5 October, 2002
Professor Western, International Relations 319
In the Interest of Democracy
Americans often conceptualize democracy as a universal political system because of its basic principal of individual representation, which can be applied irrespective of national distinctions. Yet the function of politics within the realm of legitimizing power, in the form of democracy or any other system, is rarely examined by U.S. foreign policy. Instead, American policy has focused on the importance of liberal democracy in promoting a constitutional political order, which is considered fundamental in developing national power structures that enable individual citizens. Conversely, Giovanni Sartori articulates what he considers the primary concern of democratization in his article How Far Can Free Government Travel. “Until politics is secularized and “tamed” – that is, until there is sufficient protection for the human being as such – the stakes will be too high for politicians to surrender their power and step down [democratically]” (Diamond & Plattner, p. 56). Accordingly, the American experience in the Philippines, Japan and Iran corroborates Sartori’s observation; it is the centrality of national power structures rather than the particular application of political order that predicts American foreign policy’s success in promoting constitutional democratic politics.
Democratization of the Philippines began as a questionable proposition – the Spanish-American War of 1898 gave the U.S. title to the Philippines as a footnote to victory in Cuba, and left President McKinley to justify what appeared to be America’s parroting of the European imperialist policies over which they had just fought a war. The Philippines’ first governor, Howard Taft, summarized Washington’s conclusion: “We think we can help these people; we think we can elevate them to an appreciation of popular government . . .” (Smith, p. 44). As a result, American policy was seen as the first American institution of a liberal democratic framework abroad through extensive promotion of increased education, free press, a modern legal code implemented through a locally based civil bureaucracy, and the disestablishment of the Catholic church in its past provision of social services. The Philippines became an opportunity for the U.S. to illustrate the universality of liberal democracy’s order and freedom.
Yet rather than institutionalizing a constitutional rule of law, U.S. policy solidified the grasp of the ruling landed elite, or principalia. In both the municipal elections of 1899, under President McKinley, and President Wilson’s Filipinization of the bureaucracy in 1913, the principalia’s control of tax payments and their high levels of education gave them unique power through leadership positions and access to exclusive benefits of the political institutions created through U.S. democratization. Thus, even purely economic measures such as the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Law, which established free trade between the U.S. and the Philippines in 1909, were unable to provide additional opportunity to the majority of Filipinos who remained laborers for the landed oligarchy. Wilson’s description of democratization in the Philippines illustrates the singular focus on political principles:
“It is our peculiar duty … [to impart] our own principles of self-help; teach them order and self-control in the midst of change … the drill and habit of law and obedience …” (Smith, p. 63).
American policy became an effective source of power for the landed elite, entrenching oligarchy’s control within Americans’ moral enthusiasm for liberal democratic pluralism while the majority of agrarian workers remained excluded from Filipino politics.
The conflict evident between American democratic ideals of universal political participation and the corrupt and hierarchical nature of democracy fostered in the Philippines was not lost on U.S. civil society. From amongst the clamor of the anti-imperialist groups that formed as a result of the Spanish-American War, Jane Addams eloquently voiced concerns of American militarism in her address: Democracy or Militarism, given before the Chicago Liberty Meeting in April of 1899.
“To ‘protect the weak’ has always been the excuse of the ruler and tax-gatherer, the chief, the king, the baron; and now, at last, of the ‘white man.’ The form of government is not necessarily the function of itself. Government is not something extraneous … [but rather] merely an adjustment between men concerning their mutual relations towards those general matters which concern them all …” (http://www.boondocksnet.com/ai/index.html)
Addams’ criticism of American post-war policy is twofold: she questions the motivation of democratization in the Philippines, “to protect the weak,” as a thin cloak for expansionist ambitions, while also admonishing the U.S. assumption that democratic government can be imposed externally, without the consent of those for whom the system is meant to function.
It is evident that Addams does not reject the American liberal democracy, but rather that she cautions against adherence to political ideology without examining the power structures utilized. Addams explains that “the political code, as well as the moral law, has no meaning and becomes absolutely emptied of its contents if we take out of it all relation to the world and concrete cases…” While American foreign policy toward the Philippines was a courageous attempt at extending democratic governance’s benefits beyond traditional U.S. borders, it proved that political transformation is ineffective without a corresponding commitment to socioeconomic empowerment. By ignoring the constraints of Filipino power structures, U.S. political reforms became nothing more than a new language for an old system of agrarian oligarchy.
A similar traditional system of economic elites, in the form of businessmen and landlords, also used political realms as a means to satisfy their interests in pre-World War II Japan. Yet American policy differed significantly in its approach to Japan as compared to the Philippines. This was due to U.S. characterization of the Japanese system of private cartels as strong proponents of Japanese expansionism in World War II. Thus, General MacArthur explained Japan’s history as “one of economic oppression and exploitation at home, aggression and spoilation abroad” (Smith, p. 161). In order to effectively ward off future global threats of Japanese nationalism, the U.S. saw post-war demilitarization as necessarily accompanied by democratization that would thoroughly restructure Japan’s domestic exercise of political, economic and social power. Traditional American strategies emphasizing political power were still followed, such as MacArthur’s writing of a modern Japanese constitution that incorporated new popular representation through the Diet. Yet changes were also made in the socioeconomic fabric of Japanese power.
The most transformative American policy was that of land redistribution, which led to the land reform law of 1946 that placed limits on the maximum amount of land owned by a family. Through government bonds for expropriated land and credit for tenants’ use as new landowners, tenancy rates plummeted to 10% of the rural population from a level of approximately 70%. (Smith, p. 163) Thus, domestically Japan’s social structure was democratized as it empowered farmers economically, spurring the formation of their own interest groups and parties. Internationally, Japan’s nation-centered trade patterns were pushed to greater participation in the U.S. vision of a liberal, international free market system. General MacAurthur stressed the importance of American desires to include Japan in a global democratic power framework when speaking at Japan’s surrender ceremonies of 1945: “The energy of the Japanese race, if properly directed, will enable expansion vertically rather than horizontally” (Smith, p. 165). Accordingly, American foreign policy makers viewed Japanese power as significant enough internationally to warrant a domestic restructuring of power that extended beyond democratization attempts as merely cosmetic political alterations, to reconstructing socioeconomic bases of power.
American policy in Japan supports Amartya Sen’s theory that democracy as a political system has value that extends beyond the “intrinsic” importance of its guarantees to political participation and human freedom. In his article, Democracy as a Universal Value, Sen moves the effects of democratization from a purely political perspective to an economic framework that discusses the “instrumental value [of democracy] in enhancing the hearing that people get in expressing and supporting their claims to political attention (including claims of economic needs)” (Diamond & Plattner, p. 10). This means that “helpful policies” of democratic governments such as successful land reforms and social opportunities that increase public participation in the process of economic growth are not simply a bi-product of democratic politics. Instead, they are essential components of the democratic system because of their ability to transform underrepresented economic, social and political voices into dominant forces in the power-driven realm of national policy. The importance of democracy’s success as a dynamic tool for fundamental political change when national power structures are, themselves, utilized is clear in the case of Japan. U.S. foreign policy not only transformed Japan from a militaristic autocracy to a peaceful democracy, but the country’s economic, political, and communication power bases also became the focus of democratization, and accordingly were molded into more equitable, representative forms. In the long term this ensured the endurance of constitutional democracy rather than communism, which could have grown from a discontented agrarian peasant base.
In contrast, Iran illustrates how both attempts to institute democracy through political methods, as in the case of the Philippines, as well as to democratize through socioeconomic measures, which aided Japan’s development, can instead strengthen anti-democratic forces in the face of power configurations that operate outside the realm of traditional politics. President Eisenhower’s policy toward Iran set the tone for later interventions by President Carter. Rather than determining his priorities from an analysis of domestic uses and forms of power, Eisenhower stated: “Anything which weakens this great structure [the Soviet empire] and leads to its breaking up into its constituent parts … so that countries can exercise their own independence and their own freedom, that we favor …” (Smith, p. 189). Thus, Eisenhower saw Iran’s weak party system under the constitutional regime of Mohammed Mossadegh as a target for Soviet conquest, rather than as an opportunity to strengthen national democracy. The CIA-engineered coup of 1953 allowed Eisenhower to dictate short-term Iranian stability, while creating long-term political dissenters who saw traditional government power as reactionary and corrupt.
Nearly twenty-five years later, President Carter’s foreign policy rejected the centrality of the Soviet Union in determining Eisenhower’s understanding of national and international power structures. Yet, neither was Carter able to shift his vision from a theoretical perspective – the primacy of human rights – to the specific national context of Iranian political forces. Iran’s Shah Pahlavi was consistently concentrating his personal authority while initiating social reforms that increased numbers of political opponents who were subject to his repressive policies. In the Shah’s words:
“If I’ve been able to do something, or rather a lot, for Iran, it’s due to the small detail that I happen to be king. To get things done you need to have power, and to keep power, you shouldn’t have to ask permission or advice from anybody . . .” (Smith, p. 255).
Despite the widespread national discontent with the Shah, Carter regarded him as a proponent of democracy and human rights. Accordingly, Carter supported Shah Pahlavi’s practice of sociopolitical liberalization alongside his priority to “restore order,” consistently praising the Shah’s leadership and respect for human rights. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, which brought a regime to power that had a great animosity for America, remains one of the most dramatic illustrations of U.S. foreign policy’s encouragement of anti-American forces. The lack of concern that Eisenhower and Carter had for examinations of Iran’s increasingly alienated power bases made attempts at democratization not only futile but counterproductive.
American foreign policy has developed a strong moral, political and economic justification for the unique mission of promoting a liberal democratic international order ever since U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War. Although the method of democratization has changed from its limited political implementation by McKinley in the Philippines to Carter’s expansive support for human rights in Iran, the potential policy failings are consistent. The assumption that political systems can be transformed irrespective of the particularities of national power structures often makes U.S. foreign policy seem either imperialistic in its self-assured bravado, or naïvely out of touch. Only a careful examination of current domestic forces will allow American democratization initiatives to empower individuals, rather than entrenched interests.
Addams, Jane. “Democracy or Militarism.” Boondocks Net.com. April 30, 1899. Anti-imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935. Jim Zwick, ed. 4 October 2002 <http://www.boondocksnet.com/ai/index.html>.
Sartori, Giovanni. “How Far Can Free Government Travel?” The Global Divergence of Democracies. Diamond, Larry and Marc F. Plattner, ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 52 – 62.
Sen, Amartya. “Democracy as a Universal Value.” The Global Divergence of Democracies. Diamond, Larry and Marc F. Plattner, ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 3 – 17.
Smith, Tony. America’s Mission. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in 2003