You Can't Eat Democracy
by DAVID L. COHN
THE drift of the world is such, it seems to me, that unless it is arrested, nearly a billion people in the Orient and the Middle East may fall under effective Russian domination within foreseeable time. Russia need use neither threats nor force to affect the course of the drift; but if half of the world’s population and a huge fraction of its resources (including the greatest oil reserves on earth) should come within her orbit, the West will be faced with making one of two choices. The first is to accept the new order of things and eventually become part of it. The second is to fight. As between these alternatives, I believe the West would fight.
It is irrelevant to discuss whether or not Russia plans to rule the world, or entertains what Russophobes call “sinister designs” upon others. Only in time can her design unfold. In the absence of convincing evidence to the contrary, we must believe she does not seek world domination. Certainly it is absurd to suppose that Russia wants war any more than we want it. But although neither Russia nor the West wants war, and even if neither should do anything to provoke it, logic points toward the distinct possibility of eventual conflict.
The terrifying aspect of all this does not lie in Russia’s intentions. The danger lies in the nature of the case itself, which is that the facts of life in Eastern lands propel their peoples toward Russia; the balance of power, therefore, might swing to her and bring on conflict with the West even if she were not at fault. There is yet time to prevent the tragedy, but we must move swiftly. The remedy lies in our hands. It is not anti-Russian or anti-anybody. It leads away from, rather than toward, war, and its application must inevitably benefit all humanity — including Russia.
I am not here concerned with applauding or deploring Russia; with the relative vices and virtues of democracy and totalitarianism. Such questions are endlessly debatable. I am concerned only with the hard facts of the case, and with suppositions that stem from them. Of these facts the chief is that the greater part of the world is, so to speak, conditioned for totalitarianism. If that should become its state, its alignment would be with the one great totalitarian state left on earth.
This, I believe, is the sense of President Truman’s allusions to the Near East and the Middle East in his extremely important Army Day address. “Turning to the Near East and the Middle East,” he said, “we find an area which presents grave problems. This area contains vast natural resources. It lies across the most convenient routes of land, air, and water communications. It is consequently an area of great economic and strategic importance, the nations of which are not strong enough . . . to withstand powerful aggression. It is easy to see, therefore, how the Near East and the Middle East might become an area of intense rivalry between outside powers, and how such rivalry might suddenly erupt into conflict.”
How does the man from the Middle West propose to prevent conflict in the Middle East? First, there must be no interference, by force or penetration, with the sovereignties of that region. Second, the countries must be aided to develop their resources and raise their standard of living.
The problem and the President’s policy may be put into perspective by stating certain theorems applicable to the peoples of Eastern lands. Men are guided by their minds; they are moved by their bellies. You can’t eat democracy. Hunger is revolutionary. Bread is counter-revolutionary. A square meal is a rarity in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. If the brotherhood of man has not been a conspicuous success at the soul level, we might try it for a while at the stomach level.
The people to whom these theorems apply are close neighbors, or neighbors not far removed, of Russia. Enormous hordes of them pass their short lives in a twilight zone between sleep and hunger. Hungry, naked, diseased, illiterate, housed as miserably as beasts of the field, they darkly breed and darkly die. We offer them democracy. The Russians, implicitly or explicitly, offer them bread, or at least the hope of it. The Russians have long been at some pains to let the peoples of the world know that they are interested in their social and economic betterment. As between democracy without bread, or bread without democracy, it is not hard to guess which a hungry man will choose.
WE approve of the efforts of peoples in Eastern lands to rid themselves of foreign domination. It is not for us to say whether their plight will be better or worse under their own rulers. But it is clear that their domestic governments in this vast area are, and nearly always have been, unimaginably corrupt, cruel, degenerate, and inefficient. Nowhere among these governments or their ruling classes is there the slightest concept of the public welfare. This is how the Bagdad newspaper Saut-el-Ahali (Voice of the People) described life in Iraq in 1944: —
... 90 per cent of the entire population of Iraq live on a subhuman level. They are condemned to a life of starvation and exposed to the ravages of epidemics without benefit of any medical assistance. And these intolerable, primitive conditions exist in the twentieth century among our own Iraqi people, who sweat and toil to make the soil yield riches which are then entirely consumed by others. . . . The government has done nothing either to mitigate the distress or combat its causes.
During the past twenty years, however, foreign oil companies have paid into the Iraq treasury, in the form of royalties and non-interest-bearing loans, nearly $100,000,000. This sum, small in the scale of American affairs, is large in terms of Iraq’s economy. Honestly employed, it might have done much to relieve the country’s distress. But evidently little of these monies, not to mention other sources of revenue, reached the people.
Similar conditions prevail in Egypt. There the narrow green ribbon of arable land along the Nile is held as follows: —
3,000,000 owners have 1,750,000 acres
146,000 owners have 1,760,000 acres
12,000 owners have 2,300,000 acres
Thus the well-to-do, few in numbers, own most of the land in a country overwhelmingly agricultural; a country, moreover, where — owing to the region’s dependence upon the Nile — little more land can be made arable. Many of these men are absentee landlords totally uninterested in the welfare of their tenants. But the Egyptian people, four fifths of them peasants, are desperately poor. According to Maitre M. S. Ghannam, Egyptian Minister of Commerce and Industry, “Statistics estimating the national income per head of the population show that the majority (the peasants, who are reckoned as the backbone of agricultural wealth, and as the source of the country’s welfare) have an average income of between £E 3 and £E 5 per annum.” That is, between $12 and $20 a year. Maitre Ghannam scarcely overstates the case when he adds: “This is hardly, if at all, sufficient for his livelihood, and is to be regarded as an astonishing figure when compared with the individual income in other civilized countries.” Yet Egypt is the most progressive and westernized country east of Suez, and it aspires to leadership of the PanArab League.
In oil-rich Iran less than 2 per cent of the people is represented in the ruling class from which the government is drawn. National revenues are largely expended upon “administration” — the upkeep of the governors. Government employees have to be grafters because they are so poorly paid. Here, as elsewhere in this part of the world, corruption in public office is the rule rather than the exception. Judicial decisions are bought and sold. Tax collectors are bribed. He must be poor and obscure who pays legitimate taxes at all. Hundreds of thousands of the people are opium addicts. Four out of five children die in infancy. Three out of four who survive never learn to read or write.
More than half of India’s four hundred millions revel in an average income of two cents a day; the remainder rejoice in an average income of five cents a day. The life expectancy of the average Indian is twenty-five years. The poverty, disease, and degradation existing among these great masses of people is unspeakable. Conditions among China’s millions are similar.
We will not, we say, permit other countries to be overrun by anybody. For “anybody,” read Russia. This puts us in an anomalous position. In the East it commits us to support debauched Oriental governments while doing nothing to raise the standard of living of the people. They shall have full sovereignty but empty stomachs.
Russia, on the other hand, by the very existence of its massive system of the so-called classless society glorifying the worker and peasant, does offer hope to Eastern lands. Does anyone doubt, moreover, that the landless, poverty-stricken peasantry of these regions are not hearing how the Russians divided the great estates of Eastern Europe among the landless peasants of Germany, Poland, Rumania, and Hungary? Can anyone doubt the explosive potentialities, among the landless, of such a proceeding? May it not be that Eastern Europe will soon stand as a permanent exhibit of what Russia does, and can do, for the dispossessed?
In the Russo-democratic struggle for the Eastern lands, Russia has certain other advantages. The peoples of these countries find democracy an almost incomprehensible idea. They have had no preparation for it, because they have had some form of despotism or dictatorship for thousands of years. Far more than the nineteenth-century workers of Europe, they fall within the pronunciamento of the Communist Manifesto: “ Workers of the world, unite.” They have nothing to lose but their chains. What indeed, from his point of view, can the average Egyptian, Indian, Iraqi, Saudi Arabian, lose by exchanging his present masters for Russian masters?
Russia is a neighbor to these peoples. Her mighty shadow falls upon them. Her prestige has been enormously enhanced by her magnificent struggle during the war. She is more Asiatic and Oriental than European and Western, and as such is more natively understanding of Orientals than we are. She has their capacity for infinite patience, their talent for circumlocution, their endurance and stoicism. Millions of her citizens are Moslems who have an affinity with the huge groups of their coreligionists outside Russia. Recently Mr. Jinnah, head of the Moslem League, was quoted as saying that he is a Moslem first and an Indian second. This feeling, as Sir Frederick Puckle has recently pointed out in Foreign Affairs, is of the essence of the separate Moslem state, Pakistan. It is not surpiising, then, that Russia is sending to the Middle East, as diplomats and emissaries, Arabic-speaking Moslems of Russian citizenship.
Russia is not only spiritually closer to the Eastern peoples than we, but she enjoys the enormous advantage of being physically near them. She is on the borders of, or close to, China, India, Tibet, Burma, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq. We are in almost every way remote from the populations of these countries. In each of them, moreover, while there is no one to state our case, there is at work a tireless, devoted, intelligent, ruthless Communist group. Their heart is in the Kremlin. They have ready to hand a weapon of the greatest power: the facts of life in the lands where they operate.
There are, however, favorable factors on our side. We enjoy a great good will in the Eastern lands. Its increase or decrease depends upon what we shall do in the future. We are not feared by them. They do not regard our missionaries and businessmen as inevitable forerunners of soldiers. We have demonstrated on many occasions our abandonment of the old policy that the flag follows trade.
American schools, especially in the Near East, have turned out numbers of students, many of whom are men of influence in widely scattered communities. They admire us and would undoubtedly be partisans of our cause among their countrymen. Throughout the Eastern lands we have great prestige because of our technological achievements. The war was, from this point of view, a world-wide demonstration of American machines and methods.
Uncle Sam appeared before millions of people as a lean, tall, gum-chewing djinn performing feats as remarkable as those related by village storytellers about the wizards of old. They look upon us as makers of miracles, creators of the world’s highest standard of living, electrically energetic and magically ingenious. They may deplore in us what strikes them as our excessive devotion to the material, and our childlike ways, but their needs are so great and their means so inadequate to the task, that they would welcome our aid.
SUCH a design poses the problem of our future relations with Russia. It is not likely that we shall come into conflict with her over ideology alone. It is possible that we may come into conflict with her in the matter of influence over others amounting to dominance. We are profoundly concerned with the balance of power, however much we may shrink from using that ominous phrase. No nation, no group of nations, must be permitted to become so powerful as to threaten our security. That, essentially, is why we have twice gone to war within a generation. And we shall continue to be concerned with the balance of power until the dream of world government becomes a reality. If, then, the greater part of the world’s people should, through puppet governments or openly, align themselves with Russia, war between her and the West would become probable if not inevitable.
In the kind of struggle for equilibrium that is now going on in the world, armies and navies are of little use. Nothing can prevent, or ought to prevent, the dispossessed from trying to come into their fair share of the earth’s goods and services. It does not matter whether men march toward this goal or crawl toward it; their destination is the same. Fortunately for us and for humanity, the remedy for preserving the equilibrium is one which our native genius has shaped us to apply.
It is that, as President Truman has stated, the United States shall do its part in helping the peoples of the Eastern lands to raise their standard of living. Since, however, this is a project designed to save the peace and to be beneficial to all men, while the size of the task is a challenge to all, it is understood that the Administration will ask the United Nations to sponsor it. This is as it should be, for as a joint enterprise the burdens and benefits would be equally shared and no nation would get unfair advantages for itself. Russia may, if she will, join in the plan. If she does, the experience should remove her morbid suspicions of the West. She would occupy, in the great work to be done, the position to which her place in the world entitles her. If she refuses to join, we shall know the better where we stand in relation to her. But her nonparticipation, although it would immensely complicate the case, ought not to deter us.
There was a time when the democracies shivered as they waited to see what Hitler was going to do. Now they show a tendency to wait and see what Stalin is going to do. I suggest that we say what we propose to do, and proceed to do it. Let us in good will ask the Russians to join us in the Eastern task. But if they refuse, let us proceed without them. We are not belligerent or imperialist. Our motives are not evil. We want nothing for ourselves alone. But neither are we weaklings. We have a mighty strength. We shall move in this case not to harm but to help all men; it does not matter that our actions spring from enlightened selfishness. The world will move with us; and if Russia should stand aside, let her stand aside. All living is dangerous, but few things, as we ought to know by now, are so surely productive of disaster as weakness and irresolution.
The essence of the plan suggested is that it is not charity. It is not a temporary palliative. It is a plan to help others to help themselves and to pay their own way, so far as possible, while it is being put into operation.
There are endless tasks to be done in the East, but three must take precedence over all others. These concern transportation, agriculture, and light industry.
Throughout the Eastern lands there are few roads, railroads, or airplane services, and the available waterways are poorly developed. Without adequate transportation, trade languishes and nations stagnate. Without it there may be a surplus of food in one place and famine in another; a hunger for goods on the one hand and surplus on the other. Moreover, costs of transportation by coolie’s back, cart, or camel are inordinately high, no matter how low the coolie’s wages or the camel’s upkeep. It is unnecessary to stress the point that we must develop transportation services in the East as a primary condition to the prosperity of the region.
Simultaneously, we must increase the farm output of these countries in order to banish the specter of starvation that always hangs over them. One of the direst needs is water. It is at hand, but it must be impounded by dams during the rains and released during the dry season through irrigation works. The plan must, therefore, envisage the building of dams and at the same time the use of the impounded waters to develop electrical power. Fertilizer plants are needed; reforestation; livestock programs; soil analysis; the use of good seed instead of inferior bazaar seed; and the employment of modern techniques to raise the low productivity of the soil.
Light industry must be built. This would include plants for making cotton cloth, shoes, sugar, cement, soap, household wares, wood products, simple pharmaceuticals, preserved foods, and hundreds of other items. Raw materials for making these things are to be found in the region, and workers could be easily trained; the industries would flow naturally out of the soil.
The money cost of such a program may be large. It need not be prohibitive. We are at present contributing 1 per cent of our national income, as are other members of the United Nations, to UNRRA. This amounts, in our case, to a contribution of about $1,500,000,000. When UNRRA is able to curtail its activities, we could correspondingly reduce the monies we supply it. These sums could then be used in the East with no increase of our national budget.
It must be remembered, moreover, that the Eastern peoples themselves could make substantial contributions to such a program. They could supply all the labor and much of the raw materials needed, if we provide the plans and direction. They could pay for some part of the imports with exports, the fraction varying from country to country and the balance of the indebtedness being expressed by national loans.
While such a program is in no sense an act of charity, it must be considered not as a straight business deal but in the light of the desperate realities of our world. It will serve our national security. The brunt of the burden, because of our resources and skills and the fact that the war left us relatively untouched, must fall on us. But we are admirably equipped for the task. We could export not only goods but, more important, technicians in every field, who would teach others how to do for themselves. We could undertake, for the first time, a thorough survey of vast areas never explored, where perhaps lie untold riches.
The money costs of such a program must be calculated not in country-store terms but in terms of the broadest statesmanship. Yet they must be coldly calculated to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, including the American taxpayer. Any aspect of charity or almsgiving about it, any hint of sentimentality, would, in my opinion, be ruinous to the project. Let us render unto others what we are able, and let them in turn render unto us what they are able.
A plan of this kind is obviously not designed to save the British Empire, to provoke or harm Russia, or to benefit any particular nation. And although we have no selfish purpose to serve, nobody would be better served than we ourselves if the standard of living of one billion people should be raised. That accomplishment might go far toward preventing war. It would certainly be of incalculable benefit in preventing in the United States an economic depression whose effects upon this reeling earth would be catastrophic. Some British economists are already predicting that a severe depression will be upon us within five years. The Russians, as is well known, count upon the cyclical depression to bring about our democratic downfall. Here, perhaps, is the way of escape for us and for all men whose beliefs and faith are like our own.