Imperial by Design

Imperial by Design

Mini Teaser: Like his two most recent predecessors, President Obama is embarking on a disastrous foreign policy bent on global domination.

by Author(s): John J. Mearsheimer

It is hard to believe that any policy maker or student of international affairs could have believed that democracy would spring forth quickly and easily once tyrants like Saddam Hussein were toppled. After all, it is clear from the historical record that imposing democracy on another country is an especially difficult task that usually fails.5 Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny, who investigated the democratizing consequences of interventions by liberal states from 1946 to 1996, conclude that “liberal intervention . . . has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945.”6

The United States in particular has a rich history of trying and failing to impose democracy on other countries. New York University professors Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George Downs report in the Los Angeles Times that:

Between World War II and the present, the United States intervened more than 35 times in developing countries around the world. . . . In only one case—Colombia after the American decision in 1989 to engage in the war on drugs—did a full-fledged, stable democracy . . . emerge within 10 years. That’s a success rate of less than 3%.

Pickering and Peceny similarly find only a single case—Panama after the removal of Manuel Noriega—in which American intervention clearly resulted in the emergence of a consolidated democracy. Furthermore, William Easterly and his colleagues at NYU looked at how U.S. and Soviet interventions during the Cold War affected the prospects for a democratic form of government. They found that “superpower interventions are followed by significant declines in democracy, and that the substantive effects are large.”

None of this is to say that it is impossible for the United States to impose democracy abroad. But successes are the exception rather than the rule, and as is the case with democratization in general, externally led attempts to implant such a governing structure usually occur in countries with a particular set of internal characteristics. It helps greatly if the target state has high levels of ethnic and religious homogeneity, a strong central government, reasonably high levels of prosperity and some experience with democracy. The cases of post–World War II Germany and Japan, which are often held up as evidence that the United States can export democracy to the Middle East, fit these criteria. But those examples are highly unusual, which is why the United States has failed so often in its freedom-spreading quest.

Even Eastern Europe circa 1989 does not provide a useful precedent. Democracy quickly sprouted there when communism collapsed and the autocrats who ruled in the region fell from power. These cases, however, have little in common with what the United States has been trying to do in the Muslim world. Democracy was not imposed on the countries of Eastern Europe; it was homegrown in every instance, and most of these countries possessed many of the necessary preconditions for democratization. There is no question that the United States has tried to help nurture these nascent democracies, but these are not cases where Washington successfully exported popular rule to foreign lands, which is what the Bush Doctrine was all about.

A good indicator of just how imprudent the Bush administration and the neoconservatives were to think that the United States could impose democracy with relative ease is that Francis Fukuyama did not believe it could be done and therefore did not support the Iraq War. Indeed, by 2006 he had publicly abandoned neoconservatism and adopted the mantle of liberal imperialism.7 Fukuyama did not ditch his core belief that democracy was ineluctably spreading across the globe. What he rejected was his former compatriots’ belief that the process could be accelerated by invading countries like Iraq. America, he maintained, could best pursue its interests “not through the exercise of military power,” but through its ability “to shape international institutions.”

Moreover, it is worth noting that even if the United States was magically able to spread democracy in the Middle East, it is not clear that the new regimes would always act in ways that met with Washington’s approval. The leaders of those new democratic governments, after all, would have to pay attention to the views of their people rather than take orders from the Americans. In other words, democracies tend to have minds of their own. This is one reason why the United States, when it has toppled democratically elected regimes that it did not like—as in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973)—helped install dictators rather than democrats, and why Washington helps to thwart democracy in countries where it fears the outcome of elections, as in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


IF ALL of this were not enough, global dominance, especially the Bush administration’s penchant for big-stick diplomacy, negatively affects nuclear proliferation as well. The United States is deeply committed to making sure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear arsenal and that North Korea gives up its atomic weapons, but the strategy we have employed is likely to have the opposite effect.

The main reason that a country acquires nuclear weapons is that they are the ultimate deterrent. It is extremely unlikely that any state would attack the homeland of a nuclear-armed adversary because of the fear that it would prompt nuclear retaliation. Therefore, any country that feels threatened by a dangerous rival has good reason to want a survivable nuclear deterrent. This basic logic explains why the United States and the Soviet Union built formidable stockpiles during the Cold War. It also explains why Israel acquired atomic weapons and refuses to give them up.

All of this tells you that when the United States places Iran, Iraq and North Korea on the “axis of evil” and threatens them with military force, it gives those countries a powerful incentive to acquire a nuclear deterrent. The Bush administration, for example, would not have invaded Iraq in March 2003 if Saddam had an atomic arsenal because the Iraqi leader probably would have used it, since he almost certainly was going to die anyway. It is not clear whether Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons today, but given that the United States and Israel frequently hint that they might attack it nevertheless, the regime has good reason to want a deterrent to protect itself. Similarly, Pyongyang would be foolish to give up its nuclear capability in the absence of some sort of rapprochement with Washington.

And there is no good reason to think that spreading democracy would counter proliferation either. After all, five of the nine nuclear-armed states are democracies (Britain, France, India, Israel and the United States), and two others (Pakistan and Russia) are borderline democracies that retain significant authoritarian features.

In short, the Bush administration’s fondness for threatening to attack adversaries (oftentimes with the additional agenda of forced democratization) encouraged nuclear proliferation. The best way for the United States to maximize the prospects of halting or at least slowing down the spread of nuclear weapons would be to stop threatening other countries because that gives them a compelling reason to acquire the ultimate deterrent. But as long as America’s leaders remain committed to global dominance, they are likely to resist this advice and keep threatening states that will not follow Washington’s orders.


THE UNITED States needs a new grand strategy. Global dominance is a prescription for endless trouble—especially in its neoconservative variant. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is populated from top to bottom with liberal imperialists who remain committed to trying to govern the world, albeit with less emphasis on big-stick diplomacy and more emphasis on working with allies and international institutions. In effect, they want to bring back Bill Clinton’s grand strategy.

The Obama team’s thinking was clearly laid out in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech to the Council on Foreign Relations this past September. Sounding very much like Madeleine Albright, Clinton said:

I think the world is counting on us today as it has in the past. When old adversaries need an honest broker or fundamental freedoms need a champion, people turn to us. When the earth shakes or rivers overflow their banks, when pandemics rage or simmering tensions burst into violence, the world looks to us.

Recognizing that many Americans are in dire straits these days and not enthusiastic about trying to run the world, Clinton reminded them that:

Americans have always risen to the challenges we have faced. . . . It is in our DNA. We do believe there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved. . . . For the United States, global leadership is both a responsibility and an unparalleled opportunity.

President Obama is making a serious mistake heading down this road. He should instead return to the grand strategy of offshore balancing, which has served this country well for most of its history and offers the best formula for dealing with the threats facing America—whether it be terrorism, nuclear proliferation or a traditional great-power rival.

In general terms, the United States should concentrate on making sure that no state dominates Northeast Asia, Europe or the Persian Gulf, and that it remains the world’s only regional hegemon. This is the best way to ensure American primacy. We should build a robust military to intervene in those areas, but it should be stationed offshore or back in the United States. In the event a potential hegemon comes on the scene in one of those regions, Washington should rely on local forces to counter it and only come onshore to join the fight when it appears that they cannot do the job themselves. Once the potential hegemon is checked, American troops should go back over the horizon.

Image: Pullquote: The United States has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989, and there is no end in sight.Essay Types: Essay