Political Religion and War

A few days ago, Andrew McCarthy wrote a commendably lengthy piece on democracy-building.  A highlight:

“Democracy hawks are another matter. Their boundless faith in democracy blinds them to the severity of the Islamist challenge. …On some level, the democracy hawks may grasp that the threat here involves more than terrorism. But they’ve convinced themselves that if we could just get rid of the terrorists, the rest of the Muslims who abhor us would be brought around by democracy’s light.  It’s a fantasy, and we’re betting our lives on it. “

McCarthy recognizes that, insofar as Bush and others talk about war in terms of democracy-building rather than terrorist-killing or war-winning, they are channeling Woodrow Wilson more than Ronald Reagan.  It is one thing to have an aggressive or interventionist foreign policy, but quite another to meddle in the internal affairs of sovereign states for the purpose of destroying their local institutitions and replacing them with “democracy.”  Such a notion comes not from any historical conservative camp, but from an ideological strain of leftism running from Rousseau through many decades of American Progressives.

This is a difficult notion to grasp, because we have completely different sets of terminology for foreign policy and domestic policy, as though the two are unrelated.  In domestic policy, we talk about “liberal” and “conservative,” “Progressive” and “classical liberal,” “social issues” and “economic issues.”  In foreign policy, we talk about “realism” and “idealism,” “isolationism” and “globalism,” “balance of power” and “democratic peace theory.”

But for Woodrow Wilson, as indeed for all the early advocates of the administrative state, foreign and domestic policy were inextricably intertwined.  People would only allow their self-government to be taken over by a centralized administration if they believed a crisis was at hand.  Thus wars, threats of wars, and global crusades for democracy provided the wheels on which rolled the Progressive wagon of change.  Likewise, they were the vehicle for international peace, so it was the responsibility of the “enlightened” United States to oversee inferior nations’ transition to our way of things, through economic and if necessary military coercion.  Writes Croly:

“The validity of colonial expansion even for a democracy is a manifest deduction from [the inevitability of the democratic nationalist principle], always assuming that the people whose independence is hereby diminished are incapable of efficient national organization.”

In other words, if people aren’t advanced enough by our standards, it’s our right to take charge.

The reason for such a paternalistic attitude goes beyond pragmatism, or even philosophical consistency.  Rather, it stems from the fact that Wilsonianism was a Jacobin-like political religion, in which Democracy was a universal good to be carried to all corners of the earth–a system so manifestly perfect that no one could reasonably reject it.  Wilson, a self-described Christian who had carried the Social Gospel to its logical conclusion, was less interested in the Calvinist notion of “Irresistible Grace” than in the Progressivist notion of “Irresistible Democracy.”  Indeed, if I may risk sounding tongue-in-cheek, the “TULIP” acronym works rather nicely to describe Wilsonian foreign-domestic theory:

Total Depravity of Other Cultures

Unconditional Superiority of Ours

Limited Atonement (Only Those We Choose to Fix)

Irresistible Democracy

Perseverance of the State

As the last (and most important) principle suggests, the irony of today’s “conservative” democracy hawks’ adaptation of this view, besides its political origins in Jacobinism and Wilsonianism, is that the manner of “democracy” foisted upon these other countries is actually by and large a Progressive-style administrative state.  The ultimate goal isn’t “peace,” or “democracy,” but the centralization of administrative power to achieve “progress.”  If our own culture hasn’t progressed enough, it’s proof that we need more government.  If someone else’s culture hasn’t progressed enough, it’s proof that they need our government.

Democracy-building is not to be confused with patriotism, strong national defense, fighting terrorism, or any of the other laudable things Republicans have championed since 9/11/01.  It is the outgrowth of a hard-line leftist political religion, one that exercises power for the sake of the “universal values which we hold in trust for mankind,” as a skeptical Reinhold Niebuhr put it.  Niebuhr pointed out the similarities such an attitude held with Marxism, being “a new type of imperialism to relate itself to the weakness of the non-industrial world, under the cover of an ostensibly pure benevolence.”  As McCarthy points out, trying to forcibly convert a premodern society to Progressivism tends to force one to come to grips with the fact that “Democracy” isn’t so irresistible after all.

1 Comment

  • September 12, 2009


    There is a lot to disagree with here. For one, your differentiation of Reagan from Wilson is highly debatable (http://www.amconmag.com/article/2009/may/04/00006/), especially when one considers the ideological content of Reagan’s framing of the Cold War, which raises obstacles to your argument about the line from Rousseau to Wilson to American liberalism.

    Moreover, “democracy building” can be ideological and sexy or pragmatic and boring. If by democracy building one means building institutions for an open society that facilitate economic development, one can look to southeast Asia to find success stories (Malaysia, Indonesia especially… and Muslim majority countries to boot!). Or one can be fast and lose with rhetoric and launch idealistic crusades with Rousseau-ist language critiqued by Irving Babbitt in “Democracy and Leadership” and emphasize the act of voting as an ideological catharsis. That tends to fail. But most of the cottage industry in this country and the multilateral sector interested in orderly democracy promotion is quietly humming along through non-profits, investment banks, the USAID, and humanitarian institutions. The folks staffing such establishments tend to be moderately liberal, and focused on best practices and local knowledge rather than political generalizations aimed at war-policy promotion.