Democracy Promotion vs. Dignity Promotion

I have to confess my bias that I have always been skeptical of the merits of democracy promotion, especially via military means. So when I red this essay about Obama’s proposed foreign policy focus on dignity promotion over democracy promotion, I got excited….Psychologists have routinely shown how people get trapped in cycles of violence and some outside the box thinking does appear to be in order to remove ourselves from the cycles of conflict that we have engaged in with much of the world’s poorer populations.

Still, as an empirical psychologist, my first instinct was to try to find empirical evidence that indeed dignity promotion is a better tactic than democracy promotion.

An excerpt from the article:

This is why, Obama’s advisers argue, national security depends in large part on dignity promotion. Without it, the U.S. will never be able to destroy al-Qaeda. Extremists will forever be able to demagogue conditions of misery, making continued U.S. involvement in asymmetric warfare an increasingly counterproductive exercise — because killing one terrorist creates five more in his place. “It’s about attacking pools of potential terrorism around the globe,” Gration says. “Look at Africa, with 900 million people, half of whom are under 18. I’m concerned that unless you start creating jobs and livelihoods we will have real big problems on our hands in ten to fifteen years.”

So does reducing poverty = dignity promotion = reduced terrorism? I’ve been down this road before as I have a natural proclivity to believe that poverty leads to terrorism…I still believe it to some extent, but well written articles on the subject tend to refute this connection.

Still, perusing the literature, Democracy seems to be an equally poor cure for terrorism. Consider an excerpt from this article:

Between 2000 and 2003, according to the State Department’s annual “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report, 269 major terrorist incidents around the world occurred in countries classified as “free” by Freedom House, 119 occurred in “partly free” countries, and 138 occurred in “not free” countries.

The article goes on to cite even more evidence refuting the idea that terrorism is a function of lack of democracy.

Still, I think Obama is on to something with the idea of dignity promotion. Even the authors of the paper refuting the link between poverty and terrorism state that terrorism may be caused by “long-standing feelings of indignity and frustration that have little to do with economics.”

What exactly do they mean by indignity? The Foreign Affairs article cited above does a reasonable job surveying terrorism from a statistical point of view and it seems that the overwhelming number of terrorist incidents have something to do with a “fight against military occupation and for self-determination. Terrorists are not driven by a desire for democracy but by their opposition to what they see as foreign domination.”

This reminds me of one of my favorite theories in social psychology, the idea of basic psychological needs. It is said that just as we need food and water to survive, people need certain psychological conditions in order to be mentally healthy. The 3 needs often identified are relatedness, autonomy, and competence. What if terrorism was a reaction to the lack of psychological rather than physical needs in a population? Could this be the kind of dignity that we should concern ourselves with restoring? Perhaps there are people who feel democracy promotes autonomy and therefore dignity, but I would argue that an imposed democracy is more likely to be seen as a violation of autonomy rather than a gift of autonomy.

Can the basic psychological needs of groups be measured and found to be related to or better, experimentally found to be a cause of, terrorism? This is a question that is quite empirically answerable and very worthy of empirical study and it’s definitely something I would like to study further. If anyone would like to point me in the direction of related research, please email me!

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