Democracy as Realpolitik

United States foreign policy should be all about democracy, in a way that it never has been.

 United States foreign policy should be all about democracy, in a way that it never has been.  Of course we defend our freedoms when we defend ourselves, and yes, we do mount programs abroad to help administer elections and to spread free enterprise, human rights and other virtues.  Our official foreign policy agenda includes these priorities, often as high priorities, in the National Security Strategy, in the Human Rights Report and in various aid programs.  But it accords the values behind them no special status.  Democracy is like a single application program on the government's computer of many programs, whereas it should be the operating system.

Realists will reject this thinking, as mere hope that virtue will win friends and friends will give us security.  In an amoral world, a nation needs to exert power for its interests.  Power overrides virtue and interests outlast friendship.

But the nature of today's attacks on the United States make our successful practice, protection, and promotion of democracy a real-political need.  First of all, democracy - our virtue -  is also our most basic interest.  Our country was founded on principles of individual sovereignty articulated in the Declaration of Independence and imbued in the Constitution.  Our legitimacy as a state depends on the principle's validity.  Historically, our personal freedoms have trumped any strictures of received tradition.   Cultural freedom lies at the core of our society just as legal freedom underpins our state.  Loss of either would be a mortal wound to our polity as we know it.

Secondly, international relations are evolving, in no small part by our own agency.  Diplomacy traditionally comprised amoral dealings in which monarchies deployed marriages, money and militaries for the interests of hereditary rulers.  From Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points through the end of the Cold War, American rhetoric recast international conflict as contests between political and economic systems.  Victories over fascism in World War II and Communism in the Cold War established consent of the governed and responsible rule as criteria for legitimacy.  We added a second dimension to diplomacy.  Our virtues there set up victory in the first, power-centered, dimension. 

Today Islamic fundamentalists are opening a third, moral and religious, dimension of conflict by denouncing our way of life.  They attack the core of our identity, contending that the moral character of our individualistic society is deficient, proving that humans need authoritarian social structures.  We have unleashed sovereign individuals to exercise freedom in many ways, some debilitating or decadent.  The fundamentalists describe the result as disorder growing out of immorality.  They claim this immorality de-legitimizes liberalism and its leading exemplar, the United States.  Islamists draw on Arab and Muslim political grievances: suicide bombers act from a panoply of motives.  But bombers and radical fundamentalist theologians alike seek not simply to kill people, but to destroy our moral foundation in a new "battleground."  Outcomes in this third dimension will influence outcomes in the second and first. 

Our response has come in the first dimension with the defeat of the Taliban and of Saddam Hussein and in the diplomacy aimed at Iran, Libya and others.  We dominate the military battleground and have jolted Middle East politics.  But definitive results abroad remain elusive.  We are responding in the second dimension with efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan and Iraq in a liberal mold.  No other system offers the potential for prosperity and freedom that liberalism does; millions want to emigrate to the US to find better lives.  Still, acceptance of our system in the new venues is uncertain.  People resist taking on our ways.  We need to sway Afghans and Iraqis.   We also need to show potential foes and friends the error of fundamentalist views.  We need to win in the moral dimension, and we can mount no campaign there until we make it part of our war. 

Conflict on this battleground will include elements of the "mental war" against terror posited by Paul Berman in his Terror and Liberalism.  Forceful articulation of our case for individual sovereignty and rigorous debunking of fundamentalism will be crucial to our success.  But victory also requires results to back our arguments.  We must show that people can live freely without disorder and moral turpitude.  Otherwise we reinforce our enemies' case that a free people cannot govern itself and that freedom only brings mayhem.  

We hold the value of individual sovereignty to be universal, so if other people find that it doesn't work for them, then our basis for legitimacy becomes a quirk, or an error, on our part.  The principle would be disproved.  We need others to espouse the principles of individual sovereignty, so we need to commit ourselves to preserving and promoting its benefits globally as well as in our own society.  We need to ensure that the premises of individual sovereignty are not disproved, at home or abroad.  Despite the level of foreign engagement that this commitment requires, our objective is defensive.  Without individual sovereignty, the United States as we know it cannot exist.  A foreign policy to prove that principle is realist in the hardest sense of foreign policy theory.

Democracy should form the operating system of our foreign policy computer, not just one more application program.  Victory comes when peoples refute claims that they cannot govern themselves, and when we orient our behavior to show that we support this quest.  Prosperity, some incremental security, humanitarian concerns and business interests are subordinate to this goal.  We do not need to redefine our foreign policy priorities so much as the terms in which we couch them.