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Can Obama Fix the Troubled Export of American Democracy to Latin America?

“Can We Make Iraq Democratic?” – George F. Will

“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” – President of Mexico Porfirio Diaz

One of the things President Obama talked about with President Peña Nieto on Monday deserves further discussion. In their joint remarks in the Oval Office, President Obama said,

I described my initiative to end the 50-year policy with relation to Cuba, to move towards what we hope will be a more constructive policy but one that continues to emphasize human rights and democracy and political freedom. And at the Summit of the Americas, one of the things I informed Peña Nieto is we will participate but we’ll insist that those topics are on the agenda.

This goal might not seem problematic from an American point of view, but this is only because Americans do not realize how haphazard and insincere our dedication to these principles seem to the rest of the world. All too often, the export of democracy has looked a lot like the export of imperialism, and America’s defense of freedom in Latin America has been translated into right-wing dictatorships (including most of South America in the 1970s).

The Monroe Doctrine, the source of so much of this evil, is dead, killed by the Obama administration on November 18, 2013 when Secretary of State John Kerry told the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C., “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” But another troubled source remains: democracy itself.

David Reynolds, in his The Long Shadow: The Legacies of The Great War in the Twentieth Century (2014), points to these difficulties, reminding us that American values (meaning “liberty”) “were transplanted to the American colonies from England and then politicized by the spread of democracy.”

Lincoln’s “assertion that America’s democracy should be a model for the whole world” was not problematic until “taken up fifty years later by Woodrow Wilson” with his appeal for self-determination (a term actually coined by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George).

On April 2, 1917, at a Joint Session of Congress, Wilson declared that we would fight “for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations.”

William Allen Rogers cartoon, Teddy Roosevelt and the Big Stick, 1904

In short, as Reynolds puts it, Wilson’s overarching goal was “to recast the world in America’s self-image.” Not as we are, of course, but as we saw (or continue to see) ourselves, which is not necessarily the same thing.

Reynolds reminds us (and we need this reminder), that “there was, of course, more than a touch of self-deception here, given the racial discrimination endemic in the United States.” As we are so painfully aware, this discrimination remains endemic a century later.

Wilson’s arrival in Paris for the Paris Peace Conference led to an ideological collision “with European realities,” as Reynolds puts it, and these collisions have been a recurring symptom of the past century, but particularly since the end of the Second World War.

For example, what, precisely, does “self-determination” mean? His own secretary of state, Robert Lansing, asked, “Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?” It was a statement “simply loaded with dynamite” and it remains so today, as does the very concept of democracy.

As Reynolds tells us,

“Wilson’s seductive sound bites, expressing America’s distinctive civic-nationalism, would echo down the twentieth century. And the most resonant, even more than ‘self-determination,’ was ‘democracy.'”

Wilson finally “backed off from the implications” says Reynolds, and told foreign journalists (not American),

There isn’t any one kind of government which we have the right to impose upon any nation. So that I am not fighting for democracy except for those peoples that want democracy. If they want it, then I am ready to fight until they get it. If they don’t want it, that is none of my business.

Of course, America has not abided by Wilson’s sentiment, and since he expressed himself to foreign journalists we may have never been aware of it. We have indeed made it our business, whether people express a desire for it or not.

All too often, we have been the ones to decide they should get it, as in the case of Vietnam, and more recently, Iraq (George F. Will’s answer to his question above was emphatically ‘yes’). And as Lansing warned, the phrase has “cost thousands of lives.”

Instead of democracy, the end of the First World War saw the rise of totalitarian regimes – Communism and Fascism, one an extreme of the left and the other the right. Reynolds explains that “in this new age…the liberal variant of democracy seemed antiquated and irrelevant.”

Wilson ultimately called the League of Nation’s covenant, which endorsed far less of the self-determination than he had called for, “the best that could be had out of a dirty past” but beliefs to the contrary, America’s own imperialist past has been plenty dirty itself and many have pointed out, as did Queen Marie of Romania in 1919, that America has no moral high ground upon which to stand.

As Marie related of their meeting,

We had one pass of arms. He very sanctimoniously preached to me about how we should treat our minorities, demonstrating how very important this was and spread himself out at great length upon this topic, becoming exceedingly unctuous and moral as he warmed to his subject, treating me the while as a rather ignorant beginner who could profit of his advice. No doubt I could, but he struck me as being rather too fond of the sound of his own voice, so finally, when he paused to take breath, I mildly suggested that he was evidently well acquainted with these difficulties because of the Japanese question in the United States?

And just as Wilson did not challenge his allies, Britain and France, so American governments since, have not challenged their totalitarian allies from Augusto Pinochet in Chile to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

The Cold War’s Truman Doctrine embodies the precept, as explained by President Truman, that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

These seem empty words when we are reminded that when it suits our national security needs, we are more than willing to ignore that many of these peoples were themselves not free, that “anti-Communist” was more critical than “democratic.” This has never been truer than in America’s relations with Central and South America.

There and elsewhere, freedom and democracy have often taken second place to ideological objections to Communism or terrorism. At the Human Rights First Annual Summit Address in December 2013, National Security Adviser Susan Rice called these “short-term tradeoffs,” but they generally endure as long as the need (real or perceived) remains.

As Susan Rice admitted, “Let’s be honest, at times … we do business with governments that do not respect the rights we hold most dear.”

Yet far from simply doing business, we support them, buttressing repressive regimes with foreign and military aid.

This being true, and given both our history of relations with Latin America and President Obama’s own admission that “We live in a world of imperfect choices,” how awkward must his promise the other day seem that “human rights and democracy and political freedom” be topics at the Summit of the Americas?

We welcomed democracy coming to North Africa during the Arab Spring, but before this, we were more than willing to work with the totalitarian regimes in Libya and Egypt those risings replaced. We worked with them because they were amenable to our own goals, both before and after the advent of the War on Terror. How deep then, does our support for those principles go? And what value lies in even expressing them when our support for them is applied only when it is to our advantage?

Virtue should never be subject to the demands of convenience, but in the real world, it is seldom any other way. We cannot fight every totalitarian regime and we cannot impose democracy on the rest of the world, because even if we could, imposing democracy would defeat its very meaning. As Wilson pointed out, people have to want it in order to have it.

And if they want it, how many of them, and how badly? And is it really our business at all? Must, as Wilson (to whom Obama has been compared) said in 1917, “the world be made safe for democracy” or must we, as British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it in 1928, “make democracy safe for the world”?

We have fought our share of unnecessary wars, and we have seen how George W. Bush, when WMDs were not found, turned the Iraq War into a crusade for democracy. And it goes both ways, as the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan reminds us:

“For much of the past 70 years, in short, the world has been ambivalent about American power, both decrying it and inviting it—sometimes simultaneously.”

Tangible and ideological realities are all too often at odds, and words can be as impactful as actions (or inaction).

There is no doubt, despite all these worries, that President Obama has returned a much-needed degree of pragmatism to American foreign policy. The degree to which the world – and the Americas – can become comfortable with setting ideology aside, remains to be seen. We have seen how uncomfortable a burden not only totalitarianism, but the export of American democracy, can be. America must speak softly, but from now on, leave the big stick at home.

View Comments

  • "Safe for democracy" is nothing but code for "Ripe and compliant for exploitation." It's all about expanding markets for predatory American corporations under the guise of "doing what's best for them." Self determination? What a load of BS. We topple uncooperative governments and replace them with corrupt dictators. This is textbook fascism, where state policy and corporate interests are one and the same. We've been in denial that we are a fascist state for a long time. It's ugly, but it's true.

  • In the 60's my brother Jack who recently passed was part of a flight crew on a C-130 in SAC based out of Lockbourne AFB. They did several night missions to central and south America that were classified black ops. One time their wing transported an entire villages population including all livestock. It failed back then and it doesn't look good now.

  • The democracy exported to Latin American is the same democracy we are experiencing now in the USA: BIG CORPORATIONS CONTROL.

    "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” – President of Mexico Porfirio Diaz. Diaz stayed in power 30 YEARS! helping the USA corporations suck the life and wealth out of Mexico. When requested trains, the system was build to expedite the transport of good out of the country, not to improve the life of the people.
    The mining companies, were slaving people here and there, and when the people united to improve their (slavery like life) lot the CIA and military interventions were to "protect US (corporations)interet" to squash marxist and communist and any kind od ist....
    No it is not working for the people.

  • How about we stop trying to export Democracy to anywhere in the world and get back to making ours more, what's the word for it? "Democratic".

  • The American empire is in shambles. Time for us to close our overseas bases, cut our 'defense' budget and contemplate our lack of originality in imposing our will on other countries.

    • But what about the jobs in building military hardware we don't want or need and just think of the oil companies since the US military is the largest market for the black gold. What are you/ Some kind of flower child?

  • The Reagan years did enough damage to our friends south of the boarder. I hope there is not going to be a shift in policy back to South America to justify the products produced by the Military Industrial Complex job entitlements.

  • In my opinion the problem with trying to export democracy is that most people in the world are not ready for it and don't know what to do with it once they get it . . it's something that needs to come from within, with blood, struggle, and great personal sacrifice, not from under the christmas tree wrapped in a nice package with pretty bows on it.

  • Giving another country Democracy seems to be a lot like giving a child a puppy. It all looks very nice, but never works out too well if the child isn't ready to care for a dog by giving it everything it requires in terms of food and shelter, and being willing to clean up after it. And as other posters have said, it really only works if the child really wants it (or better yet, chooses it).
    Unfortunately the U.S., despite our expressed desire early on to feed and care for it, lost control of its puppy. It grew up into a spoiled and disobedient dog that lashes out and craps all over the world. And all the barking is really obnoxious, too. Maybe we should erect a fence -- not to keep others out, but to keep our own dog contained.

  • We need to fix democracy here at home. We started losing it in the '80s when Reagan was president. The loss was finished with the recent Supreme Court decisions giving corporations and the wealthy ownership of the government and the country.

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