoring the rule of law and the dictates of the simplest principles of justice as in and for Guantanamo.

Professor Appleby can NOT possibly mean the USA as an example of Democracy to be emulated by others!