A fervent abolitionist and cutting-edge feminist, John Stuart Mill was among 19th century Britain’s least bigoted intellectuals. Through his utilitarian lens, he examined, and defended, the welfare of all races, nationalities, and creeds. He sallied against popular claims that blacks were naturally inferior to whites, and advanced a deeply moralistic foreign policy in an era dominated by amoral strategic concerns.
One hundred and fifty years after the end of Mill’s intellectual output, the brunt of his political philosophy has been tucked into the mainstream folds of American politics. But in an era of military adventure, Mill’s views on democratization and foreign intervention have been conveniently exiled from civilized discourse, deemed un-American, unethical, and uninformed all at the same time.
To put his ideas crudely, Mill claimed that many societies were fit for representative government, but others, in their present state, were not; those peoples truly bent on self-rule, he claimed, would successfully fight for and achieve it.
A student of history, Mill dug into the past of his political surroundings to vindicate his theories. His native Britain, for instance, had slogged through nearly 650 years of grinding modernization and liberal dissent, starting with King John’s coerced signature of the Magna Carta in 1215. Across the channel, Holland, and much of northwestern Europe, had long since developed into cantonal republics of its own. And during the Enlightenment, as debating salons and philosophical treatises sprouted up like dandelions in Europe’s cosmopolitan centers, the outposts of the New World ecstatically received, and adopted, these republican principles.
These were all, in Mill’s eyes, examples of societies both deserved and capable. If he were alive today, he’d endorse a multitude of other non-Western nations that have undergone the arduous process of democratization-through-modernization. He would also have no problem citing examples of lingering democratic incompetence. Just as he condemned a panoply of early modern nations in his writings, he would condemn a pre-invasion Iraq, where barely half of the citizens believed representative institutions were important for the future of their country. He’d brood about a Taliban-occupied Afghanistan where a local, well-organized resistance to the militant Islamists wasn’t organized for the first eight years of the American occupation. He’d point to Iran, where the 1979 revolution led not to democracy, but to a civilian government overshadowed by a council of Islamist shahs. Of course, these one sentence descriptions offer oversimplifications of cultures and events, but this macroscopic view of history, though lacking in subtleties, is accurate enough to provide substance to Mill’s realist assertion that undemocratic societies form, and tolerate, undemocratic governments
As un-American as his thesis may sound, most of us take Mill’s principles for granted. Nobody wonders why the U.S., Britain, and Sweden have had such an easy time maintaining a democracy compared to, say, the Central African Republic or Turkmenistan. Conversely, we know why Americans aren’t mired in the violent ethnic, religious, and tribal divisions that beset those nations we occupy. The answer, to us, is self-evident, and it is rooted in all treasured strains of Western intellectual history. As the late Vaclav Havel noted, we liberals (defined in the broadest sense) are set apart from Marxists–and fascists for that matter–by our belief that politics is a function of culture, not vice versa. It is this premise that is also at the center of Mill’s writing.
Where we have deviated from Mill, in both practice and theory, is in our belief that where democracy does not arise from within, it can be implemented from outside; as Martin Sieff would say, we have been seduced by the belief in “instant powdered democracy.”
Still caught in a post-Cold War stupor, we’ve attempted to form republican governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, a process that Mitt Romney believes we can repeat in Syria. What’s more, Republicans blame the president for the struggles of democracy in Egypt. Mill would think such attitudes ridiculous, and he so much as says so in his A Few Words on Non-Intervention, writing:
[The] only test … of a people’s having become fit for popular institutions is that they or a sufficient portion of them prevail in the contest, and are willing to brave danger and labor for their liberation.
Mill’s assertion doesn’t mean he wouldn’t approve of the overthrow of the nepotistic leaders of the Middle East on moral or strategic grounds. But he would accurately say that we shouldn’t be shocked when democracy doesn’t emerge out of the hecatombs of foreign intervention. Ethnically divided, conservative, illiberal societies form ethnically divided, conservative, illiberal governments, and there’s very little President Obama, the U.S. military, or any other institution can do to change that.
Many dismiss this strain of thought, which runs from the ancients to Rousseau to modern paleoconservatives, as rambling, dated, and cynical. But when one looks at the recent American episodes of “nation-building,” he or she cannot help but realize that our attempts to build democratic governments where there are no democratic societies have been hubristic. Iraq, now more corrupt than it had been pre-invasion, has begun to stumble into the cycle of ethno-political divisions that had mired the Hussein regime. What’s left is an illegitimate government, set on avenging the Sunni wrongs of old, with little or no authority over much of its supposed territory. The Afghan government could not be said to be a democracy, nor could it be said to be a government in much of its mountainous, fundamentalist-addled, medieval territory. Libya likewise remains untamed and largely ungoverned, the first election having been peaceful, but split largely along tribal lines.
Despite these democratizing failures, reason, articulated by Mill but discoverable by common sense, is still subjugated by hubris. In a collective letter written in August, Senators Lieberman, Graham, and McCain, claimed that a U.S. intervention would be an effective tool for forming a non-sectarian, secularist government in a post-Assad Syria. The Washington Post editorial board, generally recognized as a bastion of moderation, agreed. And, as already alluded to, Mitt Romney claims that through strategic arms shipments, we can mold the ethnically divided mess of Syria into a democracy. These overestimations of our power are unfortunately representative of our blissfully ahistorical, anti-Millian ambitions.
The democratization of Syria is just meant as an example here. There are other potential reasons for intervention, such as when, as Princeton professor Michael Walzer puts it, “the violation of human rights within a set of boundaries is so terrible that it makes talk of…‘arduous struggle’ seem…irrelevant.” One could also argue that the international community should defend the right of democratic self-determination from the meddling of foreign powers. Such arguments are worthy of debate. Intervention of any kind for the purpose of democratizing nations without tolerance, education, or civil society, however, is not.
Let’s take a page from Mill’s intellectual playbook. We musn’t insist on plowing fallow fields as Mitt Romney would have us do in Syria, and as the neoconservative establishment would have us do recursively. If we desire political reform, we ought to focus on the cultural prerequisites–education, civil society, and health, to name a few— which fall under the purview not of of the Rubensesque Pentagon, but under that of USAID and the State Department. Though the spirit of liberal democracy courses through our veins, and we’d like to afford those who are oppressed the liberties we’ve always enjoyed, our attempts to foist liberal political systems onto illiberal cultures have been and invariably will be exercises in over-ambition.
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