In Defense of Democratic Realism

In Defense of Democratic Realism

Mini Teaser: What distinguishes "democratic globalism" --the target of Francis Fukuyama's attack-- from the author's own "democratic realism"?  The second chooses its battles more carefully.

by Author(s): Charles Krauthammer

On February 10, 2004, I delivered the Irving Kristol Lecture to the American Enterprise Institute outlining a theory of foreign policy that I called democratic realism. It was premised on the notion that the 1990s were a holiday from history, an illusory period during which we imagined that the existential struggles of the past six decades against the various totalitarianisms had ended for good. September 11 reminded us rudely that history had not ended, and we found ourselves in a new existential struggle, this time with an enemy even more fanatical, fatalistic and indeed undeterable than in the past. Nonetheless, we had one factor in our favor. With the passing of the Soviet Union, we had entered a unique period in human history, a unipolar era in which America enjoys a predominance of power greater than any that has existed in the half-millennium of the modern state system. The challenge of the new age is whether we can harness that unipolar power to confront the new challenge, or whether we rely, as we did for the first decade of the post-Cold War era, on the vague internationalism that characterizes the foreign policy thinking of European elites and American liberalism.

The speech and the subsequent AEI monograph1 have occasioned some comment. None, however, as loquacious as Frank Fukuyama's twelve-page rebuttal in the previous issue of The National Interest. His essay is doubly useful. It is a probing critique of democratic realism, yet demonstrates inadvertently how little the critics have to offer as an alternative.

Democratic Realism

In my speech I describe the four major schools of American foreign policy. Isolationism defines the American national interest extremely narrowly and essentially wishes to pull up the drawbridge to Fortress America. Unfortunately, in the age of the supersonic jet, the submarine and the ballistic missile, to say nothing of the suitcase bomb, the fortress has no moat, and the drawbridge, as was demonstrated on 9/11, cannot be drawn up. Isolationism has a long pedigree, but today it is a theory of nostalgia and reaction. It is as defunct post-9/11 as it was on December 11, 1941, the day the America First Committee disbanded.

More important is liberal internationalism, the dominant school of American liberalism and of the foreign policy establishment. Its pillars are (a) legalism, the construction of a web of treaties and agreements that will bind the international community in a normative web; (b) multilateralism, acting in concert with other countries in pursuit of "international legitimacy"; and (c) humanitarianism, a deep suspicion of national interest as a justification for projecting power--hence the congressional Democrats' overwhelming 1991 vote against the Gulf War, followed by a Democratic administration that launched humanitarian military interventions in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Liberal internationalists see national interest as a form of communal selfishness and thus as inimical to their true objective: the construction of a new international system that mimics domestic society, being based on law, treaties, covenants, understandings and norms that will ultimately abolish power politics. To do so, liberal internationalism is prepared to yield America's unique unipolar power piece by piece by subsuming it into the new global architecture in which America becomes not the arbiter of international events but a good and tame international citizen.

The third school, realism, emphasizes the primacy of power in international relations. It recognizes that the international system is a Hobbesian state of nature, not to be confused with the settled order of domestic society that enjoys a community of values, a monopoly of power, and most important, an enforcer of norms--all of which are lacking in the international system. Realism has no use for a liberal internationalism that serves only to divert the United States from its real tasks. The United States spent the 1990s, for example, endlessly negotiating treaties on the spread of WMD, which would have had absolutely no effect on the very terrorists and rogue states that are trying to get their hands on these weapons.

Realism has the virtue of most clearly understanding the new unipolarity and its uses, including the unilateral and pre-emptive use of power if necessary. But in the end, pure realism in any American context fails because it offers no vision beyond power. It is all means and no ends. It will not play in a country that was built on a proposition and that sees itself as the carrier of the democratic idea.

Hence, the fourth school, democratic globalism, often incorrectly called neoconservatism. It sees the spread of democracy, "the success of liberty", as John F. Kennedy put it in his inaugural address, as both the ends and the means of foreign policy. Its most public spokesmen, George W. Bush and Tony Blair, have sought to rally America and the world to a struggle over values. Its response to 9/11 is to engage in a War on Terror whose essential element is the global spread of democracy.

Democratic globalism is an improvement on realism because it understands the utility of democracy as a means for achieving global safety and security. Realists undervalue internal democratic structures. They see the state system as an arena of colliding billiard balls. Realists have little interest in what is inside. Democratic globalists understand that as a rule, fellow democracies provide the most secure alliances and most stable relationships. Therefore the spread of democracy--understood not just as elections, but as limited government, protection of minorities, individual rights, the rule of law and open economies--has ultimately not just moral but geopolitical value.

The problem with democratic globalism, as I argued in my address, is that it is too ambitious and too idealistic. The notion, expressed by Tony Blair, that "the spread of freedom is . . . our last line of defense and our first line of attack" is a bridge too far. "The danger of democratic globalism", I wrote, "is its universalism, its open-ended commitment to human freedom, its temptation to plant the flag of democracy everywhere." Such a worldwide crusade would overstretch our resources, exhaust our morale and distract us from our central challenge. I therefore suggested an alternative, democratic realism, that is "targeted, focused and limited", that intervenes not everywhere that freedom is threatened but only where it counts--in those regions where the defense or advancement of freedom is critical to success in the larger war against the existential enemy. That is how we fought the Cold War. The existential enemy then was Soviet communism. Today, it is Arab/Islamic radicalism. Therefore "where it really counts today is in that Islamic crescent stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan."

An Existential Threat

At its most fundamental, Fukuyama's critique is that I am misreading the new world because there is no existential struggle. By calling our war with Arab/Islamic radicalism existential, I exaggerate the threat and thus distort the whole fabric of American foreign policy. "Krauthammer", he writes, "speaks of the United States as being in the midst of a bitter and remorseless war with an implacable enemy that is out to destroy Western civilization." "Speaks of"--as one might speak of flying saucers. In reality, asserts Fukuyama, "Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups aspire to be existential threats to American civilization but do not currently have anything like the capacity to actualize their vision."

Fukuyama apparently believes that the phrase "not currently" saves him from existential peril. But the problem is that precisely as we speak, Al-Qaeda is energetically trying to make up for the deficiencies from which Fukuyama so complacently derives comfort. When Hitler marched into the Rhineland in 1936, he did not "currently" have the means to overrun Europe. Many Europeans believed, delusionally, that he did not present an existential threat. By Fukuyama's logic, they were right.

What defines an existential threat is intent, objective and potential capability. Existential struggle is a struggle over existence and identity. Until it lost heart late in life, Soviet communism was utterly committed to the eradication of what it called capitalism, in other words, the entire way of life of the West. Its mission was to do to the world what it had done to, say, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia--remake it in its image. Existential struggle is a fight to the end--extermination or, even better, conversion. That is what distinguishes it from non-existential struggles, in which the contending parties in principle can find compromise (over territory or resources or power).

Fukuyama is unimpressed with radical Islam because, in his view, it lacks the global appeal of such true existential threats as communism and Nazism. But Nazism had little global appeal. A master-race theory hardly plays well among the other races. Did it really have more sympathizers and fifth columnists in the West than does Islamism today? Islamist cells are being discovered regularly in just about every European capital, and some even in the United States. And these, of course, are just the fifth columnists we know about. The thought is sobering, given how oblivious we were to the presence among us of the 9/11 plotters. Just because Islamism in the West may not, like its Nazi or communist counterparts, take the form of a political party or capture Western celebrity intellectuals, does not minimize the threat or the power of its appeal. Radical Islam does not have its Sartre or its Pound. It is the conceit of intellectuals to think that this counts for more than a Richard Reid, armed this time not with a shoe-bomb but a nuclear suitcase or consignment of anthrax.

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