May 10, 2003

What (Exactly) Is Democratic Messianism?

What (Exactly) Is Democratic Messianism?

Anatol Lieven has written an excellent book on Chechnya and is a talented writer. But what does he think the phrase "democratic messianism" means? To me, it's almost an oxymoronic turn of phrase.

"In this analysis, both the grotesque public optimism of the Neo-Con rhetoric about democratisation and its exaggeration of threats to the US stem from the fact that it takes a lot to stir ordinary Americans out of their customary apathy with regard to international affairs. While it is true that an element of democratic messianism is built into what Samuel Huntington and others have called 'the American Creed', it is also the case that many Americans have a deep scepticism - healthy or chauvinist according to taste - about the ability of other countries to develop their own forms of democracy." defines "democratic" as "Pertaining to democracy, favoring democracy, or constructed upon the principle of government by the people." In turn, "democracy" is defined as "government by the people, exercised either directly or through representatives."

How about "messianism"? Three definitions: 1) "belief in a messiah", 2) "belief that a particular cause or movement is destined to triumph or save the world", and/or 3) "zealous devotion to a leader, cause or movement".

Lieven certainly doesn't mean messianism per #1. And, unless legions in Washington have developed a zealot-like devotion to neo-con high priest Paul Wolfowitz, or his ideological fellow-travellers like Bill Kristol at the Weekly Standard, it appears #3 is not what Lieven means either.

He is likely suggesting that, per #2, the neo-cons (and give Lieven credit for suggesting their influence is less pervasive than Howell would have us believe) believe democracy is "destined to triumph or save the world." This is, of course, very late 80's/early 90's, fall of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama provenance kind of stuff. Fears of nuclear armageddon in India and Pakistan, the genocidal horrors of Bosnia and Rwanda, and 9/11 reminded us that history had not quite ended.

Yet Fukuyama really was arguing that the grand ideological battles of the 20th Century had been resolved, ie. that democracy-adherents had triumphed over advocates of fascism and communism. And further, Fukuyama claimed, no other grand ideological opponents to democracy were on the horizon. Put differently, Fukuyama's arguments were linked to that of philosophers like Francois Lyotard who defined the postmodern condition as an "incredulity to metanarratives." Or put yet another way: we're too damn skeptical to pitch our hopes on another grand utopian project like Communism.

But this detached, ironic postmodern condition is really only prevalent in hyper-commodified, relatively comfortable precincts of the developed West that have passed through the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and horrors of the fascist and communist projects that so bloodied the 20th Century. No "incredulity to metanarratives" gives pause to Osama bin Laden and his acolytes. Theocratic barbarians are only too eager to adopt a grand vision of a purist, Islamic caliphate from Jakarta to Sarajevo (Fukuyama might defend his thesis to say that there is nothing new about such projects). And to achieve such aims, they are manifestly willing to kill Westerners as a gambit to force the West out of key areas like the Gulf viewed, by them, as land solely to be occupied by devout Muslims.

And that's where the neo-cons come in (as the group in American foreign policy elites most intent in its desire to counter terror groups or rogue regimes in preemptive fashion, often militarily, with less of a focus on addressing so-called "root causes" like resolving outstanding regional disputes, combatting endemic poverty and the like). But regardless of their strategic posture, and contra Lieven's musings, intelligent neo-cons like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz simply don't believe, in messianic fashion, that democracy is "destined the world." They might, as many political scientists would agree, believe that as democracy expands peace is more likely to prevail as democracies rarely (if ever) start wars against each other. Thus, unseating the Taliban and Saddam are steps towards providing some stability to said regions.

But, more important to Perle and Wolfowitz, I would suspect, are their security hawk and realpolitik orientations. Some of you will immediately protest that Richard Perle is no Kissingerian realpolitiker. Fair enough, he was not cheerleading detente initiatives. There is a moralistic Reaganite aspect to Perle and Wolfowitz's worldview. But this moralistic quotient in their thinking doesn't justify anything near describing these key neo-con actors as messianic figures. They mostly wanted to go into Afghanistan to deny al-Qaeda a wide geographical hamlet from which to, in virtually unfettered manner, plan terror attacks and perhaps develop WMD. Concern with Iraq stemmed from similar concerns about a regime passing WMD capability to transnational terror groups or employing said weapons against American interests himself. As I argued many months ago, it was the WMD, stupid!

But then why all this talk about bringing demoracy to Iraq? Well, I hope all readers would agree, this is a noble goal to be pursued with persistence and high seriousness. And if an Iraqi polity this is viable, territorially unified and democratic comes to pass, particularly in conjunction with stolid roadmap implementation and the Israeli-Syrian peace track improving, we might indeed begin to see the entire region move towards enhanced stability. But Richard Perle or Paul Wolfowitz won't suddenly rest easy and believe that the world has been "saved" because a few more countries have concluded peace treaties and become democratic. There will be other threats to global stability, doubtless. And, rather than having been captivated by the messianism Lieven supposes, neo-con policymakers (as well as talented Foggy Bottom dwellers like Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Marc Grossman and Bill Burns) will instead remain vigilant to the cruel surprises history so often delivers.

Full disclosure: I worked for Richard Perle on Balkan related matters in the mid-90s in Washington D.C. while attending law school at night at Georgetown. I have posted on Richard Perle before and never mentioned that I had worked for him unsure of blogosphere standards regarding the (non)appropriateness of provision of such information. Lately, I note that people tend to typically disclose this type of thing so will do so going forward whenever appropriate.

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