Can the United States impose democracy on an unreceptive people? My experience helping build democracy in postwar Germany from 1952 to 1955 suggests not. We did our job in Germany; we are poised to fail in Iraq.
As a young diplomat, I helped send thousands of Germans to the United States to prepare for modern democratic life within a uniting Europe. Military occupation had a rocky beginning in 1945. Several hundred young civilians, along with British and French counterparts, and I were planted around western Germany, charged with working with Germans at every level of society. The German press was reformed, curricula were changed, civil society blossomed and police were democratized; we helped Germans draft a new constitution, democratic parties and trade unions were encouraged, and civil rights were protected.
I directed one of 50 America Houses in towns large and small; mine was in the provincial town of Hof, just four kilometers from the Iron Curtain. The makings of comprehensive outreach were a library, films, exhibits, lectures and a great many personal visits to make friends and listen to mayors, city councils, schoolteachers and administrators, editors, youth leaders, union executives, and others -- all over an area of 1 million people. The Marshall Plan gave Germans, and the rest of Western Europe, economic hope.
Having seen the catastrophic results of Hitler's rule, Germans wanted total change in all aspects of life. To build on, there had been democratic government in the Weimar Republic (1918-33), plus a start with political parties before WW I. These fading memories encouraged a reconnection with democratic ideals.
Even more important for German regeneration were their close neighbors. To the north were the vibrantly democratic Scandinavians. To the west were free Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, plus a recovering French polity. Switzerland lay to the south and, beyond it, Italy struggled to return to democratic principles. Just beyond the English Channel -- that bastion of modern democracy -- was Great Britain. Furthermore, these countries had begun a vast effort, today known as the European Union, which would finally bring peace, cooperation and prosperity to a fractured continent.
Across the border, the Soviet empire showed western Germans what they did not want.
There were great hopes in the western Germany of the 1950s. Since then, Germans have become a thoroughly modern, democratic people. When the Soviet empire collapsed, West Germans absorbed a blighted East Germany. Gingerly, today's Germans have stepped increasingly into international peacemaking efforts, such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
It took roughly 20 years before careful observers could pronounce Germany safe, democratic and a constructive partner in the international community. Although Germans might have done this on their own, the help of the United States, Britain, France and the rest of Europe was crucial.
Iraq's situation is not at all like Germany's in 1945 Europe. It is unlikely that any U.S. administration, let alone Bush's, has the stamina, patience and, above all, creative ideas and expertise to alone turn Iraq into a bastion of modern democracy. But now we are the middle of this maelstrom, and a vigorous change of course in Iraq seems the only answer.
The Iraq proto-quagmire came about because our president thought we could manage the situation, with a little British help, by means of a lightning war and a quick exit. Did we realize, or care, how this might bring about British Prime Minister Tony Blair's downfall? Do we yet understand that our impatience to cut the Iraqi Gordian Knot would lead us to undermine the complicated alliances and partnerships that have been the source of much of our strength since the '40s?
Allies, old and new, are desperately needed to help bring about a major transformation in Iraq. Twenty thousand Polish troops is an insufficient answer; brainpower and civilian expertise are also needed. So long as the United States insists on others sharing the burden but is unwilling to restructure international institutions so that those who are asked to bear a burden will have a proportionate share in determining what that burden is, the Iraq job cannot be accomplished. Burden sharing requires decision sharing. Is this a new version of "no taxation without representation"?
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have launched the United States on an imperial course. What thousands of U.S. diplomats, civil servants, military leaders and business and labor figures have painstakingly brought about -- a growing system of cooperative, integrative institutions and habitats suitable for an irreversibly interdependent world -- may fall fast.
Iraq has no sympathetic neighbors, no regional structures to help, far too few coalition troops and no plans to mobilize Allied and United Nations' human resources for a gigantic long-term challenge. Even then, can a democratic Iraq come into being? I don't know, but Americans must ask themselves: Is the answer to the Iraq challenge a U.S. world empire, or do we want a greatly improved system for managing interdependence?
James R. Huntley is former president of the Atlantic Council of the United States. His most recent book is "Pax Democratica: A Strategy for the 21st Century"
©1996-2003 Seattle Post-Intelligencer