Cultivating democracy abroad

I have the honor of serving as president of the International Association of Political Consultants, a group whose primary function is the promotion of democracy. Once a year we gather to discuss political trends and issues in interesting locations around the world — this year in Bali, Indonesia. Along with the beautiful scenery and gracious culture, we’ve been treated to a flood of political intelligence from the Asia Pacific region, including an opening address from the president of Indonesia, the third-largest democracy and largest Muslim nation in the world.

I could write a half-dozen columns on this conference, but of most interest to readers of this newspaper might be a presentation by Australia’s oldest polling firm, Roy Morgan Research. The study, commissioned by the association, was conducted in Australia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

The good news is that 77 to 93 percent of individual country respondents agreed with the statement “I believe in Democracy.” Clearly, the concept of self-government is a powerful one throughout the region. As is the practice of religion. An overwhelming majority in every country save Australia reported regularly attending religious services and said that “Religion is an important part of everyday life.” Only 46 percent of Australians believe religion is important, but from 80 percent in India to 96 percent in Indonesia, their respective religion is central to their daily life. Important as religion is to Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists all agree that their faith is a personal choice and should not be imposed on others — an important sign of the tolerant and moderate attitudes in of this part of the world. Why is that important? Because even Indonesia’s huge Muslim population (the largest in the world) does not subscribe to the radical Islam that so worries the West.

But many in the Asia-Pacific region do worry about the values of the West and America in particular. When asked what one group from a list of 15 was “MOST responsible for the terrorism our world is living with every day?” three nations cited America as second only to Muslims, two rated the U.S. as third behind Muslims and Arabs and one declared the U.S. as being most responsible by a 4-to-1 margin. Those are astounding numbers coming from a region that is largely moderate and religiously diverse and that holds a generally positive view of Americans. The researchers report these respondents like Americans and embrace much of our culture but believe our government’s foreign policy is responsible for the terrorism that threatens them every day. This administration’s unilateral “my way or the highway” policies are not seen as the solution to fighting terrorism. Rather, those policies are seen as being the problem.

And those surveyed don’t see that problem going away soon. When asked, “How long do you think it will be until a solution to the global conflict in our divided world is found?” the universal answer was “Never.” The most optimistic response came from Indonesia, where a slim plurality of 36 percent took that position. Hefty majorities of others surveyed believe terrorism and global conflict will always be with us.

An interesting insight into this pessimistic view of the future is found in the response to a question about the most serious problem facing the world in the next 10 years. Four nations chose “Rich versus Poor” from a list of five choices, including the conflicts between East and West, Jews and Muslims, Christianity and Islam and Palestine and Israel. Two others ranked the populist conflict between rich and poor in second place, and only Thailand put it third.

This research suggests that in what is arguably the most important political and economic region in this century, America’s unilateral approach to foreign policy and our focus on military solutions is counter-productive. People here are hungry for education, jobs and democratic reforms. These nations, Indonesia in particular, could play a powerful role in helping negotiate solutions to the clash between Islam and the West. But to get their active participation, America may need to consider a shift in priorities. This region will respond much more positively to economic development than military might. The world spends some $2 billion a day on arms. Just imagine what a fraction of that money could do to educate children, create jobs and promote democracy. The message of the Morgan research is that if America focuses more on GDP than guns, we’ll be more successful in securing our Pacific flank against terrorism.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.