Democracy by Force, or by Example?

Spreading democracy has become the nation’s principal foreign policy goal. Yet there has been little sustained public discussion about this ambitious program. A few op-eds perhaps. Neither house of Congress has taken it up. Nor have polls asked voters if they share their president’s stated aim to promote democracy in the Middle East, by force if necessary.

It’s a proposition that deserves some thought, and we’re fortunate that in 1824 the House of Representatives actually gave it some. Those congressional debates ended up scotching the idea that the United States should determine the form of government of other countries. Things have changed a lot since then, but their arguments astutely canvass how best to serve democracy worldwide. Considering the pros and cons of this thorny issue would demonstrate how a democracy can develop a foreign policy.

In the 1820s the Greeks began fighting for independence from Turkey. Confounding predictions of instant failure, they became instead a new symbol of humanity’s indomitable longing for freedom. Educated people in Europe and the United States had long cherished ancient Greece for its political and moral values. Here was a chance to act on that admiration.

Americans held public meetings where ardent speakers extolled the noble legacy they’d inherited from the Greeks. They raised money and sent clothes for the valiant champions of liberty. Some Americans even volunteered to fight. But many wanted the United States to do something official. Congressman Daniel Webster, ever attuned to public sentiment, proposed a resolution supporting the Greek revolt in the House of Representatives.

As today, when the war in Iraq dominates the news, foreign policy then was very much on the public mind. President Monroe had just announced his doctrine that European nations should keep out of the Western Hemisphere. Many countries in Latin America had recently thrown off Spanish rule to join the United States as independent nations. Abroad, in post-Napoleonic Europe, a conservative reaction, hostile to popular sovereignty, was gaining ground. Governments there reaffirmed the importance of order through the vigorous assertion of authority. All these elements came into play when the House took up the question of helping the Greeks.

Webster argued that as the freest government in the world, the United States had little choice but to give aid to the Greeks. He spoke ardently about the momentum growing for popular political participation. “What is the soul, the informing spirit of our institutions, of our entire system of government,” he asked rhetorically, but public opinion. “Let us direct the force, the vast moral force of this engine, to the aid of others,” he urged.

As in Congressional debates today, each speaker had to demonstrate that he hated evil and loved virtue. Congressman Joel Poinsett of South Carolina insisted that the bravery and enterprise of the Greeks equaled that of their ancient forebears before drawing attention back to House’s duty to avoid doing anything that might involve the country in war. He even dared to raise questions about whether modern Greeks possessed the elementary principles of freedom necessary to govern themselves.

And so the debate went back and forth from appeals to respond to the cries of distress from a people yearning to be free to deflating remarks about the unimportance of anything that the United States might do about a situation so far away. Americans, one member said, should have nothing to do “with the wrongs committed by other Governments against those whom they govern” except to avoid their example.

Following a supportive speech from Congressman Henry Clay, Alexander Smyth of Virginia posed the key question to his colleagues: “What have you to do with the liberty or any people, except the people you govern, unless the subjection of a neighboring foreign people endangers your safety?” and adding, “You have nothing to do with religion, even here, and why should you meddle with it elsewhere?”

In the end Congress voted against the resolution, evidently agreeing when Silas Wood of New York, referring to the world and its oppressions, asked whether the United States must be “the Hercules that is to free it from the monsters of tyranny and slavery?” Evoking Don Quixote and his tilting at windmills, Wood insisted that American’s help for mankind lay “not by embarking in a military crusade to establish the empire of our principles . . . but by the moral influence of its example.”

In contrast with his promotion of Iraqi democracy through a “shock and awe” invasion, President Bush has used diplomatic means to chastise even allies like Egypt and Pakistan for suppressing democratic activists. Like his predecessors he has reminded the military junta ruling Myanmar that the United States opposes the house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet these initiatives in support of human rights and democratic rule work at cross purposes. Soft diplomacy rests on public respect which our invasion of Iraq has undermined.

In a reversal of Gresham’s Law that soft money drives hard money out of circulation, hard diplomacy deprives soft diplomacy of its moral authority. If democracy is to be more than a shibboleth, we need to debate, as did the Congress in 1824, whether the United States is to lead by example or by force of arms.

Joyce Appleby, UCLA emerita professor, is author of "The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism" (2010).