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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

July 2006

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The author presents a thesis all the more compelling, as he himself has noted privately, because of his own conservatism. Notwithstanding his support generally of the administration now in Washington, he has a negative reaction to the idea addressed below. -Ed.

Exporting Democracy

Once, long ago, the motto “Make the World Safe for Democracy” found resonance in many quarters of the planet, especially here in America. But nowadays the very concept of exporting democracy beyond our borders is as untimely as the above slogan now seems quaint.

Our reference point for democracy then and now is the one that came to full flower in Athens some 2,500 years ago. Even by foot and rowboat there was time for the basic ideas of democracy, however distorted or mythologized, to travel over most of the globe well before the invention of the printing press, Considering that ideas about democracy have permeated political thought for centuries, at this moment the concept of “exporting democracy” in an active sense becomes almost absurd, not to mention threatening at a practical level.

One of the reasons for this near-absurdity is that democracy constitutes perhaps the most unstable form of government yet devised. That circumstance may help to explain the relative paucity of adventurers into this territory over time.

What we in America can and should do, given our evangelical ethos and the belief that we have something good to share, is to continue to keep on offer our democracy to those who wish to examine it, to help educate about the system and even advertise it moderately. We Americans should make it clear that this, the only brand of democracy we have, has served us reasonably well since 1789. America could acknowledge that parts or even all of it might possibly not be suitable everywhere at this moment.

Let us assume that people are going to continue to bash the heads of one another by all means available during any foreseeable future. We can believe also that there is a glimmer of hope that we may be able, by our own efforts, to alter our presently gloomy evolutionary course by ways not yet devised, whether by form of government or otherwise. Alterations in human behavior are our greatest ultimate challenge, but in an evolutionary time frame we may be able to effect some changes rendering us more compatible with survival.

In the meantime, technology has brought us to ultimate reality. We can literally blow ourselves and other worthy creatures off the planet in a few hours or failing that, cause all to die horribly of radiation effects in a matter of months.

Exporting democracy, either actively or passively through example, is not going to save us. It takes too long and the efficacy of democracy as a political tool has not been adequately assessed in general. In addition to continuing the passive export of democracy, we might consider giving greater emphasis and support to education on issues relating to the Rule of Law as a prerequisite to understanding and relating to any form of government, including the democratic.

Annihilation or survival in the end will be a close run thing. Distilled to its essence, the fall of the Athenian Empire is agreed to have been due to hubris. When the United States falls, as eventually we must, either instantly or gradually, let it at least be due to another cause.


The author, a retired physician, has previously published in American Diplomacy, especially on the topic of American-French relations. Dr. Rockwell resides in Durham, North Carolina.

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