Making the World Safe for Muddle: The Meaning of Democracy in American Foreign Policy

By Payne, James L. | Independent Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Making the World Safe for Muddle: The Meaning of Democracy in American Foreign Policy


Payne, James L., Independent Review


Americans swear by democracy. We fight our wars in its name; we criticize foreign leaders for not respecting it; we spend billions of dollars of foreign aid to encourage it. But what exactly is it?

For most Americans, this question will seem out of place. The term democracy is so familiar, so frequently used, that they assume everyone knows what it means. Furthermore, the term is so venerated that questioning it is viewed as the political equivalent of heresy. It is the apple pie and motherhood word that presidents never hesitate to include in their foreign-policy pronouncements. "The world must be made safe for democracy," said Woodrow Wilson in his April 2, 1917, speech asking Congress for a declaration of war against Germany (Wilson 1917). Our aim in Iraq, said President George W. Bush on December 7, 2005, is "to leave behind a democracy" ("President Discusses War" 2005). When such statements are made, no one complains that they are incoherent.

It is time someone made this complaint. The term democracy is one of the most confusing words in the English language, a term with a multitude of definitions, interpretations, and connotations. Any U.S. administration that tries to make democracy the lodestar of its foreign policy sails in a sea of muddle.

A proper exposition of the tangle surrounding the term democracy requires a massive volume that would try any modern reader's patience. In a few pages, however, one can explore the term's popular conceptions and show how these definitions, so simple and plausible at first glance, prove to be unworkable.

Government by the People

The dictionary's first meaning of democracy is "rule by the people," and when pressed for a definition, that is what most people will say: democracy is "government by the people," as Abraham Lincoln put it. At first glance, this conception seems tremendously appealing. If there actually were a country where the people--meaning "all the human beings in the area"--truly did rule--meaning "control the decisions of government"--then everyone would be happy. Shiites would get what they wanted, Sunnis would get what they wanted, street vendors of Rolex watches would get what they wanted. It would be Nirvana, an arrangement perhaps worth killing a great many people to establish.

But wait a minute. What happens if people in a country want different things--as they always do? Then they all cannot "rule"; that is, they all cannot have their own way. The cotton farmer wants his subsidy, but the taxpayer wants those same dollars in his pocket. One rules, and the other gets shafted. Thus, we see that democracy defined as "rule by the people" is a logical impossibility. It has the same status as the word squircle, which is defined as "a round square." At first, it sounds like a real thing, but upon reflection we see that it cannot exist.

The conception of democracy as "rule by the people" should have been laughed out of the dictionary long ago. Unfortunately, it is kept alive by an error called the "collective fallacy," which is the tendency to treat the people of a country as a unified whole. American thinking about Iraq is shot through with the collective fallacy. Presidents and diplomats insist on treating the Iraqi people as a unified, single entity and assume that they ("it") can choose, decide, and aspire to specific goals. For example, when L. Paul Bremer arrived in Iraq in May 2003 to take over the administration of the U.S. occupation, he said his goal was to help Iraqis "regain control of their own destiny" after decades of rule by Saddam Hussein ("New U.S. Administrator" 2003). Because "Iraqis" are not a unified group, however, the statement is misleading. Logically, Bremer could say only that he hoped for a situation in which some Iraqis were in control of their destiny--even though they almost certainly would be angrily opposed by other Iraqis who have a different "destiny" in mind.

Majority Rule

When the definition of the term democracy as "rule by the people" is shown to be unworkable, those who still cherish it turn to a second, scaled-back definition: "rule by a majority of the people.

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