Promoting Democracy Overseas Is Hurting America

Republic protests in Ankara, 2007. Wikimedia Commons/Selahattin Sönmez

Turkey and beyond.

The attempted coup in Turkey raised so many questions that experts and journalists seemed eager to cover other events happening around the world, rather than untangle the situation in Turkey. Still, there is one very clear result of the coup: Western countries should take caution when executing foreign policy based on liberal idealism. The dramatic events in Turkey reminded everybody that there is a limit in international relations for how far even the most powerful countries can go in promoting democracy without damaging their security stance.

The debate between two camps of academicians and policymakers on whether foreign policy should be defined by virtuous ideas or by specific national, primarily security, interests is decades, if not centuries, old. Not long ago, after the end of the Cold War, it seemed that that debate was over—at least on the doctrinal level. The collapse of the Soviet Union was associated with the American foreign policy of democracy promotion and global engagement based on the determination to protect the Western values of market economy, free elections and human rights. Therefore, Western politicians and even scholars declared that not only was this ideology triumphant, but that a foreign policy based on this Western ideology is the only right choice for statesmen to take.

Doubters, trying to make the case for the importance of a foreign policy protecting narrowly defined national interests, were unable to hold their ground on both practical and theoretical grounds. In practice, they were struggling to name threats that a foreign policy based on the Western ideology of free markets and democracy could not eliminate. In theory, one can argue that after Western values withstood the ideological battle of the Cold War, and became even more attractive, sooner or later they must become universal. This process will result in a significant increase in the number of democratic states, and these states cannot have drastically different national interests.

With dominance of democratic countries one could expect at least an improvement in international security—Immanuel Kant and numerous thinkers after him have argued that a democratic peace is possible. However, on September 11, 2001, the idea of an inevitable decrease in international violence received a heavy blow. Policymakers in the United States were faced with tragic proof that the international security situation was far from improving. Later, a body of evidence started to grow, refuting the idea that an ideologically driven foreign policy is necessarily good for international security.

Even putting aside China, with its official communism, one can see that the Middle East contains many security dilemmas created by a foreign policy based on ideology. The failed coup in Turkey serves as the latest example. To better understand the reasons for that, we must remember one basic fact about this kind of foreign policy: a state developing a foreign policy based on any type of ideology demonstrates its conviction that its ideology has global appeal. The country’s leaders and diplomats assume this ideology as universally true, to the point that other countries ought not to have objections against the diplomacy based on it. Furthermore, should there be any places left in the world where this ideology is not accepted, its global promotion will become just and necessary.

One can argue that this has been exactly the thinking behind Western foreign policy for the last twenty-five years. At first sight, liberal ideology’s dominance in international relations should not be problematic for the countries preaching it: ultimately, the ideas of democracy, human rights and free markets are not evil in themselves, and have proven beneficial to Western and some Eastern countries. However, the devil is always in the details. These liberal ideas, especially democracy and its implementation, have caused century-long arguments even in the countries where they were originally developed. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that attempts to base foreign policy on liberal ideas continue to provoke new international controversies.

Debates on how to define democracy are a significant part of political science, and are far from being over. The recent history of the Arab Spring and, now, the failed coup in Turkey brings these disputes back to life. If “promoting freedom and democracy and protecting human rights around the world are central to U.S. foreign policy,” the United States inevitably becomes a participant in these arguments, which have caused a lot of bloodshed. In that case, one can argue that the security stance of the United States may suffer, both in the region and globally.

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