We’re face-to-face again with our love-hate relationship with democratic principles. While politicians, pundits and everyday citizens love to extol the value of participatory governance in the United States and around the world, our foreign policy has focused on American ‘interests’ rather than democratic principles. It’s not surprising this week that Egyptian President Mubarak’s administration is under siege…after decades of democratic neglect and dictatorial power. If Tunisia is followed by Egypt in governmental disruption, the old 60s-era ‘domino theory’ of successive governmental takeovers will be a reality…not to Communism as feared then, but to a wide variety of interest groups including Islamic opportunists. It’s too late to be ahead of this trend, friends…but it’s not too late to understand our own values more clearly, so we can reshape our foreign policy in the future…if we actually believe in the democratic principles we espouse.
Everything you read in a blog is over-simplified to a point…but I believe this dilemma between democratic principles and American interests boils down to long-term versus short-term goals. It would be nice to find consistent policy options that serve both long-term and short-term needs, but it’s obviously not as easy as we might hope. Let’s face it…it’s sad and self-defeating, but, in American politics as in American business, short-term needs almost always win over long-term goals. We put up with petty despots in many countries to serve our immediate needs…and never quite get around to balancing off the needs of their people. American interests, of course, are urgent and important…and they take precedence over the long-term needs and human rights of people in other countries. When you’re still the ‘big dog’ in the world…with more economic, military and political power than any other nation…your priorities are the highest! But…in this equation, democratic principles suffer…deeply and often.
But…long-term, participatory needs can only be neglected for so long until the backlog of human suffering and the systemic abuse of power touches a critical mass of the population. Then…a tipping point of power is reached, and change is inevitable. There was a tipping point for the colonies before the American Revolution. There was a tipping point in our Civil Rights movement. There was a tipping point in each country for the ending of colonialism. There was a tipping point for the end of apartheid in South Africa. Amazingly, people are pretty patient…but eventually they recognize that those in power have no intention of changing anything. Thanks primarily to the United States…the power and fulfillment of participatory, democratic principles are broadcast everyday to most of the countries of the world. They want the freedom as partners in political governance that we have…and they’re not willing to wait until we’re willing to share.
The decades of neglect in fairly and evenly distributing the democratic principles we and the European Union nations hold to be so valuable may lead to a new revolutionary age…with an uncertain outcome. Will we continue to prop up friendly dictators…hoping to hold back the natural tendency for self-determination? Or…will we trust people who have some different values than ours to decide their futures on their own? Our short-term needs for economic and military stability may point toward the first option…while our long-term needs for global stability and moral leadership may point toward the second option. These are complex policy decisions with a foundation in American values. We cannot afford to neglect them any longer. We…the American public…have the moral imperative to balance our own priorities…so many of our neighbors around the world can achieve a greater capacity to participate in the determination of their own futures.