Making Democracy Safe for the World

Long before the most recent round of cherry-picking intelligence was the cherry picking of political science theories, particularly the “democracy-peace” genre. The theory goes that democracies are the most peace-loving because they haven’t fought among themselves since 1700, and therefore so more democracies must lead to more peace. Around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, this invention of American political scientists assumed the brave new label of the “reverse domino theory.” A democratic Iraq was supposed to set off a chain reaction transforming an entire region.

In the aftermath of the Iraq debacle, the cherry-picking of intelligence and its consequences are well documented, much of it by insiders. Democracy-peace theory, however, is still well entrenched. It is even effectively used to deflect criticism of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In the case of Taiwan, America’s obsession with democracy is now fused with a powerful Munich syndrome, which is clearly revealed in Ian Williams’s article “Support Taiwan’s Democracy.”

The Forgotten Side

The cherry-picking of democracy-peace theory completely ignores another side of the discourse. That is, democracies are also prone to make wars. There is no clearly negative correlation between democracy and war; and democracies actually started more wars against non-democracies in history. Indeed, many scholars point out that democracy is as aggressive as any other system. More recently, additional research shows that newly democratized nations, particularly in their first decade, have been more likely to fight wars against both democratic and authoritarian states. In almost all cases, these democratizing states have had to go through a rocky transition period, during which rising nationalistic sentiment swayed their weak institutions and leaders, as was the situation in Nazi Germany after the weak democratic Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and militaristic Japan after the brief Taisho democracy (1912-26). None of these findings showing the aggressiveness of democracies, however, has found its way to U.S. decision makers. Meanwhile, democracy-peace theorists carefully set aside the German and Japanese cases in order to build their “pure” models, thus offering politicians more attractive cherries to pick.

The “first-ten-year” profile for young democracies, however, fits Taiwan, particularly as the island grows getting increasingly restless as it approaches some self-imposed psychological red line such as theMarch 2008 presidential election or the Beijing Olympics in August 2008.

History Misused and Misplaced

Williams’s sense of history is also questionable. The Munich analogy is misplaced because China is no Third Reich. Nazis slaughtered Jews. China accepted tens of thousands of Jewish refugees long before America declared war on Germany. Both before and after World War I, Germany challenged the world system then dominated by Western democracies. China fought both World War I and II on the democracies’ side. In the second half of the Cold War, China played a key role in balancing the Soviet power, thus contributing to the end of the bipolar system. Today’s China has largely immersed itself in the existing world system, and perhaps more than any other country, would like to ensure the system’s stability and continuity. Indeed, Beijing has worked hard with Washington and other nations in resolving some major regional and world problems including the Korea and Iran nuclear issues. Pushing the Taiwan button without understanding these broad strokes of history is ignorant and arrogant as well as dangerous.

If anything, it is Taiwan’s domestic situation that resembles the transition of German Weimar Republic to Hitler’s Third Reich. On March 19, 2004, President Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was running a tight race against the opposition Kuomintang. A mysterious “assassination” attempt, which never really endangered Chen and his running mate, earned Chen a few sympathy votes and he won by a slim margin of only 29,000 out of almost 13 million legitimate voters. A week after the election, the official investigation identified one conveniently dead suspect. To many opposition supporters, this was nothing but politically engineered violence similar to the infamous Reichstag Fire on February 27, 1933 set by the Nazis to save Hitler from political defeat. Who knows what Chen will do for cross-Strait relations in the months leading to the 2008 red lines?

Limits of Self-determination

Almost 80 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson went to Paris vowing to make the world safe for democracy. His vision and program for the world — collective security, democracy, and self-determination — did not work. Instead, the war and Versailles unleashed what the Western democracies considered the “evils” of the 20th century: Russian Bolshevism, German Nazism, Japanese militarism, and Chinese communism. World War I, the one to “end all wars,” became the first in a long line of wars to come.

There was, perhaps, nothing really wrong with those shining Wilsonian principles. The problem was the West’s selective and arbitrary use of them (such as the transfer of China’s Shandong Province from Germany to Japan in 1919 at Versailles, even though China had also joined the allies’ side). As a result, few, if any, cases of partition based on self-determination after 1945 worked very well or for very long. Most of them only led to more conflicts, including India and Pakistan (1947), Israel and Palestine (1947), Yugoslavia (after Tito’s death in 1980 and continuing to today), the Soviet collapse (since 1991), and possibly the U.S. “Plan B” for Iraq. In the post-Cold War era and without the balance of Western communism, liberalism is working “regime change” and “nation-building” as if there’s no tomorrow. A combination of missionary zeal and solipsism — the inability even to conceive another way of looking at the world — produced the fateful combination of globalist and missionary impulses that propelled the United States into Iraq in 2003. Iraq, as a result, has become the bloodiest democracy in world history, and the much-talked-about partition may even lead to more instability and conflict in the region if the greater Kurdistan program is set into motion.

Give Peace and Status Quo More Time

Those who see the full picture of the democracy-peace discourse understand the pitfalls of overplaying principles of self-determination. Fareed Zakaria, former managing editor of Foreign Affairs, warned as early as 1997 that the challenge for the 21st century “is to make democracy safe for the world.” Thus, there should be limits to the seemingly endless partition, or “Balkanization,” of the world in the name of or by democracies. There is perhaps nothing wrong with democracy as a political system that evolved from Western history and culture. It deserves both respect and serious consideration by others. Indiscriminatingly imposing and supporting democracy anywhere and anytime, however, amounts to a doctor prescribing Viagra to all patients, regardless of their age, gender, and symptoms. Ultimately, it may blow back against one’s own interests.

That said, China has no intentions of forcefully uniting with Taiwan if the status quo is maintained. The best scenario for China, as well as for all other parties, is to let time heal the past wounds. In this regard, the analogy of the Munich syndrome is misplaced. In an era of weapons of mass destructions and hypernationalism, why not give peace and status quo some more time and let the two sides find ways to avoid the worst? Had the Bush administration listened to its allies (Germans, French, and Russians) to give UN inspectors some more time, thousands of American GIs would still be alive, not to mention tens of thousands of Iraqis. Rushing to capitalize on the 2008 Beijing Olympics by over-pushing the Taiwan and Tibetan buttons, as Williams recommends, is a recipe for disaster in an already chaotic world.

Last but not least, “Don’t do things to others if you do not want others to do the same to you.” This statement of Confucius, 2600 years after it was first said, is still pertinent for the Taiwan issue. President Bush perhaps understands this well, and this is why Defense Secretary Robert Gates just visited China. One tangible agreement was to set up a hotline between the two militaries. For both Washington and Beijing, regional and global interests must come first.

Yu Bin is a senior fellow for the Shanghai Institute of American Studies and director of East Asian studies at Wittenberg University, Ohio. He can be reached at byu@wittenberg.edu.