Things Even America Can't Do

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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In an episode of one of those super-soldier shows that aired in the wake of 9-11 (I think it was "E-Ring."), one character asked about a particularly daunting mission: "Can we do that?" To which his boss said "Hell, this is America. We can do any damn thing we want." Well, it turns out we can't do any damn thing we want, and here are a couple of things the last half century have shown we can't do.

We Can't Win Against Insurgencies

Sure, we can defeat insurgencies. I'm not counting the Indian Wars, which weren't even close. We did it in the Philippines in the early 1900's, and we didn't do too badly in the Banana Wars of a couple of decades later. But there were several reasons for this:

The political will to win against insurgencies just doesn't exist in the U.S. The press got excited about the Gulf War in 1991 and has spent more than twenty years trying to live down its embarrassment. There's a large permanent population convinced the U.S. is in the wrong in any conflict. Any mishap that costs American or foreign innocent lives will be headline news, and the more precisely targeted weapons become, the more bitterly some people oppose them. Americans want quick victories like the 1991 Gulf War, and then bring the troops home. The insurgents are home, and defeating them means either killing so many that the remnant is too demoralized to fight, or converting them to our point of view.

This mind-set will someday come back to bite us big-time. We can write off Afghanistan and let it revert to a medieval tribal society. It's on the far side of the world and if we really need to do something there we can ring our installations with impregnable security, or just buy off the opposition. But sooner or later there will be an insurgency we simply cannot allow to win, for example a neo-Nazi campaign of assassination in the U.S. or Europe. In that event we will either have to give in to their demands, or spend the blood, time and treasure it takes to defeat them.

We Can't Conjure up Democracy

We're proud, and justly so, of the nation-building we accomplished after World War II, where we treated former enemies benignly and enabled them to become stable democracies. So why can't we do that everywhere?

Because we forget that both Germany and Japan had already been democratic in the 1920's, and both had been overthrown by fascist coups. In both countries there was a significant native population supportive of democracy, and once the fascist grip was broken, the pro-democratic forces could govern again. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some former Communist countries like Poland, then-Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, made an easy transition to democracy. Others, like former Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria, were far less successful. Among the former Soviet republics, only the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, became functioning democracies. In some cases, nations can make the transition to democracy without having much of a democratic tradition, like Spain and Portugal after the deaths of their fascist dictators.

Maybe the first thing we need to do is ask what exactly we want from a democracy. We have no problem accepting Western Europe as democratic, even though its parliamentary systems are quite different from our own. So democracy doesn't necessarily mean all the trappings of the American system. Here are a few things that seem essential. Oh, by the way, there is no perfect democracy anywhere, so don't even waste your time on that point.

History affords plenty of cases where wise but autocratic rulers achieved those goals. The problem with autocracy is you may have a Marcus Aurelius succeeded by a Commodus. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you don't know what you're going to get. Of course, the Germans who democratically elected Hitler didn't know what they were going to get, either. But if Germany had remained democratic, he could have been ousted or at least neutralized.

But it took centuries for Europe to fumble its way to democracy. The Greeks had it for at most a few generations, and for only a small minority of the population. Rome had a heavily slanted version designed to preserve the privileges of the upper classes, before it finally collapsed into dictatorship. We know lots of ways for democracies to fail, but really don't know how to start them where they don't exist.The Economist Democracy Index lists the U.S., Canada, much of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand as full democracies. The only non-European or European-descended countries on the list are Japan and South Korea. It appears that developing a democracy requires a long tradition of the rule of law and recognition of the rights of others. There probably is no reason China could not achieve full democracy if the Communist ruling elite could bring themselves to permit it. India is listed as a "flawed democracy," not very far behind Italy, and a substantial accomplishment for a nation of a billion people and a dozen official languages. But parts of the world ruled by tribalism, clan loyalties and "honor" culture, will probably have to evolve their own approaches to democracy. That will take time and may lead to forms we might find very unfamiliar.


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Created 11 March 2013;  Last Update 24 May, 2020

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