Americans of all political persuasions believe profoundly that it is their right and duty-indeed their destiny-to promote freedom and democracy in the world. It is a noble and powerful impulse, one not casually to be ridiculed or dismissed. But acting on it-if one is concerned about being effective and not merely feeling virtuous-is a complicated and delicate business with many dangers. Success requires that this impulse be balanced against, and where necessary circumscribed by, other interests that the United States must necessarily pursue, more mundane ones like security, order and prosperity. For these represent not merely legitimate competing claims but the preconditions for a lasting extension of democracy.
Success requires, too, an awareness of the intractability of a world that does not exist merely in order to satisfy American expectations-a world that, for the most part, cannot satisfy those expectations in the foreseeable future. While determination and purposefulness are important ingredients in any effective policy, the attempt to force history in the direction of democracy by an exercise of will is likely to produce more unintended than intended consequences. The successful promotion of democracy calls for restraint and patience, a sense of limits and an appreciation of the wisdom of indirection, a profound understanding of the particularity of circumstances ... . As Carlyle once put it, "I don't pretend to understand the Universe-it's a great deal bigger than I am ... People ought to be modester." Indeed.
Owen Harries is editor emeritus of The National Interest. This essay was originally published in The National Interest, no. 13 (Fall 1988).