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Dignity, Not Democracy

by Colin Rule

From Colin Rule's blog.

Colin Rule

David Ignatius in today's Post: "We talk about democracy and human rights. Iraqis talk about justice and honor." That comment from Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, made at a seminar last month on counterinsurgency, is the beginning of wisdom for an America that is trying to repair the damage of recent years. It applies not simply to Iraq but to the range of problems in a world tired of listening to an American megaphone.
Dignity is the issue that vexes billions of people around the world, not democracy. Indeed, when people hear President Bush preaching about democratic values, it often comes across as a veiled assertion of American power. The implicit message is that other countries should be more like us -- replacing their institutions, values and traditions with ours. We mean well, but people feel disrespected. The bromides and exhortations are a further assault on their dignity.
As we think about a "dignity agenda," there are some other useful readings. A starting point is Zbigniew Brzezinski's new book, "Second Chance," which argues that America's best hope is to align itself with what he calls a "global political awakening." The former national security adviser explains: "In today's restless world, America needs to identify with the quest for universal human dignity, a dignity that embodies both freedom and democracy but also implies respect for cultural diversity."
After I mentioned Brzezinski's ideas about dignity in a previous column, a reader sent me a 1961 essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, which made essentially the same point. A deeply skeptical man who resisted the "isms" of partisan thought, Berlin was trying to understand the surge of nationalism despite two world wars. "Nationalism springs, as often as not, from a wounded or outraged sense of human dignity, the desire for recognition," he wrote.
"The craving for recognition has grown to be more powerful than any other force abroad today," Berlin continued. "It is no longer economic insecurity or political impotence that oppresses the imaginations of many young people in the West today, but a sense of the ambivalence of their social status -- doubts about where they belong, and where they wish or deserve to belong."
A final item on my dignity reading list is "Violent Politics," a new book by the iconoclastic historian William R. Polk. He examines 10 insurgencies through history -- from the American Revolution to the Irish struggle for independence to the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation -- to make a stunningly simple point, which we managed to forget in Iraq: People don't like to be told what to do by outsiders. "The very presence of foreigners, indeed, stimulates the sense first of apartness and ultimately of group cohesion." Foreign intervention offends people's dignity, Polk reminds us. That's why insurgencies are so hard to defeat.
People will fight to protect their honor even -- and perhaps, especially -- when they have nothing else left. That has been a painful lesson for the Israelis, who hoped for the past 30 years they could squeeze the Palestinians into a rational peace deal. It's excruciating now for Armenian Americans like me, when we see Turkey refusing to make a rational accounting of its history. But if foreign governments try to make people do the right thing, it won't work. They have to do it for themselves."
I think of the Eritrean rebels, a nation of 3 million fighting a nation of 60 million, with no outside support and no hope of winning. Essentially every man of fighting age was slaughtered at one point in the struggle. So did the Eritreans give up? No. They retreated to the arid mountains alongside Sudan, lived in caves, and had babies... and waited for them to grow up. They won by refusing to lose. And they were willing to give up everything to achieve it.
No amount of shock and awe can overcome a people's determination to "never kneel down." That sense of justice, of dignity, is far more determinative than rational power calculations and rights-based discussions of power sharing and compromise.


Colin Rule has worked at the intersection of technology and conflict resolution for the last two decades. He is CEO of, an online dispute resolution service provider in Silicon Valley, and a non-resident Fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. From 2003 to 2011, he served as eBay and PayPal's first director of Online Dispute Resolution, designing and implementing systems that now resolve more than 60 million disputes each year. Mr. Rule is the author of Online Dispute Resolution for Business, published by Jossey-Bass in September 2002. He has presented and trained around the world for organizations including the U.S. Department of State, UNCITRAL, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution, as well as teaching at UMass-Amherst, Stanford, Southern Methodist University, and Hastings College of the Law. He has written and been interviewed extensively about the Internet since 1999, with columns and articles appearing in ACResolution, Consensus, Dispute Resolution Magazine, and Peace Review. He holds a master's degree from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in conflict resolution and technology, a B.A. in peace studies from Haverford College, and he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995-1997.

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