History shows us the pen is often mightier than the sword. Sometimes the way to defeat an evil ideology is just to demonstrate the better lives people lead with your beliefs. It is difficult to bomb an ideology out of people, and it cannot be done successfully by force without taking over all the affected territories and completely rebuilding their political and educational systems. Today many people wish us to have a ready answer to how the West can defeat the Islamic State.
I assume no-one seriously believes that you could or should try to attack one of the world’s great religions, which have always shown considerable resilience and inner strength when challenged by armies. The problem with Islamic fundamentalism as a political movement is it seeks to ally itself with a great religion. Islam is supported by many millions living in various countries around the world and in most of its manifestations is part of peace loving communities.
Let us consider the most recent case of success in eliminating an ideology that fathered mass deaths and executions, a belief which kept many people in poverty and tyranny. I am thinking of communism in eastern Europe. Here too there were many communists around the world who accepted much of the doctrine, but who did not support the eclipse of liberties or the savage butchery of political opponents reported from the dark days of the Soviet Union. There were many well intentioned communists who had no responsibility for the mass killings or starvations in some communist states.
The West wisely did not attack with military force the political centre of the ideology, the Soviet Union. Indeed, we had to ally with the Soviets to help defeat Nazi Germany. When there were democratic revolts in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia the West concluded it would be too dangerous and counter productive to go to their rescue. Yet 40 years after the widespread adoption of communism in Eastern Europe, the communist empire collapsed in a series of spontaneous and internal democratic revolts. These were facilitated by a political establishment at the top of the Soviet Union who had reached the conclusion that their system was falling far too far behind the west in technology, weaponry and living standards.
The reasons we won the Cold war were several. The first was we did spend enough on our own defences so the communist empire would not attack us. The second was the Soviets had increasing trouble preventing their citizens seeing the superior technology, living standards and freedoms of the West and asking why they could not have something similar. The third was the West continued to research, write, make films and produce broadcasts that demonstrated the superiority of a free enterprise democratic system. The best of these broadcasts or films were not seeking to make a political point. They were not propaganda. Just showing our lifestyles and political approaches, warts and all, was statement enough for those in the Soviet empire thinking about what would be their best future. When the Berlin Wall came down, one of the main demands of the easterners was to be able to buy and enjoy the many western brands and products they had seen somehow despite the censorship of their media.
Today we need to develop a new relationship with post Soviet Russia, which I will talk about in another post. Meanwhile the way forward with IS is for us to show there are better ways of living at peace and in prosperity, and to leave the main politics of the problem to the people living in the affected region. We should be there for those who want and seek our help and advice, but we should not think we can remodel the Middle East and eliminate radical politics by dropping bombs on people.