Democracy and ‘America first’

One of the important conditions for a true democracy is a strong and dynamic middle class, and a central condition for the growth of the working class is a strong and liberal market economy.

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump gestures to the press (photo credit: REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump gestures to the press
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In early May 2017, The New York Times published a review of former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s new book, Democracy Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, with the title “Keeper of the flame.” The “flame” being democracy, that stands above and beyond any other value.
While I do not dispute the supreme importance of democracy, unfortunately most if not all attempts to change authoritarian regimes to democratic ones through speech or sword have proven to be total failures.
In the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War era, the United States was the only world power. This presented an opportunity to design a new international system by investing efforts to democratize the countries that had seceded from the Soviet bloc. I do not recall that any serious steps were taken in this direction. In contrast, the US and its European allies did everything possible to achieve territorial erosion in the Soviet Union, even among the countries of the Warsaw Pact in the west and Soviet satellite states in Central and South Asia. All these years later, I see no real and significant adoption of Western liberal democratic values in any of the former Soviet Union countries.
The Arab Spring revolutions (which in retrospect should have been called The Arab Fall) were perceived by Western leaders, led by US president Barack Obama, as a golden opportunity to bring democracy at once to Arab countries in the Middle East. What they did not understand was that the Arab awakening was actually an Islamic awakening. Muslim religious leaders recognized that they could seize power from authoritarian rulers through multi-party, seemingly free elections, and this is what happened.
Incidentally, anyone who studied history can identify a preview of the Arab Spring in the 1991 elections in Algiers. The leader of the Algerian Muslim Party declared in the election campaign, “We accept the democratic rules so that we will win the elections, and then we will seize power and rule the country according to Sharia.” The attempt was not successful due to the army’s last-minute takeover in Algiers and, for all intents and purposes, the country has been in a state of civil war ever since.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman summarized the Arab Spring by saying that these revolutions succeeded in lifting the Arabs up only to the height of the mosque’s minaret.
In her book Rice does not deny or hide the cases in which she pushed democracy with disastrous results, such as the 2006 free elections in the Gaza Strip won by Hamas, which took control and (literally) eliminated Fatah’s presence in Gaza.
The US is a relatively young democracy but its constitution, and all of its governing bodies – the legislative, executive and judicial branches – were conceived by intellectual giants. A superficial Google search shows that since gaining independence in 1964, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has had five constitutions, and for many years was run without a constitution at all. This indicates that in the fabric of political life in the DRC, constitutions are worth nothing.
One of the important conditions for the existence of a true democracy is a strong and dynamic middle class, and a central condition for the growth of the working class is a strong and liberal market economy. A strong and modern economy cannot flourish in a country that lacks organized education, health and social systems, as well as stable local governing, agricultural, industrial and infrastructure systems.
The DRC is unique in the family of African countries formerly ruled by colonial powers. The Congo, at its inception, was a toy of Belgian king Leopold II, who fell in love with the Congo River for some reason, procured large tracts of land around it and built himself a colony. Colonial powers typically invested in their settlements for strategic reasons. The only strategy employed by Belgium, which was not a classic colonial power, was to steal all the natural resources from the Congo and transfer them to Belgium. Belgium did not invest anything in the Congo and when it granted it independence in the 1960s, left behind a state without any ability, tools, or governmental tradition.
The Congo is the second largest country on the African continent (almost a million square kilometers), with a population of 77 million who represent a mixture of ethnic groups. The Congo shares a border with nine countries, with ethnic groups and tribes in each of these states living on both sides of the border, which naturally creates political instability. The country’s inexhaustible mineral wealth has always been the main reason for its instability, instability which exists to this day.
SINCE ITS independence, the country has had four presidents all of whom seized power; there was no tradition of orderly regime change. Nor has any tradition of orderly retirement of the head of state been developed. In the US, the president retires according to the constitution after two terms, with a substantial pension for the rest of his life and a handsome budget for the establishment of a library in his name. In the Congo, the president usually ends his role and his life at the same time. For DRC President Joseph Kabila to retire (his second term expired in 2016 but elections have been put off until 2018), his ultimate demand would be to go into exile, lest he become a target for liquidation.
Let us return to the review of Condoleezza Rice’s book. The writer of the review points to the conflict between US President Donald Trump’s “America first” philosophy and the longstanding foreign policy of democratic and republican governments which places the principle of democracy at the forefront.
At the conclusion of Trump’s first 100 days in the White House, it is clear Trump is already up to his ears in US foreign policy: cruise missiles against targets in Syria; dropping the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan; advancement of an American flotilla to the North Korean coast and deployment of America’s most advanced anti-aircraft system in South Korea; and Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel. All of which prove that even if the president wanted to he cannot disengage from the shaping and implementation of American foreign policy.
There is not necessarily a contradiction between an “America first” strategy and the preservation of the democratic idea as a central aspect of American foreign policy. The designers of US foreign policy simply need to change the pace and order of operations with regard to fostering democracy, especially in developing countries. For purposes of explanation, legendary Ivory Coast president Félix Houphouët-Boigny, whom no one disputes to have been an intellectual, thinker and statesman, told me in the mid- ’90s that the Americans were pressuring him to immediately lead free elections. He said that it took him 30 years to turn a country of 36 tribes into a nation-state and that if he were to declare free elections, the next day there would be 36 official parties with each representing another tribe. In other words, a decadeslong effort to build a nation would be lost in an instant.
Now a word about China’s foreign policy, which creates relationships with developing countries by distributing gifts: a national stadium; a presidential palace; a hospital; a central road and bridge. In the second stage, China generally demands and receives permits to exploit natural resources. Later, China is already a member of the household and becomes a major player in the country’s economy. Instead of creating local jobs, it imports cheap Chinese labor to developing countries – prisoners. This Chinese policy encourages mixed marriages between the imported workers and local women, with the long-term vision of establishing Chinese enclaves in these countries. This is classic colonialism, as the Africans have begun to understand, and benefits only one side.
Authoritarian rulers around the world see in President Trump an opportunity to change their relationships with the US precisely because, since his election, they have not been repeatedly denounced for not turning their countries into democracies overnight. They are not opposed to democracy. They claim that democracy must be built from the foundation and cannot be imposed from above. The process of building it from the bottom up involves multiple stages and may take a decade or more.
THE NEW relationship that they would like to see between themselves and America should not be a new kind of colonialism. It must be built on the win-win principle. Developing countries can become growth engines for the American economy and provide an answer to the “America first” strategy. The US government and American financial companies can help developing countries to build democracy from the bottom up – education, health, society, local, regional and national government, a liberal market economy, transportation infrastructure and more. All of this will lead to a strong and dynamic middle class that will form the backbone of democracy.
In summary, if the US administration under Trump adopts this approach, advocating a new kind of relationship between a world power and developing countries; a normative and ideological relationship between two equal partners with each side contributing its relative and absolute advantages to the other, this concept can be a winning combination of “America first” and the dissemination of the democratic idea.

The author is former director of the Mossad and the chairman of the board of directors at the International Institute for Counter- Terrorism (ICT) at IDC Herzliya.