August 14, 2008 | Faster, Please!

War and Democracy

For many centuries, it was taken for granted that no modern country could move from dictatorship to democracy without considerable violence. The first wave of democratic revolution–the last quarter of the eighteenth century–saw every Western country undergo some political spasm aimed against the traditional monarchies. The two biggest events were the American and French Revolutions, both of which were integral parts of global war, and there were echoes in countries as different as Poland and Switzerland.

This was the watershed of the modern world, and the conviction that democracy was always accompanied by violent revolution/civil war/global conflict became part of the conventional wisdom.  In the mid-seventies, for example, as Spain’s Generalissimo Franco lay dying in Madrid, it was next to impossible to find any knowledgeable person who believed that Spain could become a democratic country without a replay of the bloody civil war of the 1930s. Spaniards were thoroughly convinced that they would do just that. “We kill the bulls, after all,” they liked to say; they were a violent people, and the Old Order would not go quietly into the dark night of fallen autocracies.

And yet, Spain accomplished a seemingly miraculous democratic revolution, paradoxically organized and commanded by icons of the Old Order: King Juan Carlos and a now-forgotten Franco loyalist, Adolfo Suarez. Portugal followed suit shortly thereafter, albeit with some dramatic moments and a few street clashes, but the new model–dictatorships could indeed fall, and democracies could be created, peacefully.

Then came the Age of the Second Democratic Revolution, the years of Reagan, Thatcher, John Paul II, Havel, Walesa, Sharansky and Bukovsky, replete with revolutions from Chile to Taiwan, from Romania and the rest of the Soviet Empire to South Africa and Zambia. With the indifference to history so characteristic of our world, we quickly forgot the conventional wisdom and by now we take it for granted that neither war nor violence is required to end tyranny. All we need is patience and the proper invocation of the new rules: free and fair elections, the rule of law, and so forth. History had ended, liberal democracy was triumphant.

The belief in the inevitability of peace and democracy rested on one of the great conceits of the European Enlightenment, namely the belief in the perfectibility of man. In this view, man’s basic goodness (as found in “the state of nature”) had been corrupted by a selfish society (a notion that finds much favor among today’s more extreme Greens), but that once the heavy weight of misguided was lifted, man’s intrinsic goodness would reemerge. In our modern rendition of that Enlightenment folly, an appeal to reason is sufficient to change the world. Back in the Clinton years, it was widely believed that all future conflict would be solely economic; the age of military warfare had passed, henceforth products, markets, and human ingenuity would determine who is rightly top dog and who needs to get with the program.  And so the defense budget was slashed, military men and women were treated with contempt by the president and his wife, and we turned inward.  After all, if historical inevitability ruled, why bother with national security?  Tyranny was considered a passing phenomenon, headed for the ash heap, and certainly no threat to us.

It was all wrong, as are most beliefs in the vast impersonal forces that are held to determine human events.  The great constant in man’s affairs is change, the direction of that change is determined by human actions, and many of the men and women who take those determinant actions are evil.  Machiavelli is not the only sage who recognized it, but he put it nicely:  “Man is more inclined to do evil than to do good.”  Rational statecraft starts right there.

The American Founders knew it: recognizing man’s innate capacity for evil, they designed a system of checks and balances to thwart the accumulation of power by any group, lest the entire enterprise fall into wicked hands.  They knew the battle for liberty would never end, Benjamin Franklin famously warned we would have to fight to keep our republic.

All of this wisdom has been dangerously undermined by the foolish notion that man is basically good, that all men are basically the same,  and that all we need do is to permit history to take its preordained course.  Are these not the tenets of contemporary education?  Are our children not forbidden to criticize “others,” whether of different pigmentation or religion?  Has debate on our university campuses not turned into the moral equivalent of the Inquisition?  And it rests on the sands of a demonstrably false vision of man.  We are not naturally inclined to do good.  Quite the contrary;  left to our own devices we produce genocide in Europe, Asia and Africa.  And the evil spreads, eventually it threatens us, it kills our people here at home and it is straining to kill more of us.  Ask the Georgians.  Ask Middle Eastern Jews and Christians, or the Iranian, Iraqi or Syrian peoples.

The basic debate needs to begin with a recognition that we have bought into a fable.  Without that recognition, we will be incapable of designing the policies we need in order to survive this perilous moment.

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