After its victory in the ideological confrontation between two camps during the Cold War, the United States has been waging an ideological campaign to spread democracy around the world, and many of its citizens hope that the campaign will eventually be victorious.
This is not likely to happen. An old proverb says: “You cannot whistle against the wind; the wind is stronger.” One can whistle the ideological campaign’s tune of democracy forcefully, but it will be silenced by the thunderous storm of the human struggle for self-determination.
The launching of the ideological campaign is most likely based on the conviction that the collapse of the Marxist/Communist Eastern camp during the Cold War proved once and for all the unquestionable superiority and universal applicability of democracy and its political and economic institutions.
This is not the case. The victory only proved that the implementation of the Marxist idea failed in the Soviet empire, and the collapse of economies there did not lead to entrenchment of democracy but to the exercise of self-determination by Estonians, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, among others, including Chechens under Dzhokar Dudayev.
Yes, peoples of the Soviet empire did proclaim aspirations for democracy. So did participants in ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, and so did participants in the Arab Spring uprisings some two decades later. But neither peoples of the former Soviet empire, nor peoples of Yugoslavia, nor those in the Arab Spring uprisings aspired to democratic rule.
All these peoples aspired to what Woodrow Wilson advocated during and after World War I: self-determination.
He remarked, “No people must be forced under sovereignty under which it does not wish to live.” President Wilson also wrote in Article 3 of his first draft of the Covenant of the League of Nations: “The Contracting Powers unite in guaranteeing ... territorial adjustments ... as may in the future become necessary by reason of changes in the present social conditions and aspirations or present social and political relationships, pursuant to the principle of self-determination.”
States, in most cases, are artificially bordered entities created around ethnic groups and nations mainly through wars and treaties. President Wilson understood that self-determination should not refer to states but to “people” who are attached to their hundreds or thousands of years of traditions and hence do not want to live in their states under the rule of those whom they consider to be ethnic or national “others.”
He was surely aware that self-determination is a low priority in the United States because it is a country of immigrants and, except for its Native American inhabitants, their hundreds or thousands of years of traditions reach back to their countries of origin. If he lived today, President Wilson would have no doubt that the American ideological campaign cannot convert other peoples to democracy without granting them the right to self-determination.
The end of the Cold War was an important historical turning point. But it was such not because it proved the universal applicability of American democracy and its political and economic institutions. The end of the Cold War was a major turning point because it began removing, everywhere in the world, the restraints and self-restraints that the Cold War’s 40-year ideological confrontation imposed on human beings who wished then to rebel against their own ideological camp.
It is this removal of restraints and self-restraints that planted the seeds of rebellion around the world. It brought about the breakup of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia, and sparked a revolution whose participants in many states around the world are fighting for self-determination — and for their own version of democracy.
The revolution is a thunderous storm that is changing the world and leading to a new global order.
The ideological campaign to spread democracy around the world should be stopped. Instead, there should be a commitment to the promotion of a new global order based on the exercise of the right of ethnic groups and nations to self-determination in politically autonomous entities, and to the true version of democracy: people’s rule.
Most of those politically autonomous entities will have to form or join regional or continental economic frameworks, and thus contribute to the formation of a new global order whose first component, contrary to many views, will be the still-consolidating European Union.
Dov Ronen, lecturer on psychology at Harvard Medical School, is the author of The Quest for Self-Determination.