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?
It is difficult to explain, other than perhaps in quasi-religious terms, how someone as intelligent and realistic as Secretary Clinton could say something so categorical with so little empirical evidence and so much familiar data that contradict her argument. But perhaps this is the essential point. The mainstream view of the American project from its founding has been marked by a mystical sense of mission, a belief in the redemptive role of the United States in global affairs, a missionary zeal in which remaking the world in America’s image seems not an act of hubris but the fulfillment of a moral duty. Viewed through the prism of American exceptionalism, the belief that the United States is the shining city on the hill, the last best hope of mankind, will always trump “mere” economic data or geostrategic trends. If God is on our side, then history must be too. To think otherwise is to betray the American project. Thus, Secretary Clinton’s speech was very much in the tradition of Khrushchev’s burial warning.
The language of Clinton’s speech may have been contemporary, particularly in its conflation of technology with liberty, but there was hardly anything new about it. The conviction that promoting democracy internationally is or should be an irreducible element of American foreign policy dates back at least to Woodrow Wilson and in some important ways to Abraham Lincoln. Even before that, journalist John L. O’Sullivan, who coined the term “Manifest Destiny” in 1845, asserted that the historic mission of the United States was “to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man.” This is not to say that the role of democracy promotion has not changed radically over the past hundred years. To the contrary, Wilson promised that U.S. entry into World War I would make the world “safe for democracy.” A generation later, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised that once dictatorship in Europe and Asia had been defeated (the dictatorship that was British and French colonialism got nary a mention), the global order would be refounded on the basis of what FDR called “the four freedoms”—in other words, democracy building as a sustained process, rather than a desired end state of a war. The idea of democracy building through military occupation came into its own when deployed by the United States during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, not as a lofty goal but as one of the most important nonmilitary methods of prosecuting that war.
IN THE 1950s and 1960s, this democracy-promotion project began modestly, largely taking the form of covert CIA funding for cultural projects channeled through philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation (usually without the knowledge of the writers and artists concerned). These included setting up highbrow magazines such as Encounter in Britain, Der Monat in Germany and Preuves in France. It also involved establishing the Congress for Cultural Freedom, designed to marshal the forces of the anticommunist and anti-Soviet Left against the Western European cultural elite (Picasso and Sartre, for example) that continued to either sympathize with communism or take a neutral stance. Painting was a particularly important battleground, and throughout the 1950s the CIA sponsored exhibitions of American abstract expressionist painters, the most important of whom were Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. The young Nelson Rockefeller, who helped organize many of these exhibitions through the Museum of Modern Art in New York, all but gave the game away when he called abstract expressionism “free enterprise painting.” And Tom Braden, head of the CIA’s International Organizations Division at the time, later recalled:
We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had.
Braden was not being boastful. Joseph Nye may have invented the term “soft power” in 1990 as shorthand for ways in which American power could be recalibrated to meet the challenges of the post–Cold War world. But democracy promotion appears to be the prototypical example of soft power almost a full half century before Nye’s coinage, and its success in turning the cultural tide is no mere figment of the hard Left’s imagination. This should not be surprising. The Cold War was precisely that, cold, and sustained military action took place almost exclusively at the periphery of the American and Soviet empires—Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, Central America, Congo and the Horn of Africa. Instead, it was fought largely through economic competition and in a global contest for hearts and minds in which the essential question was whether communism or liberal capitalism would be embraced by the emerging nations of the postcolonial world. How else should a war in which the two main belligerents were not shooting at each other be fought except with soft power—or, if one prefers the grander formulation, through ideas, literature and art? To paraphrase Clausewitz, in such a context culture is the continuation of war by other means.Image: Pullquote: 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.Essay Types: Essay