Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (2004) and a former British journalist specializing in foreign affairs. John Hulsman is a contributing editor at the National Interest and a visiting fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. This essay is drawn from the authors’ book, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America ’s Role in the World" which is being published this month by Pantheon.
A certain awareness of the limits on American power is growing among the wiser U.S. policy elites as a result of the disasters into which the Bush administration has led the United States. Even in these circles, however, a very widespread belief exists that in the former Soviet Union and in the Muslim world, America can compensate for these weaknesses by encouraging the spread of democracy. The idea that “democracy” will solve all problems is also used as a conscious or unconscious excuse to avoid having to think seriously about negotiating compromise solutions to a range of disputes in the Middle East, and especially, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—since this would require a willingness to show moral courage in facing the inevitable backlash within the U.S.
This faith and attitude is shared not just by neoconservatives and liberal hawks, but by a majority of the leaderships of both parties, by majorities in establishment think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment and the Brookings Institution and by much of the foreign policy bureaucracy. It is also not a fantasy cooked up by the neo-conservatives, but has deep roots in certain strands of the American tradition. It is also often tragically mistaken.[i]
The element of classical tragedy is that spreading democracy is a noble and worthwhile goal. A world in which democracies are more widespread, more secure, and more firmly anchored should indeed be part of the American legacy to humanity.[ii] The errors lie in believing that the spread of democracy consists of progress down a single known path to a fixed and preordained goal; that this progress can and should be linked to the achievement of short- and medium-term American foreign policy goals; that true democrats in other countries should be expected to invariably support those goals, even if they conflict with the national interests of their own countries; and that democracy can substitute for wise diplomacy.[iii]
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Insofar as this analysis is based on anything other than ideological faith, it draws almost exclusively on the history of Eastern Europe during and after the fall of Communism. But as Francis Fukuyama and others now have argued that the East European case is unique and must not be universalized. In Eastern Europe, nationalism was mobilized behind political and economic reform in a way that cannot be replicated elsewhere—least of all in the Middle East, where much of Arab and Iranian nationalism is bitterly anti-American.
East Europeans committed themselves to democracy and reform as a way of escaping the hated influence of Moscow and fulfilling what they regard as their historically mandated national destinies of joining the West. In Eastern Europe, therefore, nationalism, a pro-American outlook and support for democracy all went together. Moreover, the push of nationalism in Eastern Europe was added to the tremendous pull of NATO and European Union membership, and the assistance of European Union aid. But E.U. membership is assuredly not being offered to Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Iran.
In the Muslim world, both spreading democracy and attracting support for U.S. policies will be possible only if enough Muslims think that this is not only in their personal interest, but also in their patriotic interest. Preaching democracy and freedom at them is useless if they associate the adoption of Western-style democracy with national humiliation and the sacrifice of vital national interests.
The problem is that this democratist thinking is borne of an American culture that make it very difficult for many Americans to understand other peoples’ nationalisms. The tendency to conflate America, and American international interests, with righteousness can too easily lead to demonization of rival nations. This is especially true where these nations are ruled by non-democratic systems that Americans instinctively see as illegitimate. Many of the subjects of those states may share this feeling. On the other hand, on foreign and security issues, those states may well enjoy the support of the great majority of their peoples—at least when it comes to a defense of national interests and an angry rejection of foreign pressure. So dismissing the views of other states because those states are not democratic can therefore easily become a dismissal of the views of their peoples too, even when these views are expressed by such Westernized and liberal figures as the journalists of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.[iv]
Among neoconservatives and liberal hawks, the desire to spread democracy can also take a form explicitly dedicated to the weakening or even destruction of other states, even ones that are by no means fully-fledged enemies of the U.S. This kind of thinking has been given a tremendous impetus by the way in which mass “democratic” movements (which were, in fact, mostly nationalist) helped destroy the Soviet Union. Thus in a piece urging a tough U.S. strategy of confronting and weakening China, Max Boot of The Wall Street Journal wrote:
Beyond containment, deterrence, and economic integration lies a strategy that the British never employed against either Germany or Japan --internal subversion. Sorry, the polite euphemisms are "democracy promotion" and "human rights protection," but these amount to the same thing: The freer China becomes, the less power the Communist oligarchy will enjoy. The United States should aim to "Taiwanize" the mainland--to spread democracy through such steps as increased radio broadcasts and Internet postings…In general, the U.S. government should elevate the issue of human rights in our dealings with China. We need to champion Chinese dissidents, intellectuals, and political prisoners, and help make them as famous as Andrei Sakharov, Václav Havel, and Lech Walesa. [v]
In terms of U.S. national interests, the argument for the spreading of democracy in the world is based on the idea of the “Democratic Peace”: the belief, repeatedly stated by President Bush and other officials, that “democracies don’t fight other democracies.”[vii] It is indeed true that established democracies don’t fight each other, but only if other very important factors are either added to the equation or removed from it—which means this is not true as far as much of the world is concerned and for the foreseeable future.
Two elements must be present. First, there must be the legal and civil institutions that we in the West think of as naturally accompanying democracy, but are, in fact, absent from most quasi-democracies around the world. Second, a nation must have prosperity, which creates middle classes with a real commitment to democracy and spreads well-being through enough of the population that the masses accept being led by the middle classes rather than some variety of populist demagogue, as is increasingly the case in Latin America today.
In the Middle East, we have already seen electoral victory for radical Islamist forces in Iran, the Shia areas of Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. To judge by recent limited elections in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, radicals would also win free votes there if the authorities permitted it.
In the long run, democracy is indeed necessary for progress and stability in the greater Middle East and for the defeat of terrorism and extremism. But moderate, nonaggressive, reasonably pro-Western democracies can only be established in the long run if the social, cultural and institutional foundations for them are laid by successful economic development—and this is a generational process. Furthermore, there is no chance of Arab democratic feeling developing in a moderate and pro-Western direction unless the U.S. changes many of its existing policies in the Middle East and shows a respect—a democratic respect—for the opinions of ordinary people in the region.
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Even more strikingly, Washingtonian democratist orthodoxy presents an understanding of freedom that is very distorted from the one shared by most Americans and by the American tradition. The founding document on which the moral philosophy of America ’s approach to the world over the past 60 years is based is Roosevelt ’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech of 1941, setting out the great principles which inspired the Western allies during the Second World War. Those who haven’t read them often assume that they must include the freedom to vote. Wrong. The four freedoms are freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.[ix] Democracy as such is nowhere mentioned.
Of course, none of these freedoms can exist under a totalitarian state but they can all exist under a moderately authoritarian one—as they did in several states of Europe before 1914. Freedom from want and freedom from fear both require states that respect their citizens, but are also strong enough to protect them.
Also required are the rule of law, a reasonably independent and efficient judiciary and police, a law-abiding, honest and rational bureaucracy and a population that enjoys basic rights of labor, movement and free discussion. All of these rights can and often have existed in countries where the executive has been unelected. None exist in rotten contemporary “democracies” like the Philippines. All of these things require that the state be strong enough to protect its citizens from outside aggression, internal rebellion, uncontrolled crime, and oppression and exploitation by predatory elites, including the state’s servants acting on their own account and for their own profit, like the police in so many countries. Francis Lieber, adviser to President Lincoln, put it simply: “A weak government is a negation of liberty.”
The need for a return to Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” as a foundation for our thought about spreading freedom in the world is evident in the annual “Freedom in the World Survey” by the Congressionally-funded, semiofficial U.S. organization Freedom House. These documents are revered by much of the U.S. media and political establishment as holy writ, almost the U.S. equivalent of pronouncements by the Soviet Higher Party School. And like those pronouncements, many of Freedom House’s ratings possess only a tangential relationship to reality.
What on earth, for example, are we to make of the fact that in 2006, Freedom House gave China its lowest mark, seven, for political freedom and a six for civil liberty—barely different from the seven and seven it gave in 1972, in the depth of the dreadful Cultural Revolution?[x] Does Freedom House seriously think that ordinary Chinese are no freer today in real terms than at a time when their country was being swept by waves of monstrous totalitarian fanaticism, leading to the death, torture and deportation of tens of millions of people? Is this the same country of which two New York Times headlines of March 12 read, “A Sharp Debate Erupts in China Over Ideologies” and “Film in China: Fantasy trumps controversy, officially, but all movies are available one way or another.” If challenged on this and similar idiocies, Freedom House officials tend to reply that they work on the basis of very narrow criteria, like free elections and private ownership of the media. But this is not an excuse—it is a confession.
Too much of the democratist ideology and its recommendations fail the test not just of study but of common sense, as well. Too many American democratists base their whole approach to the world on the assumption that they know how best to run countries of which they know nothing, whose languages they don’t speak and which, quite often, they have never even visited! Would you hire a junior marketing executive with these credentials? For our part, we know perfectly well that we could not sell two plates of bean shoots in China or two sticks of kebab in Iran. We suspect, however, that most of those advocating democratism in these countries could not sell even half a plate.
[i] For the roots of this belief in the “American Creed” and the history of American civic nationalism, see .Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2004) pp. 48-87; Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1955), pp. 225-237; (University of Illinois Press, Urbana 2003), pp.19-41; Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (University of Chicago Press, 1968); Cf also Walter A.McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p.81ff.
[ii] For the history of America ’s democratizing mission, see Tony Smith, America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1994).
[iii ]For the religious nature of the imagery of the “path to democracy and the free market”, see Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (Yale University Press 1998), pp.8-11; and Harvey Cox, “The Market as God”, The Atlantic Monthly, March 1999; see also Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (Simon and Schuster, New York 1996), especially pp 19-39, 183-206, 301-322.
[iv] Cf speech by Frank Gaffney to the annual conference of the Middle east Institute, Washington DC, 2004; Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (Public Affairs 2004); review by Jack Snyder, Washington Post Book World, December 26 2004. For the impact on Bush, and especially the inaugural speech of 2005, see Peter Baker, “Bush Doctrine is Expected to Get Chilly Reception”, Washington Post January 23 2005; Anatol Lieven, “Warped Advice Blights American Intervention”, Financial Times March 16 2005; Michael Novak, “A Bold and Brave Advance”, National Review online, March 1 2005. For the general progress of the administration’s democratization strategy as of the start of 2006, see the debate “Freedom Crusade, Revisited”, in The national Interest, Winter 2005/2006.
[v] Max Boot, “Project for a New Chinese Century: Beijing plans for national greatness.” The Weekly Standard, 10/10/2005, Volume 011, Issue 04.
[vi] Elie Kedourie, Nationalism (Hutchinson, London 1979), pp 15-16; Lieven, America Right or Wrong, op cit, pp.80-84; William Pfaff, Barbarian Sentiments: America in the New Century (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2000), pp.270-271.
[vii] cf NSS 2006, p.3.
[viii] Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go To War (MIT Press 2005).
[ix] Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Annual Message to Congress, January 6, 1941”. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/4free.html.
[x] The annual Freedom in the World surveys are to be found at www.freedomhouse.org.