Public's Cynicism Crumbles if Democracy Is the Course

Robert Dallek, a professor of history at UCLA, is the author of "The American Style of Foreign Policy: Cultural Politics and Foreign Affairs" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983)

For most of our history Americans have believed that the business of America is America. Foreign entanglements were simply a bad idea that would cost us blood and treasure for very little return. Chronic frustrations since World War II have tended to confirm these views; most of us wish that the rest of the world would just go away.

Recent opinion surveys suggest that for many Americans it already has: Only 25% of those polled know where El Salvador is, 63% don't know which nations participated in the strategic arms limitation talks, less than half know whether the United States or the Soviet Union belongs to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance, and more than 40% of high-school seniors surveyed could not find Egypt on a map.

Opinion leaders and government officials have often been as parochial. "To hell with Europe and the rest of those nations," Minnesota's Sen. Thomas Schall said in 1935. "Foreigners are not like the folks I'm used to," Lyndon B. Johnson once said half-jokingly. And, on a trip to South America early in his presidency, Ronald Reagan marveled that his host countries were different from one another.

When foreign problems drew us out of our shell, as they did through much of this century, we were no less parochial in our responses. World War I was not a defense of the national interest but an opportunity "to make the world safe for democracy."

"We will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City," said Sen. Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska in 1940. The Russians are "one hell of a people," Life magazine, a conservative publication, announced during World War II. "To a remarkable degree . . . (they) look like Americans, dress like Americans and think like Americans."

Although we have been more knowledgeable about the outside world since World War II, our impulse to convert others to the American way of life remains central to what we do abroad. In his inaugural address, devoted exclusively to foreign affairs, John F. Kennedy informed the world, "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty."

President Johnson advised Americans that "we are (in Vietnam) because . . . we remain fixed on the pursuit of freedom, a deep and moral obligation that will not let us go." Reagan sees "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua as natural heirs to America's Founding Fathers.

Is our evangelism so different from what other nations have tried to do? Not really. The British carried the "benefits" of "Anglo-Saxon superiority" to all parts of the world, the French had their Mission Civilsatrice , the Germans trumpeted the diffusion of Kultur , and traditional Russian imperialism and Pan-Slavism have combined with Leninist messianism to make the Soviet Union more aggressive than most nations in seeking to spread its ideas and institutions around the globe.

Is it so unreasonable or unwise for us to encourage the growth abroad of ideas and institutions similar to our own? Not in the least. Our system of constitutional democracy is surely a match for durability against any political system in history. Our problem, then, is not that we want to advance political liberty abroad, but that we often side with restricted liberty under authoritarian regimes against a perceived threat of no liberty under a totalitarian challenger. In our revulsion for and fear of Marxism, we helped to install repressive governments in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, in South Vietnam in the '60s and early '70s, and in Chile in 1973--all in the name of democracy, but with quite the opposite result.

The Philippines, where we finally got things right, is a model for how we should proceed. After years of supporting an undemocratic regime in the name of anti-communism, we took the informed risk of supporting what the Filipino people themselves promise will be a democratic and friendly government.

Justifiably pleased with its success in the Philippines, the Administration is encouraging the idea that there is a parallel with Nicaragua: "I think the world is watching to see if Congress is as committed to democracy in Nicaragua in our own hemisphere as it was in the Philippines," President Reagan said recently. But it is a false analogy. The contras are not Jeffersonian democrats, and the Sandinista government, whatever its failings, does not owe its position to fraudulent elections and assassinations.

The lesson is clear: Our successive postwar governments' indiscriminate support of authoritarian anti-communist governments under the guise of backing democracy has fostered the American people's cynicism and apathy about foreign affairs. The current celebratory interest in the Philippines' restoration of democracy proves that when our government has genuine regard for self-determination it will have domestic support for reasonable American commitments abroad.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World