History suggests democracy can be enforced at gunpoint

As Kabul has been captured by the Taliban, and US and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan, an old liberal mantra is now fashionable: “you can’t impose democracy with bayonets”. Many versions of this soundbite have circulated for years, perhaps most notoriously by President Barack Obama, who wrote in The Audacity of Hope: “when we seek to impose democracy with the barrel of a gun…  we are helping oppressive regimes paint democratic activists as tools of foreign powers and retarding the possibility that genuine, homegrown democracy will ever emerge.” Very hypocritical words, considering Obama massively increased the number of troops in Afghanistan.

But let us take Obama’s words at face value. Is it true you cannot impose democracy with bayonets? In the 19th Century, a similar debate was taking place. Should the abolition of slavery be imposed with bayonets? In the United States, some prominent politicians and intellectuals believed that instead of forcing the South to free the slaves with military action, it would be more efficient to simply raise money to compensate slaveholders, and thus avoid a bloodbath. After all, that is the way slavery ended in many other parts of the world. Even Lincoln at some point proposed this plan. But we now know that such strategy would not have worked. Slavery was the backbone of the South’s economy, and slaveholders were not going to be satisfied with some compensation. Only military action could truly free the slaves.

The American South was not the only place where slavery was abolished with bayonets. In some other places, it also took invasions and wars for slaves to be emancipated. For example, Great Britain bombarded Zanzibar in 1896, and that military action brought once and for all the abolition of the slave trade in that sultanate. Some cynics might accuse the British of using abolition as an excuse for imperialism in Africa. But very few take a cynical approach towards Haiti’s decision to invade Santo Domingo in 1824, with the purpose of abolishing slavery in the eastern half of Hispaniola.  

Occasionally, the debate about whether bayonets were necessary to abolish slavery has resurfaced in recent years. And whenever someone mentions that the Civil War could have been avoided and the North should have let abolition grow organically in the South, woke activists are quick to refute that notion, as Ta Nehisi Coates did when Ron Paul suggested that compensated emancipation was a better option than war in the 1860s.

So, liberals are quite happy to justify the use of bayonets to impose abolition of slavery, as long as slaves were owned by white masters. But, when the slaveholders have darker skin, liberals become more hesitant to justify armed liberation. In the 1990s, many women under the Taliban lived in a state very close to slavery. The 2001 US invasion largely liberated women, yet liberals have been far unhappier with the use of war for this liberation.

Of course, the notion of democracy is much broader than just liberating women from the burqa and allowing them to go to school. Liberals might counter that perhaps force could be used to protect women from abusive husbands, but the bayonet cannot be used to build democracy, as that system of governance requires consensus, not imposition. But again, history suggests otherwise. Two of the world’s most robust democracies were forged after war: Japan and Germany. Had the Allies not invaded and occupied those two countries during and then after World War II, fascism would have likely returned. It is simply not true that democracy would have organically grown on its own in those two nations; it had to be imposed from abroad.

To be sure, in many cases, attempts to impose democracy have failed, and Afghanistan is a tragic case in point. But that does not imply that war must always be out of the question when attempting to export democracy. Perhaps if US troops stayed longer, democracy could have finally taken hold in Afghanistan.

After all, occupations do take time to deliver results; if liberals praise the military occupation of the South for more than a decade to ensure slavery would never return, why should they be so critical of decades-long military occupations in other countries to build democracy? Granted, decisions regarding invasions and occupations are complex, and probably in most cases, the wisest option is to disengage. But such decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis, and the mindless repetition of the “you can’t impose democracy with bayonets” cliché won’t help in making the right decision.

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