AMERICA DEFINES itself as the leader of the free world, and there is much truth in that idea. But leadership requires having followers who are prepared to move in the same general direction. And walking a path without followers, allies or partners can quickly become self-isolation-even for the sole superpower.
The fact is, being the sole superpower does not always mean being the sole decider. Allies who are ready to make substantive contributions expect to be consulted seriously; not in a pro forma manner, but in a way that allows them to have real influence in shaping joint policies. Countries that do not have these expectations and are willing in advance to accept whatever choice Washington may make usually have their own reasons for doing so. Some may act out of a strong sense of loyalty to the United States for its values or for past assistance, but most probably hope for something major in return or, alternatively, don't expect to pay a particular price for their support because it is minimal or symbolic.
But many on both ends of the political spectrum seem captivated by a potentially dangerous and flawed assumption: that other democratic countries will, by virtue of shared values, bring their foreign policies into alignment with the American agenda. The trouble is that notwithstanding their common values, democracies-like all other states-have different interests. No one would expect Finland, Australia and Botswana to have identical foreign policies simply because each enjoys a representative form of government. And even when democracies share both values and interests, they often have different priorities. Without understanding these realities and developing strategies to manage them, the United States cannot maintain a position of real leadership, even within the "free world."
Take India. The Bush Administration often touts the new strategic partnership between "the oldest democracy and the largest democracy." But India has been a democracy for decades and, at the height of the ideological struggle between the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union, often tilted towards Moscow. Even in the late 1990s, the relationship was a complex one, partly because successive democratically-elected Indian governments have seen an Indian nuclear deterrent as a clear national interest-even over the objections of the United States. It was only after the September 11 attacks, when the two countries re-evaluated their individual and mutual interests-and the United States was prepared to accept India as a de facto nuclear weapons state and to downgrade somewhat its alliance with Pakistan-that U.S.-India ties took off. India's relations with Iran could still sorely test U.S.-Indian bonds.
Germany is another example of why a neat division of the world into democracies and non-democracies doesn't hold water. Democratic Germany's citizens and leaders were adamantly opposed to the American invasion of Iraq and acted accordingly, in the United Nations and elsewhere. They were clearly concerned about Saddam Hussein's regime, but did not see their interests as identical to America's or believe that the U.S. approach was the right way to advance the interests we did have in common. One should also consider Germany's role in the European Union. Despite shared values and a common commitment to democracy, EU members often still have a very difficult time defining a common foreign policy-because even they continue to have different interests. This has recently been very clear in Germany's expanding energy cooperation with Russia, which contrasts with the visible skepticism of some other EU members-especially former Soviet republics or Soviet bloc states. Europe's common values do lead to common assessments of Russia's domestic shortcomings-but the differing individual interests and circumstances of particular European countries are what shapes their policies and explains the variation among them.
INDIA AND Germany pale beside France, the bête noire of American neoconservatives because of its occasionally disagreeable foreign policy. Despite the sophomoric jokes popular in these circles, France does share American values (yes, even though some of its citizens are rumored to vote for socialists!) and usually-but not always-shares American interests. Our common interests are manifest in the fact that France is a close and even essential partner in security issues, especially counter-terrorism. France is also America's eighth-largest trading partner, which creates deep interdependencies in very sensitive areas, such as the leading role of Areva-the French nuclear power company-in selling nuclear-generated electricity in the United States. Needless to say, our commercial interests still often diverge, especially when Boeing and Airbus compete for new contracts.
Ironically, it is precisely the closeness of American relations with France that makes its differing perspectives so troubling for some: for those who believe that American values and interests are identical and universal, acknowledging that a country can share our values but not always our interests is anathema. So they generally attribute French differences with Washington to ignoble motives, often financially-driven ones, to try to distinguish our values. And they enjoy deriding France, often while downing its wine.
But acknowledging that a democracy like France can legitimately differ with the United States is the real key to a successful foreign policy that assertively defends U.S. interests while maintaining American global leadership. If Washington cannot have an honest difference of opinion with Paris, efforts at consensus on North Korea, Iran or other complex issues with Beijing or Moscow-which have quite different views about their obligations in domestic governance, not to mention differing global interests-are ultimately doomed.
Part of the problem is that even if countries share interests, they do not necessarily share the same set of priorities. The United States and the EU-3 share values and share an interest in a non-nuclear Iran. They also share an interest in continued stability in the greater Middle East region. But some in the United States give greater priority to stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons than to maintaining stability in the region and are prepared to consider destabilizing military action. They may be right. However, few in the EU-3 would agree because they assign greater priority to stability, perhaps because they believe that a nuclear Iran could be managed at an acceptable cost. Even Iraq's new democratic government, almost an American dependency, seems unlikely to support military action against its neighbor that could immediately and directly threaten its very existence. Telling these governments that they should support U.S. positions because as democracies they share our interests-a hallmark of the Clinton Administration's foreign policy long before the Bush team came into office and adopted a similar approach-does not address the real issue.
WHETHER OR not America is able to assemble an alliance of democracies that are both willing to support U.S. policy and able to make substantial rather than symbolic contributions is debatable. What is not is that the process of doing so almost inevitably undermines our ability to work with non-democracies who do share common interests with the United States, both in the Middle East and around the world (including key powers like China and Russia).
Throughout the greater Middle East, the United States continues to rely on non-democratic governments for vital assistance in combating terrorism, cracking down on extremist movements and trying to advance the peace process. This is why President Bush-the same president who previously was so vocal in condemning earlier administrations for their cooperation with the region's authoritarian governments-cited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others as America's partners in his 2007 State of the Union address. These countries can work with Washington precisely because they are insulated from popular pressure.
Public-opinion polling from the Middle East leaves no doubt that truly democratic governments in the region would find it very difficult to work closely with the United States or support many American initiatives. Some of the most recent elections in the region-such as those in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority-brought to power parties who differ fundamentally from the United States on important issues (though the American military presence in Iraq limits the impact there). The fact that Lebanon's elections did not have a similar effect speaks more to the country's unusual electoral arrangements, in which executive positions and legislative seats are allocated on a sectarian basis, than to majority opinion.
Looking at these realities, it is clear that the belief that absent American support for authoritarian leaders, grateful democratic revolutionaries would take over and embrace the U.S. agenda should have been put to rest when the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979. It should also be clear that many undemocratic governments in the region are far from being the worst plausible regimes in their countries. Furthermore, expecting current rulers in the region-including Mubarak of Egypt or Musharraf of Pakistan-to be enthusiastic allies even as we seek to remove them from office is extremely naive.
It is likewise naive at best to think that leaders in Russia, China or any other non-democratic government should not feel threatened by efforts to move U.S. bases and forces closer to their borders simply because America and its allies are democracies. Democratic peace theory-misused to provide intellectual justification for the aggressive democracy promotion of the Clinton and Bush Administrations-demonstrates clearly that democracies are just as likely to go to war as non-democracies when their opponent is an undemocratic state. The fact that President Bush has already justified one war on the basis of spreading the democratic faith-and his administration and its supporters have threatened others, in Iran and elsewhere-makes an alliance of democracies more rather than less worrying to those who are not part of the club.Essay Types: The Realist