What about freedom for others, non-Americans, do they deserve it? A silly question on the face of it. One reeking of American exceptionalism, if not xenophobia. Surely, most Americans would answer in the affirmative, yet their meaning of freedom may not be immediately apparent.
Their support of worldwide “freedom” usually does not connote the ability to decide what kind of political system or regime type people live under, but rather presumes that some sort of Western-style (non-Scandinavian) democracy is the inevitable outgrowth of freedom. However, freedom, by its very essence, is a people’s right to choose which form of political system that they live under. This can be seen in the active support of a government in the case of the Shi’a democracy of Iran, or the implicit consent of the governed in the more authoritarian Russia. Evidence for the latter can be found in independent poll numbers showing Russians’ strong support for Vladimir Putin’s government and in the lack of popular support of Russia’s pro-democracy protests during the past five years.
As has been widely noted, during the heady post-Cold War days, democracy was viewed as the universal victor which would cause “the end of history” to engulf the entire world. But soon thereafter, with the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and the increase of global Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, one thing became evident: essentialist religious and nationalist identities would resurge and clash. In the case of former Yugoslavia, this was due, in part, to the dismantling of communist ideology that transcended ethnicity and religion. When this system came crashing down, the vacuum and consequent disorder was filled not only with nationalist and, to a lesser degree, religious identity, but also with a strong desire to plug the vacuum with a political system that would offer day-to-day security.
This highlights a rudimentary feature of all human societies. When faced with a dire security shortfall, whether from civil war, fear of famine, continuous terrorist attacks, etc., people are ready to accept most any stable, secure systems that will allow them to return to their ordinary daily life, in which dinners with families can be cooked without fear and people can go to work without the threat of bombings. When these elemental features of life are taken away, the brain morphs into survival mode. Then the ideologies of democracy, communism and socialism all mean next to nothing. The desire to return to basic security and safety becomes overpowering. In Americans’ lack of resistance to their government’s attempts to “spread democracy,” the desire for security in Hobbesian chaotic times, along with the deeply-held essentialist religious and nationalist sentiments that often come with instability, is sorely overlooked.
But it is not merely the desire to avoid security crises that makes certain populations more inclined to systems other than Western democracy. Surely there is much that is similar among humans, including a desire for safety, security, family (either biological or a close-knit family-like group) and a form of sublimation (if social conditions allow for it), such as a desire for music, dance, literature, theater and beauty. However, societies often diverge in how they choose to realize these fundamental, universal drives. For example, someone from Yemen is likely inclined to have religion play a more important role in their life than someone from France or the Czech Republic. A Brazilian person may be more inclined towards dance than the average German or Syrian. Power distances, or how people in various cultures view power relationships within society, are generally lower in Norway than in Pakistan; people in the latter country are more likely to have more deference to authority than in the former. These socio-cultural differences, resulting from world history, are significant factors that lead to divergent political systems.
It would seem to make sense that cultures more prone to collectivist or individualist behavior would develop different political systems. Similarly, not only would nations’ varying power distances influence the dynamics between the government and citizens, but would also impact the regime type. For these reasons, countries which are ostensibly democratic may appear more authoritarian in nature. Mitigating circumstances — including colonial legacy, Westernized international norms and direct and indirect American intervention — can lead to countries wearing democratic wool: a legislative body and obligatory elections, which may even be relatively fair and free, but in practice are ruled by autocrats and by laws that fail to protect civil liberties.
Inevitably, the mix of culture, religion, history and politics, along with interactions between cultures, leads to regime type outgrowths that do not resemble one another. Therefore, imposing either a Saudi-style monarchy on the US, or imposing a US-style democracy on Syria would be an equal injustice. When the consent of the governed is breached, to the extent that regimes lose their political capital and demonstrations/revolutions gain popular support, the governed will (unless extreme draconian regime violence is used) overthrow their leader, potentially changing the regime type or simply installing another figurehead to lead the country. Such is the popular will that can change democracies into autocracies, czarist rule into communist states and monarchies into republics. This is the manifestation of freedom, just as critical discourse on Putin’s Russia or Obama’s US is. Freedom can also be preferring Putin, Obama, Trump, Fidel Castro or even Mao as a leader. Freedom is more choice, a plethora of options in the seamless world of possibilities.
A phenomenon clearly antithetical to freedom is a neighboring country, regional or great power involving themselves in the internal political dynamics of a sovereign country, with the one exception of genocide. For then, the many Kantian ends-unto-themselves — individuals — are incontrovertibly snuffed out, negating any potentiality of choice. The autonomy of individuals is analogous to the independence of nations throughout the world; both are reliant upon others, but at the same time, are sovereign entities.
Domestically, nations have their own internal complex cultural, ethnic, religious and political issues to deal with. Their realization of these disparate elements into a functioning political system should be respected by outside nations, whatever the regime type. Inevitably, international relations can have an impact on domestic politics; in many more powerful nations, showing strength internationally and even conducting a war can yield political gain, if the war is won and not too costly. Foreign nations’ interference in the sovereignty of another should be eliminated as much as practically possible, as this would respect peoples and nations as complex Kantian ends in themselves. While powerful nations will often claim that they are “defending x peoples” or “assisting democracy” when intervening, interventionists usually act primarily on behalf of their own perceived geostrategic or economic interests. This was the case of Russia’s covert invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, as it was in the US’s support of anti-Assad rebels in the Syrian Civil War. Both actions violated national sovereignty on behalf on geostrategic ends, while paying lip service to humanitarian concerns for public consumption purposes.
Nevertheless, the claimed goals of interventionists, through the media’s often uncritical regurgitation, can influence the public to believe that intervention is driven by humanitarian motives. Yet most state-led interventions are nearly always on behalf of the perceived economic or geostrategic interests of powerful nations; consequently, snuffing out freedom throughout the world for the benefit of the political class, the military industrial complex and multinational corporations.
Such is why, in theory, Americans may support “freedom” throughout the world, when, in fact, the interventionist policies they endorse usually help subjugate liberty.
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