Democracy, Realistically

Democracy, Realistically

by Author(s): John M. Owen IV

It is not the case that all democracies, even new or embattled ones, always do America's bidding. Countervailing interests are always present and sometimes quite strong. Latin America's democracies generally lean less sharply than their central European counterparts toward the United States, in part because the United States is so close geographically. India's relations with America are vastly better than during the Cold War, but that country's own development of nuclear weapons in the 1990s meant that Washington recently had to press New Delhi hard to secure its opposition to Iran's nuclear program.

Promoting one's ideology as a way to extend one's geopolitical influence is not a new idea. It has worked among countries and governments of every ideological stripe for the past several centuries. In 1559 Elizabeth I sent troops to Scotland to help Protestant insurgents--the "English party"--thereby helping transform her northern neighbor from an ally of Catholic France to an ally of her own Protestant England. In 1831 Metternich sent troops to three Italian states to overturn liberal revolutions, hence restoring not only absolute monarchy but pro-Austrian rulers over the peninsula. This thinking, of course, was also behind the Soviets' imposition of their system on Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War and their use of force to maintain those regimes and keep their bloc together in 1956 and 1968.

Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson complain that the Bush Doctrine is a radical departure from an American tradition of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states. But there were influential Americans from the start who wanted to spread republicanism by force: Henry Clay advocated U.S. intervention on behalf of republican independence movements in Latin America in the 1810s; prominent northern Democrats pushed for U.S. intervention in the European revolutions of 1848. These proto-Wilsonians were routinely thwarted by leaders who held to the competing principle that democracy could be promoted only by example. But that tradition of non-intervention itself emerged and persisted in part because America was, until the late 19th century, a puny power. As American power began to expand, so did the willingness to intervene in the domestic affairs of other states. From 1898 in the Western Hemisphere, and from the 1940s in Europe and East Asia, the United States began to alter other states' internal regimes so as to shape its environment in its favor.

Since that time, the United States has used force many times to promote regime change--and, it is true, not always democratic ones. After all, the overriding goal of regime change was for the target country's new government to enact policies friendlier to U.S. interests than the alternative government would have done.

Yet there is not always a viable democratic alternative able to take power, and, as Gerard Alexander has argued in these pages, sometimes the choice has to be to support a non-democratic but viable option. In the Central Asian republics north of Afghanistan, for example, the Bush Administration perceives no viable democratic faction willing and able to aid its war on Islamist terrorism in the region. It is not the case that America supports authoritarianism out of interest and democracy only out of principle. Washington has promoted democracy whenever possible not only because it is right, but also because it serves U.S. interests.

Consider the case of West Germany. Initially, Franklin D. Roosevelt had no desire to rebuild Germany after the war and certainly never envisaged it as a democracy or a security partner. The onset of the Cold War, however, changed American priorities, so that in September 1946 Secretary of State James Byrnes delivered a speech at Stuttgart declaring that America would indeed help build a democratic Germany. Byrnes was responding to pleas from General Lucius Clay, who was running the U.S. zone in Germany and was alarmed about increasing Soviet influence. As Clay's biographer, Jean Edward Smith, put it: "He was convinced that a united Germany could be attained and that liberal, democratic values would ultimately prevail. The result would be to extend Western influence to the Soviet zone and bring Poland and Czechoslovakia into direct contact with democratic ideas."

The Truman Administration made sure that German democracy would be pro-American by cultivating and favoring particular people and parties. As the Soviets were rehabilitating the old German Communist Party and merging it with the Social Democratic Party in their zone, the Americans countered by working with Konrad Adenauer's Christian Democrats, who were staunchly anti-communist and favored strong ties to the West. The U.S.-led democratization of Germany, then, was a tactic in the developing Cold War--and an unusually successful one, as the Federal Republic of Germany became both a mature democracy and a close ally, a pillar of both NATO and the liberal economic order upon which U.S. power and security rested. Similar stories can be told about postwar Japan and Italy. These countries helped the United States in the Cold War and enjoyed the benefits of liberal democracy.

In articulating a democratic vision for the Middle East and taking steps to realize that vision, George W. Bush has done nothing radical. Seeing that the region is an ideological battleground between an advancing radical Islamism and various retreating alternatives, he has responded as Truman did in the 1940s against metastasizing communism in Europe. Believing that democracy is genuinely better than its competitors--more just, more conducive to prosperity, and a more sustainable carrier of American influence--he has followed Ronald Reagan in extending democracy promotion to countries where America had previously supported authoritarianism. At the time, some high Reagan officials opposed shifting U.S. strategy in the Third World from anti-communism to pro-democracy; in the case of the Philippines, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Director of Central Intelligence William Casey and Donald Regan, Reagan's chief of staff, argued that abandoning Ferdinand Marcos for Corazon Aquino meant losing the Philippines to Soviet influence. Events proved them wrong.

That new democracies are pro-American might explain why non-democracies such as China and Russia oppose Bush's democracy promotion. But why do many democracies likewise oppose it? Why do so many even now refuse to help the United States build democracy in Iraq, even though they, too, would be better off if that country did not plummet into civil war or theocracy? Why do countries that have for years berated America for its hypocrisy, for crowning itself the paladin of liberty with one hand while propping up assorted psychopaths and criminals with the other, not at least applaud the Bush Administration for withdrawing that other hand now? Do we not edge toward a contradiction in the argument here? U.S. power and influence do not appear to be coterminous with the zone of democracies. Even during the Clinton years, France was complaining about American "hyperpower" and calling for a multipolar world.

Across countries, some democrats are indeed more pro-American than others. The degree to which democrats favor policies that are in U.S. interests depends on the degree to which liberal democracy is endangered in their own country. In the late 1940s West European democrats lived in fear of communist takeovers via trade unions, the general demoralized state of their societies, and for all they knew a Soviet invasion. It was these Europeans who pushed for a permanent U.S. security guarantee on the Continent, amounting to an unprecedented expansion of American power. Today by contrast, democracy in Europe is secure, and European democrats neither need U.S. support nor see so many common interests with the United States. They do not fear that America will attack them, and, enjoying all of the efficiencies of life in the democratic club, they are not actively counter-balancing U.S. power. But with significant exceptions, including Great Britain, they are finding passive ways to limit U.S. power, such as remaining aloof from the struggle in Iraq.

In the Middle East, on the other hand, democrats are in a death struggle with Islamists of various stripes (as well as with secular authoritarians and monarchists). One of the most pro-American cohorts in the world, rivaling the devotees of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, may be the young educated urbanites of Iran. If Muslim democrats can come to trust the United States as European Christian Democrats did in the late 1940s, they will likewise see many common interests with America. If they come to govern their countries, their national policies will be friendlier to U.S. interests. Over the ensuing years, should Islamic democracies become more secure internally and externally, they will need U.S. support less, and, like European democracies before them, they will find that countervailing interests start to loom larger. They will tend to distance themselves from America and align with other countries according to power, culture, ethnicity, economics or geography. America's challenges in the Middle East at that point will begin to resemble its challenges in Europe and Latin America today. Islamic democracies will worry about gains in U.S. power, yet, living under the benefits of American liberal hegemony, will not be sufficiently motivated to counter-balance the United States actively. America's relations with these democracies will have their tensions, annoyances and humiliations; but who would not choose such relations over those that the United States has historically had with the region?

Essay Types: Essay