Americans like to believe that democracy is the best path to political stability in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world. That is understandable, given our nation’s success.
But by itself democracy may not always be the best path to pacification of the populations in countries burdened with histories of religious, cultural and ethnic rivalries.
There may be a need for an intermediate step before democracy can take root in places with no history of self-rule or where furious divisions endure.
Today, there are many examples that all too painfully make that point: Iraq and Afghanistan are of the greatest concern to Americans, but the same lessons are there to be learned in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Myanmar, among others.
Western political leaders, in advocating democracy, should not overlook the lessons learned from the aftermath of World War II or, as an instructive contrast, the terrible fighting that followed the dismantling of Yugoslavia.
After the horrors of World War II, Western statesmen recognized that Germany would not be ready for democracy until the divisive issues that had led it into World War II had been satisfactorily resolved.
Germany needed to be rid of the demons that were turned loose by the Nazis and to pay a price for their evil deeds.
The Nuremberg trials, holding Nazi leaders accountable for their vile actions, served as a national cleansing and ultimately made it possible for democracy to flourish.
The opposite has happened in the volatile Balkans, where Europe worries that another war is just over the horizon. Europeans are well aware that World War I began 100 years ago with an assassination in that deeply divided region.
After World War II, the Balkans remained peaceful only because they were under the crushing thumb of a communist (but anti-Moscow) dictator, Marshal Tito. It wasn’t long after his death that the various parts of what was then called Yugoslavia began fighting each other over their deep ethnic and religious differences and, despite the peace accord brokered by the United States, they’re still at it. Of greater immediate concern to Washington is the future of Afghanistan, where democracy — a truly foreign concept to most Afghans — is in its infancy and where its chances of survival seem slim. When the last American troops leave, there’s no telling what will happen to the wobbly democracy effort.
It is one thing for the United States and its allies to steer the Afghan people to the polls, but that exercise in democracy won’t cure that nation’s ills unless it is accompanied by a plan to resolve the bitter rivalries, not only among those who are taking part in the democratic process, but also among those who seek to undermine it.
And consider the immediate example of Libya. Moammar Gadhafi’s demise was welcomed by the West, but now the situation there is so dangerous that the United States has recalled its entire diplomatic delegation.
And by steering Iraq to democracy without making sure it had a solid foundation, the West invited further instability, fueled by religious and ethnic hatreds that existed long before the execution of Saddam Hussein and the introduction of the ballot box.
“No one [in Iraq] feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation,” Gen. David Petraeus recognized in 2008.
So it was no surprise that the United States has had to send jets to bomb Islamic militants threatening Iraqi civilians and American military forces still serving in Iraq.
Without the important process of genuine reconciliation, Iraq’s politics have been overwhelmed by the concept of revenge rather than the cooperation and tolerance essential to democracy.
Be prepared for more of the same in Afghanistan, and in other hot spots across the globe.