Democracy’s drama in terrorism’s theater

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By Joseph Nye

CAMBRIDGE: President George W. Bush was famous for proclaiming democracy promotion as a central focus of American foreign policy. He was not alone in this rhetoric. Most US presidents since Woodrow Wilson have made similar statements.

So it was a striking departure when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified to Congress earlier this year about the “three D’s” of American foreign policy – defense, diplomacy, and development. The “D” of democracy was glaringly absent, suggesting a fundamental policy change by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush frequently referred to democracy’s benefits for security. They cited social-science research showing that democracies rarely go to war with each other. But, more carefully stated, what scholars have shown is that liberal democracies almost never go to war with each other. Indeed, it might be that a liberal constitutional culture is more important than the mere fact of competitive elections.

While free and fair elections are important, liberal democracy is more than “electocracy.” Elections in the absence of constitutional and cultural constraints can produce violence, as in Bosnia or the Palestinian Authority. And illiberal democracies have in fact gone to war with each other quite recently, as Ecuador and Peru did in the 1990’s.

In the eyes of many critics at home and abroad, the Bush administration’s excesses tarnished the idea of democracy promotion. Bush’s invocation of democracy to justify the invasion of Iraq implied that democracy could be imposed at the barrel of a gun. Democracy came to be associated with its particular American variant, and took on an imperialist connotation.

Moreover, Bush’s exaggerated rhetoric was often at odds with his practice, giving rise to charges of hypocrisy. He somehow found it easier to criticize Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Burma than Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and he quickly toned down his initial reproach of Egypt.

There is a danger, however, in over-reacting to the Bush administration’s policy failures. Democracy is not an American imposition, and it can take many forms. The desire for greater participation grows as economies develop and people adjust to modernization.

Nor is democracy in retreat. Freedom House, a non-governmental organization, listed 86 free countries at the beginning of the Bush years, a total that increased slightly, to 89, by the end of his term.

Democracy remains a worthy and widespread goal, which should be distinguished from the means chosen to attain it. There is a difference between assertive promotion of democracy and more gentle support. Avoiding coercion, premature elections, and hypocritical rhetoric does not rule out a patient policy of economic assistance, quiet diplomacy, and multilateral efforts to support the development of civil society, the rule of law, and support for well-managed elections.

Equally important to the foreign-policy methods used to support democracy abroad are the ways in which we practice it at home. When we try to impose democracy, we tarnish it. When we live up to our own best traditions, we can stimulate emulation and generate the soft power of attraction. This approach is what Ronald Reagan called the “shining city on the hill.”

For example, many people both inside and outside the US had become cynical about the American political system, arguing that it was dominated by money and closed to outsiders. The election of Barack Hussein Obama in 2008 did a great deal to restore the soft power of American democracy.

Another aspect of America’s domestic practice of liberal democracy that is currently being debated is how the country deals with the threat of terrorism. In the climate of extreme fear that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration’s tortured legal interpretations of international and domestic law tarnished American democracy and diminished its soft power.

Fortunately, a free press, an independent judiciary, and a contentious legislature helped to bring such practices into public debate. Obama has proclaimed that he will close the Guantánamo detention facility within a year, and he has declassified the legal memos that were used to justify what is now widely regarded as torture of detainees.

But the problem of how to deal with terrorism is not just a question of the past. The threat remains with us, and it is important to remember that people in democracies want both liberty and security.

In moments of extreme fear, the pendulum of attitudes swings toward the security end of that spectrum. Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War, and Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese-American citizens during the early days of World War II.

When some of the more reasonable members of the Bush administration are asked today how they could have taken the positions that they did in 2002, they cite the anthrax attacks that followed 9/11, the intelligence reports of an impending attack with nuclear materials, and widespread public fear of a second attack. In such circumstances, liberal democracy and security are in tension.

Terrorism is a form of theater. It works not by sheer destruction, but rather by dramatizing atrocious acts against civilians. It is like jiu jitsu: the weaker adversary wins by leveraging the power of the stronger against itself.

Terrorists hope to create a climate of fear and insecurity that will provoke liberal democracies to harm themselves by undercutting their quality in terms of their own values. Preventing new terrorist attacks while understanding and avoiding the mistakes of the past will be essential if we are to preserve and support liberal democracy both at home and abroad. That is the debate that the Obama administration is leading in the US today.

Joseph S. Nye, a professor at Harvard University, was rated by a recent poll as the most influential scholar on American foreign policy. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (


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