By: Aryeh Schonbrun  | 

UNSC Resolution 2334 is a Friedens-Diktat: How the International Community’s Democratic Fundamentalism Imperils Global Stability

This past December, in a sly act committed with unprecedented spite, and against the directives of the incoming administration, President Obama decided to punish Israel, the Jews, and especially Bibi Netanyahu for their perceived intransigence on what has become a global pet issue. Without the U.S. veto on the vote, the international community, led by Jew-haters and impotent ideologues alike, succeeded in castigating Israel for her policies in the most public of venues. While UNSC Resolution 2334 does not wield much power by itself, it sets a dangerous tone for the future. It demonizes Israel in a way not seen since the demise of the Soviet dictatorship, and although it doesn’t come as much of a surprise, it gives voice to the tension that has been building between Israel and the rest of the civilized world.

The resolution itself does not even approach that of a fair, balanced, proposal. The resolution does not recognize any Jewish connection to the territory called the “West Bank,” and even goes so far as to delegitimize Jewish sovereignty over Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, thereby expropriating Judaism’s holiest site from the soul of the Jewish people. While it calls upon all parties to abstain from terrorist activities, it places much of the blame for the current impasse upon the Jewish settlements whose “establishment… has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.” It further “Calls upon all States… to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967,” thus supporting the practice of western countries boycotting Jewish products manufactured in “the territories,” organizations with activities that involve Jewish settlers, and stigmatizing those individuals who associate themselves with such “illegal” activities.

As an American Jew who feels a deep connection to his ancestral homeland, I could not have been more dismayed at our former President’s stab-in-the-back, so clearly meant to send us the very vivid message that we had for so long tried to avoid hearing: the world does not consent to our continued presence on what is presumed to be Palestinian territory. I am not surprised by this deep, menacing conviction that most of the world’s leaders hold, but I admit that I had hoped that Obama would save face and yield to President Trump’s more sympathetic view of the conflict. Alas, politics is politics, and, as Obama did not trust President Trump’s intuition regarding this matter, he made a lame-duck decision that will go down in history as just plain SAD.

However, regardless of the intent that brought the resolution to a vote, and ignoring the conflicts surrounding Obama and Bibi’s personal relationship, I find it necessary to engage in a deeper analysis of the underlying motives of the countries (some of them important allies) that voted against us at the U.N.

Shortly after abstaining from the vote, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power explained in her speech that “the settlement problem has gotten so much worse that it is now putting at risk the very viability of that two-state solution… One cannot simultaneously champion expanding Israeli settlements and champion a viable two-state solution that would end the conflict. One has to make a choice between settlements and separation… since 2011, President Obama and Secretary Kerry have repeatedly warned – publicly and privately – that the absence of progress toward peace and continued settlement expansion was going to put the two-state solution at risk, and threaten Israel’s stated objective to remain both a Jewish State and a democracy.” Former Secretary Kerry echoed that sentiment a week later when, addressing an international audience during an interminable, repetitious diatribe, he said that “the two-state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It is the only way to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state… the United States of America… cannot be true to our own values or even the stated democratic values of Israel and we cannot properly defend and protect Israel if we allow a viable two-state solution to be destroyed before our own eyes. And that's the bottom line… here is a fundamental reality, if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic, it cannot be both… How does Israel reconcile a permanent occupation with its democratic ideals? How does the U.S. continue to defend that and still live up to our own democratic ideals?… Is ours the generation that gives up on the dream of a Jewish-Democratic state of Israel?”

You should call me a fool if I were to discount fully the purely evil, antisemitic motives behind such a resolution, but it would do wrong to those who honestly believe in Democracy to make such broad generalizations. Clearly, John Kerry did not wake up one morning harboring an irrational desire to hurt Israel. Instead, the zeal he expressed during his speech could be better understood in light of his recapitulations of his professed loyalty to those hallowed Democratic ideals.

This utter devotion to Democratic ideals above all is actually a very old, and strong, American sentiment. Ever since those brave rebels opened fire on the Redcoats on the outskirts of Lexington, MA in 1775, we Americans have defined and refined our nation based on the concepts of equality, democracy, and God-given liberties. The American struggle against tyrannical, monarchical rule in many ways signified the beginning of the end of absolutist, arbitrary, and unjust forms of government. In fact, our example of democratic self-rule became emblematic of popular revolt and the motto “Live Free or Die” continues to empower the oppressed throughout the world. Although Democracy-for-all remains a lofty goal, our self-assured spirit, confident in our country’s Democratic exceptionalism, allows us to continue to dream and hope for better days. In recognition of the just nature of our cause, and in response to our aghast observation of the ills of the world at large, the west, and America in particular, have for some time engaged in the struggle to bring Democracy to the “four corners of the Earth.” While this philosophy sometimes delivered positive results, helping many nascent democracies on their way, many times U.S. intervention in the domestic politics of foreign states has led to disorder, instability, and ultimately to bloodshed.

Omar Encarnacion, an associate professor of politics at Bard College, wrote an article titled “The Follies of Democratic Imperialism” in the World Policy Journal (Spring 2005) documenting the historical precedent for the Iraq War. In the article he surveys past attempts at establishing democracies abroad, and, in the end, concludes that “however outwardly attractive and compelling, the return of democratic imperialism is rooted in faulty premises that are not merely quixotic but actually counterproductive in spreading democracy, peace and order around the world.”

Beginning in the days of President Wilson (i.e. the Fourteen Points) and up until the present, the U.S. has tried repeatedly to impose democracy on unwilling or ill-prepared regions of the world. President Wilson notably failed in forcing parts of Latin America to accept democratic rule, as Encarnacion highlights: “The attempt to impose democratic practices throughout Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean in the years between 1913 and 1921 failed to yield stable democratic governance. In the wake of the American intervention of 1914, the Mexican political class turned not only authoritarian and nationalistic but also intensely anti-American… In Central America and the Caribbean, Wilson’s military occupations and attempts at creating democracy paved the way for a new generation of brutal tyrannies, including those of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua.” He ascribes the failures of Wilson and subsequent American presidents to the lack of control over circumstances. The U.S., when it intervenes in the affairs of a foreign state, cannot restructure the entirety of its society. Encarnacion writes that religious, ethnic, economic, and societal differences make matters quite difficult when working to create democracy.

In particular, he stresses the dangers of imposing democracy on volatile regions such as Iraq: “There is Iraq’s ethnic and religious diversity, with Shia in the south, Sunnis in the center, and Kurds in the north. This volatile mix discourages a strong sense of national identity, making it difficult for democratization to rest on widespread societal solidarity. It also increases the possibility that democracy will become a source of conflict in its own right. In the last three decades, few multiethnic states have been able to orchestrate a successful transition to democracy: witness the case of the Soviet Union and its successor states (most notably those in Central Asia and the Caucasus). More tragically, there is the case of Yugoslavia, where ‘ethnic cleansing’ was an early fruit of majority rule.” This agrees with his statement earlier that “there is a well-documented affinity between democratization and conflict, which suggests that during the early phases of democratization, countries become ‘more aggressive and war- prone, not less, and they fight wars with democratic states.’ (Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, “Democratization and War,” Foreign Affairs).” He argues that instead of stabilizing the regions in question, the imposition of democracy by a foreign power jeopardizes the resolution of existing conflicts and is liable to rekindle dormant discord. Although he wrote in 2005, we had already begun to recognize our mistake in occupying Iraq. President Bush’s Democratic idealism, while good at heart, was misguided and failed to democratize the region. Instead, it left a power vacuum, leading to civil war, terror, and now ISIS. Our further interventions in the region during President Obama’s tenure (i.e. Libya and Syria) similarly have been deemed questionable.

Encarnacion, when criticizing the American attempt at imposing democracy, makes reference to “Democratic Peace Theory,” the theory that provides a scientific backing to the moral evaluation of democracy. According to the theory, democratic states tend to refrain from warring with other similarly democratic adversaries. It follows that we should want more democracies, which would thus yield greater stability. However, as as Christopher Layne argues in “The Myth of the Democratic Peace” (The MIT Press Fall 1994), the theory does not answer for all of history’s many wars. Drawing upon the events of the 19th and 20th centuries, Layne chooses a number of cases that seem to counter the expected peaceful results of the theory.

According to the theory, if a country possesses a democratic government, it surely must not lack a democratically, peace-loving populace, intent on avoiding conflict with another democracy at (mostly) all costs. Either as a result of deeply embedded “democratic norms and culture,” or through the exercise of a system of checks and balances, democracies usually appear to us as peaceful, free societies. Nevertheless, over the past 150 years, some of these democracies have taken up armed combat against a democratic foe, and, in the cases when they didn’t, their reasoning did not follow the dictates of democratic values.

The first and strongest case that comes to mind, of course, must be the American Civil War. By all accounts it was fought between two warring parties, democratic in nature, and sufficiently independent of each other. (Though some may argue that we should not consider the South a “foreign” adversary, and call the war a purely “domestic conflict,” they would have to explain the independent nature of the sides’ respective legislatures, armies, and diplomatic relations with foreign powers.) The French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 represents another clear example of one democracy taking up arms against another democracy (the Weimar Republic). Some also classify WWI as a war between democracies (though many would not view the Kaiser’s power as especially democratic, one can argue that Germany was both a democracy and a monarchy, since it did possess a democratically-elected parliament.)

Layne stresses, though, that even in cases where no conflict resulted, what he calls “near misses” such as the Trent Affair (1861), Venezuela crisis (1895-6), and Fashoda (1898), either realistic military, or economic concerns prevented one of the parties from acting (which would have affected a non-democracy too), or that the diplomatic parties successfully averted conflict in spite of the public’s warmongering. These examples led Layne to seriously question the viability of the theory. In conclusion, he communicates his fear that “as long as the Wilsonian worldview underpins American foreign policy, policymakers will be blind… liberal international relations theory is based on hope, not on fact.” He warns against an overly-zealous foreign policy: “Democratic peace theory panders to impulses which, however noble in the abstract, have led to disastrous military interventions abroad… there is little wisdom in assuming such potentially risky undertakings on the basis of dubious assumptions about the pacifying effects of democracy.”

Instead, he argues that democracies naturally form in stable environments and autocracies tend to take hold in unstable, competitive regions. Layne writes that “States that are, or that believe they are, in high-threat environments are less likely to be democracies… international systemic structure is not only the primary determinant of a state’s external behavior but may also be a crucial element in shaping its domestic political system.” Therefore, in order to encourage the growth of democracies, the world order should devote itself to ameliorating the external stresses affecting particular states (dearth of resources, warlike neighbors), and enhance the internal environment necessary to produce a stable democracy.

On a psychological level, one cannot ignore the phenomenon of transforming democracy from a form of government into a civil religion. The tenacity with which American presidents hold onto the “mission” to civilize/democratize the wayward masses bespeaks of an inner insecurity, an existential doubt that targets America’s raison d’être. If democracy is not a universal right, a necessity, how can we justify our irreverent actions of July, 1776? We can further question the benefits engendered by democracy by observing the fact that the Civil War, one of the country’s bloodiest, most cruel wars, began on the coattails of a disputed election and remains a sore-point for many Southerners. You would think that the bloody mess of secession (plus the hard lessons of France’s failed experiment) would have taught our country some humility, but, on the contrary, it reinvigorated our desire to preach to the world the goodness and beneficence of democratic governance. I do not disagree with the assertion that ideally a “government by the people, for the people” promises the most comfort and security, but I doubt the practicality of adapting democracy to areas of the globe ill-suited for it.

In a The Atlantic article titled “The Coming Anarchy” (2/1994), Robert Kaplan exposes the severe inequalities, instabilities, and natural challenges that threaten the world’s well-being. Diseases, depletion of natural resources, overpopulation, wealth inequality, and ideological warfare are sources of the anarchy and disorder that he predicts for us in the coming years. While some of his predictions did not come to pass, his recognition of these increasingly important issues presciently identified lots of today’s problems. When discussing American democracy, he notes the significance of the multicultural nature of our country: “Because America is a multi-ethnic society, the nation-state has always been more fragile here than it is in more homogeneous societies.” Ethnic/racial divide has caused much strife in the past, and continues to divide American politics. Identity politics is on the rise, and going by the decision of over 60 congressmen to boycott President Trump’s inauguration (?!), one can begin to wonder/worry what will become of the complex fabric of American society.

In a follow-up on that point, Kaplan writes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (remember that he wrote this during the Oslo Accords) that “America’s fascination with the Israeli-Palestinian issue… is a function of its own domestic and ethnic obsessions.” Facing enormous internal tension due to the disintegration of a collective American identity, the U.S. (and other similarly troubled democracies) compensates by focusing on a country with even greater identity problems as a way of diverting attention from its own failing society. Israel, a socially progressive country that relies heavily on American aid and diplomatic support presents itself to the U.S. as an inviting target and potential “test case” of democratic peace theory. If the theory holds, then Israel will see solace and security; if it should fail—oy!

Theoretically, democracy serves as a just, equitable system of government. Realistically, it can exist only under conditions that allow for its survival: an abundance of natural resources, a peaceful neighborhood, and an internal societal structure conducive to unity. The deification of democracy into a deus ex machina, capable of solving all the world’s problems by simply flipping a switch and holding elections foolishly ignores the reality that governs international and domestic politics. Only by addressing those underlying issues will we succeed in creating a more just world.