LIKE THE human-rights movement, democracy promotion is a radical project of social and political transformation whose adherents will not or cannot acknowledge either the ideological or the revolutionary character of their enterprise. In this, democracy promotion should be understood as a subset of contemporary liberalism—the only major modern ideology that denies it is an ideology at all. More precisely, it is the end state of human political organization after all the other ideologies have withered away, the future’s moral default position. To hear Western democracy-promotion activists tell it, when they work to “transition” states from a totalitarian or authoritarian social order to a liberal-democratic one, they are merely hastening the inevitable. George Soros’s formulation, derived from Karl Popper and serving as the ideological underpinning for his democracy-promotion entity, the Open Society Foundations, is expressed thus: “Opening up closed societies, making open societies more viable, and promoting a critical mode of thinking.” In this account, it is self-evident that history is moving in one direction—toward more freedom, more openness and more democracy. Thus, democracy promotion is best understood as embodying the main premise of Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 article “The End of History?,” which claimed that the West’s Cold War victory marked “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
There is irony in this proud assertion of openness to new ideas and dismissal of “closed,” undemocratic societies on the grounds that they, as Soros once complained, “claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth.” After all, this contemporary Western democratic-capitalist vision, of which the democracy-promotion and human-rights movements should be viewed as subsets, also claims a monopoly on social, ethical and political truth. Soros has reminisced that he knew communism was false because “it was a dogma.” But what could be more Manichaean and philosophically primitive than the blanket division of the entire world into open and closed societies? And what could be more dogmatic than Soros’s audacious claim that communism’s defeat “laid the groundwork for a universal open society”? For that matter, what could be more closed-minded than Fukuyama’s assertion that history’s only important remaining questions were how quickly and under what circumstances universalization of Western liberal capitalism would take place?
These claims may employ secular language to justify the conclusion that open societies are preferable to closed societies in large part because, again quoting Soros, “in an open society each citizen is not only allowed but required to think for himself.” But that cannot obscure their uncanny resemblance to both the familiar wartime claim that God is on one’s side and the Marxist idea that communism’s victory was inevitable. As Nikita Khrushchev boasted to a 1956 gathering of Western ambassadors in Warsaw, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side.” Then he added the celebrated line, “We will bury you.” It was an expression of historical determinism at its most vulgar. But it was no worse than Fukuyama’s insistence that the only entirely legitimate political order was a developed state with the rule of law and accountable government, combined “in a stable balance.” As John Gray rightly observed, this vision of the future amounted to little more than “an idealized version of American government.”
Whether this claim took the form of Soros’s Popperian universalism, Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelianism or the dogma of democracy promotion, it was defined by the conviction that it was not so much that the West was remaking the world in its own image as that this image of a globalized open society was the only one left intact. By contrast, Khrushchev looks like a philosophical pragmatist.
What is it about democracy promotion that drives otherwise hardheaded people to such extremes? What, for example, was President Bill Clinton thinking when he prophesied during his second inaugural address in 1997 that “the world’s greatest democracy will lead a whole world of democracies”? And did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton really believe, as she said in a 2012 speech, that countries closed to “change, to ideas, cultures and beliefs that are different from theirs, will quickly find that in our internet world they will be left behind”? Beyond the Silicon Valley technoutopianism and the Soros-lite boilerplate, did Clinton also believe that with the Western liberal-capitalist world mired in a deepening economic crisis, and with the United States now the greatest debtor nation in human history, she was really on solid ground in warning the Chinese that if they did not embrace the idea of an open society they would be consigned to the ash heap of history?