More broadly, the experience of the past six years should lead to a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy. It is not simply that it needs to become more multilateral and more diplomatic. It also needs to shift its emphasis. Years were lost while the United States distracted itself with fanciful hopes of regime change. This time allowed North Korea to expand its nuclear arsenal. It also allowed Iran to continue clandestine efforts to develop an enrichment capability. In the process, the United States squandered the chance to pressure Iran when oil was one-third its current price-before the United States became bogged down in Iraq-and when Iran was governed by someone more open to normal relations with the outside world. Ambitious hopes for transformation also help explain why the United States embarked on its flawed policy in Iraq.
The problems with this approach to foreign policy are less philosophical than practical. Mature democracies are more peaceful. But creating mature democracies is a daunting task. Pacing, the sequencing of political and economic reform, taking into account local culture and tradition-these and other factors complicate all efforts to instill (much less install) democratic ways. Partial successes can translate into total failures, as incomplete or "emerging" democracies are prone to populism and extreme nationalism. Elections, far from a panacea, can introduce additional problems. In Iraq, they have reinforced sectarian rather than national identity; in Palestine, elections have brought to power a party with an agenda inconsistent with conflict resolution.
What is more, all of this social engineering necessarily takes place at the same time the United States must call upon some of the very governments it seeks to change (and on occasion oust) to help meet the pressing political, economic and strategic challenges of the day. Emphasizing the need for dramatic political reform can make cooperation on other priority matters more difficult; backing off opens the United States to charges of hypocrisy and double standards. For these reasons, the principal business of American foreign policy must be the foreign policy, not the domestic policy, of others.
Richard N. Haass, formerly director of Policy Planning at the Department of State, is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's Course.Essay Types: Essay