Hearts, Minds and Schools
The war in Iraq has produced many casualties. One lesser-noticed one may be the death of an idea -- the idea that the culture of a nation or region can be transformed quickly by well-intentioned foreigners. The recent report of the Iraq Study Group scarcely mentions the grand goals of bringing democracy to Iraq, and instead contemplates a drawdown of U.S. combat troops. It seems that the notion of transforming the political culture of the Middle East has been drawn down as well.
"Are the people of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty?" President Bush asked in 2003. "Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? I, for one, do not believe it." As his audience applauded, he went on to criticize the "cultural condescension" of skeptics who believe that Islam and democracy don't mix.
The president was, at best, half right. In the long run, the values of freedom may be right and true for all people in all societies. But the cultural values favorable to pluralism and entrepreneurship are indispensable to building democracy and capitalist prosperity.
For the past half-century, politicians and experts in rich countries have tried to improve living standards and build democracy in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Early on, they, too, were convinced that tyranny and poverty could be defeated, that democracy and capitalism were rooted in human nature. With a few exceptions, such as South Korea and Taiwan, meaningful progress has not materialized.
Some cultures and some religions clearly do better than others in promoting democracy and prosperity. Iraq and Afghanistan show that, where culture is adverse, a blind belief in the power of freedom is a frail foundation for U.S. policy.
But culture is not destiny. The failures in Iraq and instability in Afghanistan do not prove that these or other countries are condemned to stagnation and political oppression. For politics to change, however, culture must change, too -- and that takes much more than dispatching troops, holding elections and writing constitutions.
During my 20 years (1962-82) with the U.S. Agency for International Development, I directed five missions in Central America and the Caribbean. Like other young idealists, I believed that President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress -- a "Marshall Plan" for Latin America -- would make the region safe for democracy.
But as I encountered daily the intractability of Latin America's problems, it became clear to me that poverty and injustice were rooted in the region's values. I was learning what Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan would articulate years later, after the Russian economy collapsed in the late 1990s. "I used to think that capitalism was human nature," he reflected. "But it isn't at all. It's culture." The same is true of democracy.
In the late 1970s, I worked in Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. In 1804, when Haiti became independent, it was vastly richer and more powerful than the Spanish colony to the east. But today Haiti is by far the poorest country in the hemisphere -- in 2003, its per capita income was $1,740, compared with $6,820 for the Dominican Republic, according to U.N. estimates. Adult literacy was 51 percent in Haiti, vs. 88 percent in the Dominican Republic. And while Dominicans have experienced substantial democratic continuity in the past 40 years, authoritarianism has been the norm for Haiti.
The Dominican Republic's evolution has been typical of Latin America, while Haiti's has been typical of Africa. Why the difference? The dominant religion in Haiti is voodoo, which nurtures mistrust and irrationality. Its roots are in the Dahomey region of West Africa -- what is today Benin. The levels of income, child malnutrition, child mortality, life expectancy and literacy are virtually identical today in Haiti and Benin.
Some religions and cultures do better than others at promoting personal responsibility, education, entrepreneurship and trust -- all values that shape political and economic development. When it comes to democracy, prosperity and rule of law, Protestant societies -- above all, the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden -- have generally done better than Catholic nations, particularly those of Latin America. Confucian societies such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and now China have produced transforming economic growth. Islamic countries, even those with oil, have not.
The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once stated: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."