Democracy, Realistically

Democracy, Realistically

by Author(s): John M. Owen IV

But are current conditions in Iraq--which has become for many the definitive test of Bush's democracy promotion strategy--conducive to stable, pro-American democracy? Is Iraq like Germany in the late 1940s and the Philippines in the late 1980s? Or is it more like Tajikistan or Saudi Arabia today, where the Bush Administration evidently fears that no viable democratic faction is willing and able to rule out cooperation with the Islamist enemy? Is there an Iraqi Konrad Adenauer or Corazon Aquino? Or was the remarkable Ahmad Chalabi, now fallen from grace, the only hope?

Even for those who accept a link between democracy and U.S. influence, it is open to debate whether using force to democratize Iraq was the right policy. The administration ought to have seen that although the first half of regime change--toppling Saddam--was going to be easy, the second half--implanting democracy--was not. Scholars disagree on the prerequisites for constitutional democracy, but Iraq lacked any state institutions free of authoritarian taint; any national unity free of naked coercion; or any history of the rule of law. If Iraq disintegrates, becomes a Shi'a-dominated theocracy or settles into semi-democratic status, then American power will not be enhanced. Still, despair is not called for. It is good to recall that liberal democrats in the past have prematurely consigned certain cultures or regions--Catholic, Asian, Germanic--to permanent despotism. And for all its costs, the Iraqi intervention has had some benefits. For example, the various Iraqi elections in 2005 have encouraged dissenters in other Arab countries to believe that democracy is possible for them as well. As Farid Ghadriy reported recently in Middle East Quarterly: "The U.S.-led occupation of Iraq has been a watershed [for democratic reformers] within the Middle East. Reformists inside Syria are encouraged by the events that transpired in Iraq, even if some are loath to admit it."

If it is true that democracy extends U.S. influence, then still another objection arises: Is not the United States, by promoting democracy, liable to trigger hostility and counter-balancing? Are we not already seeing this in Iraq itself, where the U.S. occupation seems to amount to a subsidy for Al-Qaeda's recruitment program? And what about other states concerned at the intrusion of U.S. power in Central and Southwest Asia and North Africa? What will be the long-term reactions of Russia, China and India? America's moves into Southwest Asia have aided the formation and deepening of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a sort of authoritarian club comprising China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. If America is promoting democracy to augment its national security, is not its behavior eventually going to prove self-defeating?

This objection, which appeals to familiar realist insights about the balance of power, is valid in the abstract. Historically, great powers that have spread their institutions abroad have often thereby triggered reactions, including counter-interventions in other countries by rival great powers. England's rise in power in the 1560s and continuing promotions of Protestantism in Europe provoked the hostility of France and then of Spain, which eventually attacked England in 1588 and again in 1599. Austria's preservation of its power in the 1830s reassured its allies Prussia and Russia but exacerbated tensions between those three and the liberal entente cordiale of France and Great Britain, weakening the Concert of Europe. The Warsaw Pact's invasion of Hungary in 1956 alienated even many of those in the West who had sympathized with the Soviet socio-economic experiment. And even America's promotion of democracy in Germany after 1945 was not without a price, although it was one well worth paying. Provoked by a Soviet bid for hegemony over a united Germany, America's move further deepened Soviet suspicion and hostility and thus the Cold War itself.

The question is whether the gains of democracy promotion to the United States are outweighed by the losses. Would making Iraq into a democratic ally trigger such a reaction as to make it more trouble than it was worth? Or to take the question further, if Paul Wolfowitz's dream of a liberal-democratic band of nations stretching from Morocco to Pakistan were realized, America might have many new friends, but precisely for that reason it would be more frightening than ever to many other countries. Is there a tipping point beyond which enough countries find it worth their while to cooperate to end American hegemony?

U.S. officials must keep in mind that a tipping point doubtless does exist. Its location, however, is not always clear. Democratizing western Germany in the late 1940s was well short of it, even though it further degraded relations with the Soviet Union. Although we can never know the counter-factual, trying to make the Mekong Delta into the Tennessee Valley Authority--that is, extending America's reach into Indochina in the 1960s--was dangerously close to the tipping point, as America's international position in 1974 was inferior to its position in 1964. Today, Islamism, a transnational ideology whose force is by no means spent, is a serious enough threat to outweigh some alienation of other countries. But just how alienated others become is in part a function of the means and velocity with which America promotes democracy. At this point, with Iraq unstable, the region inflamed and much of the world persuaded that America is bent on a global empire, it is doubtless wiser for Washington to use economic and diplomatic means to press for democratic reform than to use force on unfriendly states such as Iran or Syria. The world can comfort itself with the knowledge that in the long term, as explained above, secure Muslim democracies should follow their European predecessors and distance themselves from the United States.

Since the Bush Administration decided to make Iraq the vein through which the Muslim world would receive its injection of liberty, democracy promoters have themselves gotten a healthful injection of realism. Freedom may indeed be for everyone, but at present not everyone wants what they take to be American- or Western-style freedom, and those who do want it do not necessarily trust the Americans to help them achieve it. But realists who persist in regarding any democracy promotion as a waste of resources at best and latter-day Jacobinism at worst need to recognize that competing ideas about political order polarize people and states and create opportunities for American (or anti-American) influence. Idealists must come to grips with the fact that, if they want a freer world, they must put up with American hegemony; realists, with the fact that if they want America to stay powerful and secure, they must put up with some democracy promotion. With that settled, let us have a real debate.

John M. Owen IV is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and author of Liberal Peace, Liberal War: American Politics and International Security (1997).

Essay Types: Essay