1. Five Major Transformations in the World
The years between 1985 and 1991 saw the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. F. W. De Klerk entered negotiations in 1989 to end racial segregation in South Africa. As one of the most fundamentalist countries in the Middle East, Iran saw in 1997 the election of one of the most open-minded and progressive Islamic clerics as president. Going back a century, 1861 saw the start of the American Civil War, which essentially changed the nature of American society and politics for ever. On a more global basis, the fight for gender equality has resulted in one of the most important transformations in over the past century. The fundamental aspect of all these events is that major changes in politics and culture were initiated not by external forces, but by leaders within the old system.
1.1. The End of Slavery Trade and the Who's and How's of Change
The slave trade flourished on the idea that the blacks were inferior to the white man. Among those who engaged in the battle to free the slaves were idealists who believed that all men were born free and equal, but was the slave trade ended by these idealists? The idealists were too radical for their time. They were therefore unable to gain the necessary political leverage to end the slavery on their own. The battle for emancipation of the slaves needed a leader who would condemn slavery but not radically break from the white supremacist ideology. Abraham Lincoln famously declared: "I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything."
While this view is totally unacceptable in today's world, it allowed Abraham Lincoln to draw sufficient support from a vast majority of white voters who despite believing in the superiority of the white race were in favor of ending the slavery. Thus, Abraham Lincoln was by no means a stranger to the supremacist ideology. He was an "insider" himself, but a progressive insider who wished to abolish the worst consequences of the white supremacist ideology.
1.2. The Road to Gender Equality
The feminist movement has gone through three waves of struggle over the past two centuries. Today, it is clear that the history of feminism represents one of the greatest social transformations of our modern time. However, the fight for social and economic equality did not start until 1960s. Apart from feminists such as Voltairine de Cleyre and Margaret Sanger, the first wave of feminist movement was primarily concerned with few political rights such as women's suffrage. The notion that men and women were equal had not yet been fully formed at the time. Throughout the first wave, the idea that gender differences justified unequal treatment of men and women-either in a positive or negative way-was widespread among members of both sexes. Before the feminist movement could gain the kind of momentum and leverage to campaign for full gender equality, a much more limited battle had to be won by the "insiders" of the old gender culture first. Though these insiders did not necessarily believe in full equality between men and women, their fight pioneered changes that would fuel a more progressive struggle later.
1.3. Gorbachev and the End of the Cold War
The West's containment policy played a pivotal role in hindering the global expansion of communism after WWII, but the containment policy alone proved insufficient to break down the Soviet state itself. For the communist state to change, it needed a leader from within the organization. Mikhael Gorbachev was such a leader. He was a dedicated communist and an insider of the culture of Kremlin, who aspired to change the system culturally and politically from within. Considering the Communist Party's paranoia in mid twentieth century, only a leader from within the communist system could ever gain the kind of leverage that Gorbachev had to break down the old system. His work ultimately opened the pathway for progressive forces that would rid Russia of communism altogether. But Gorbachev was by no means a dues ex machina who would come in from outside to shake up the system. He was very much an insider; a reformer within the system, one that aimed at changing both the country and his Party, but at the same time preserving both the Soviet Union and the Party. He failed on both fronts, and today we are happy with the outcome. It is positive that the former Soviet republics finally gained their independence. It is equally positive that the Communist Party lost its grip on power. Russia's current market economy has created a new promise for future prosperity for its citizens and for global trade. None of this would have been possible under the Communist Party. But could we have arrived here without a man like Gorbachev?
1.4. Apartheid is a Thing of the Past
Though there must be no doubt that the international sanctions put effective pressure on the apartheid regime, it was not sanctions alone that changed the South African system. Like the emancipation of slaves or the freeing of Russian people from the communist chain, it took a leader within the system to bring about the political and cultural change in South Africa. That leader was F. W. de Klerk, a white ex-apartheid leader. As the first black president, Nelson Mandela became indispensable in the transitional government. His efforts and calm style prevented a potential civil unrest during this delicate period. But even Mandela could not trigger the change by himself. He was imprisoned at the time de Klerk began engineering the transformation. Although Mandela's efforts from his prison cell proved significant in bringing about change to the South African system, the transformation ultimately needed de Klerk to spark change. De Klerk was by no means an angel who had always wanted to change the system. For many years he had defended the segregation in South Africa, but he ultimately ended the system. De Klerk's early views in favor of segregation allowed him to survive as a political figure in the apartheid system. Had he acted as an outsider and campaigned for change from the outset of his political career, he might not have won the presidency and thus, might not have arrived at the point from which to end the apartheid.
1.5. Democracy and Islam
Regime change has been one of the items on the top of the agenda for US's Iran policy. Various measures ranging from sanctions to supporting political dissidents have been applied to this end. Every time the US stepped up efforts to topple the Islamic Republic, the Islamic Republic gained strength by drawing upon anti-American sentiments in the population. In 1997, Mohammad Khatami won the presidential election. Soon he embarked on a master plan for cultural and political change in Iran. Within a short period of time the political arena in the country became much freer, women gained increased rights, and a wealth of newspapers and books flourished. Iran became a more open society. Although unlike de Klerk and Gorbachev, Khatami never succeeded in completing a lasting change in the country, his case is another example of change initiated from within a system. Just like de Klerk, Gorbachev, and others, Khatami was an insider to the system. His vision was to create a more progressive Iran, but he was still an Islamic cleric who aimed at preserving the role of religion in politics. A real change that would have divided religion from politics might have happened later had he succeeded in completing his agenda first. But the point is that an insider like Khatami must succeed in preparing the ground before any real change can happen. Khatami's legacy demonstrates that only a leader from within the Islamic Republic has the best chances of initiating change, if change in Iran is at all possible.
2. Change from Within
Our world is not flawless and perfect. Everywhere one turns one can see breach of human rights, injustices, and despair. The desire to change the world for the better is the dream of all of us. Here in America, we believe that it is our duty to help change the world for the better, and some of us believe that positive change can be enforced by us from outside. But the history of the five major transformations, as discussed above, offers us a different lesson about the dynamics for change. They highlight the crucial role of internal triggers, internal leadership, and internal mobilization for implementing change.
Change does not always have to come from within a culture or a system. History illustrates plenty of changes in the world that were enforced from outside. But a review of these five significant events over the past two centuries reveals that major transformations in the modern world and in our modern time are usually initiated and executed by internal leaders. In other words, while we sometimes have good reasons to help change the world, meaningful and positive change is most effectively initiated and completed through internal forces, led by leaders within a political culture, possibly combined with peaceful and constructive pressure from outside, but not imposed from outside.
Hamid Karimianpour is an avid supporter of world peace. He dreams of the day when people around the globe learn to deal with problems and conflicts in a non-violent way.
Hamid has over ten years experience as business consultant for the oil and gas, telecoms, and the electronics industry. He has also been involved in charity initiatives and nonprofit organizations. He recently participated in a ten million dollar fund-raising effort for youth related activities in Virginia.
Prior to becoming a business consultant, Hamid worked as a mediator in Norway, where he learned that there is always a third way for resolving conflicts.
Hamid writes articles for business and political journals and blogs to help change the world for the better.