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Papa, don't preach
Madonna for diplomats
The United States was born from an idea: that people could govern themselves. It was a revolutionary idea, and a revolution was required to put it into effect in America. The idea caught on and sparked a revolutionary era in human history. Revolutions in France, Latin America and eventually around the world continued far into the 20th century.
By then, however, two ideas had become conflated in the original idea. The first was nationalism, the principle that each people should manage its own affairs. The second was democracy, the belief that within a given political system, ordinary men and later women should have controlling influence.
Nationalism eventually carried nearly all before it. The great empires of the 19th and early 20th centuries crumbled before the advancing power of nationalism in Asia and Africa. Pockets of unfinished nationalism remain. Kurds have been seeking a country of their own for more than a century, so far without luck. Tibetans are unhappy under Chinese occupation. Scots and Catalans recurrently agitate for countries of their own. But compared to the billions carried to national independence in the 20th century, the remaining work of nationalism is modest.
The scorecard on democracy is different. Nationalist revolutionaries often spoke the language of democracy against imperial overlords, only to reject democracy once they had succeeded. Ho Chi Minh quoted the American Declaration of Independence in his declaration of Vietnamese independence from France, but he was as thoroughly a communist as he was a nationalist, and after his heirs won the Vietnam War, they governed as autocratically as communists always have.
The Chinese revolution of the second quarter of the 20th century pitted Mao Zedong's communists against government forces led by Chiang Kai-shek. Mao portrayed his struggle as a people's revolution, but the Chinese people have never had any substantive role in governing the People's Republic of China.
One result of all of this has been a persistent confusion in American perceptions of the world. Having started the revolutionary ball rolling, Americans tended to think that revolutions meant the same thing in other countries as America's revolution meant in America. National independence led to democracy here; therefore national independence should lead to democracy there.
American leaders have not hesitated to say so on many occasions. Thomas Jefferson's Republican party cheered the forces of popular rule in the French revolution. Woodrow Wilson proclaimed American democracy a model for the world. Franklin Roosevelt seconded Wilson, as has every president since, with the conspicuous exception of Donald Trump.
Nor have Americans been alone in their rooting for democracy. Leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and other countries often chime in. They claim, sincerely enough, to have the interests of the people of the world at heart. Democracy works well for their own peoples and presumably will work well for others. Self-interest plays a part too; democracies tend not to go to war with each other, and thus a more democratic world will be a more peaceful world.
But to countries that never bought into the democratic ethos, the message sounds a lot like uninvited preaching. The whole point of the nationalist revolutions was not to have to follow the orders of foreigners; these modern admonitions are hardly more welcome. Americans certainly have never liked being told by foreigners how to manage American affairs. French envoy Edmond Genet's criticism of George Washington for not supporting France against Britain in the 1790s aroused the ire even of Americans favorably disposed toward France. A great many Americans disapproved of the Jim Crow system of segregation in the South, but even they took umbrage at foreign criticism of America on the subject.
Besides, preaching almost never has positive effect. Autocratic governments either prevent their people from hearing the message or condemn it as foreign meddling. Episodes seemingly to the contrary are often misleading. Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, and the wall came down. But by the time Reagan spoke, the reforms Gorbachev had set in motion were nearly unstoppable.
To a country like China, moreover, instruction in government from the United States can seem particularly incongruous. Americans are rightly proud that their republic is approaching the ripe old age of a quarter-millennium. Chinese civilization is more than three thousand years old. Chinese people might be forgiven for wondering what they can learn from such comparative infants in the art of governing.
Finally, there is the undeniable fact that American democracy is not working particularly well at the moment. American proponents of democracy can come across sounding like a used car salesman flogging an old beater whose wheels are falling off.
So what should Americans and American leaders do? Simply this: Be modest in proclaiming American values. State that democracy has worked well for us and we think it would work well for you. But it’s your choice; we don’t presume to dictate.
And with the energy saved from preaching, work harder to secure democracy in America.