Dangerous Illusions

Dangerous Illusions

Policymakers in the United States and Europe have adopted the position that their mission is to promote democracy worldwide, regularly arguing that if they fail, authoritarian governments will exploit American restraint and join forces.

AFTER MORE than six months in office, the Biden administration seems inclined to adopt the utopian vision of democracy promotion as a guiding principle of U.S. global strategy. This doctrine, or, if you prefer, persuasion, holds that America should, as far as possible, bend the world in accordance with the preferences of the United States and its largely European allies. Fortunately, President Joe Biden is a man of experience and pragmatic instinct. Whatever his impulses, he so far has been careful not to burn America’s bridges and, to the contrary, has taken steps to improve ties with key European allies, to restart dialogue with Russia, and to reduce somewhat the intensity of confrontation with China. Such tactical flexibility, however, does not change the fundamental direction of U.S. foreign policy, which at times is almost Orwellian in its tendency to emulate concepts of the former Soviet Union. It was a core belief of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky that the USSR, for its own security, could not tolerate the existence of the so-called “capitalist environment.” They assumed that capitalists would never accept coexistence with the new communist state and therefore rejected the status quo as an unrealistic option. Today, alongside the European Union, the United States has adopted the position that its mission is to promote democracy worldwide. Leaders in Washington regularly argue that if they fail to take up this mission, authoritarian governments will exploit American restraint and join forces—not just to undermine American power, but to destroy democracy itself, depriving the United States of its cherished freedoms.

It is remarkable that this concept has become a key tenet of American foreign policy without any serious debate in Congress, in the media, or within the foreign policy community. At the heart of this approach is the presupposition that democracy is inherently superior to other forms of government, both morally and in terms of its ability to deliver prosperity and security. Democracy promotion is assumed to be a longstanding part of the U.S. foreign policy tradition rather than a radical departure from it. The Biden administration talks as though the world at large—apart from evil tyrants—will welcome its push for democracy and accept the self-evident righteousness of America and the European Union, rather than put up powerful resistance that may damage American security interests, American freedoms, and the American way of life.

YET DEMOCRACY does not have a stellar record throughout history. The best that can be said of it, as Winston Churchill once observed, is that under most circumstances it remains superior to all other tested forms of government. But for that to be true, democracy must be truly liberal, based on law, and include credible protections for minority rights. Such safeguards often are not taken. From its very conception, democracy has been marred by the original sin of slavery. Ancient Athens, the earliest known democracy, not only tolerated slavery, but was in fact founded on it. Citizens and slaves formed two sides of the Athenian political system. As historian Paulin Ismard writes, “slavery was the price to be paid for direct democracy.” Slaves allowed citizens to step away from work and to directly participate in government, attending assembly meetings and holding public office.

In the United States, the Founding Fathers similarly tolerated slavery, making its implicit incorporation in the U.S. Constitution. The constitutional concept of relations between the states presupposed the existence of slavery, and it required a civil war to bring about Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves in 1863. The Russian Empire remarkably—and without any bloodshed—abolished serfdom altogether in 1861, unlike in the United States where slavery was, for the sake of political expediency, permitted to exist in some Union states until the end of the Civil War. Even thereafter, American democracy continued to deprive women and African Americans of the right to vote for several more decades. It is not self-evident that a democracy that limits political rights to a minority of white men is inherently so superior to a “benevolent” authoritarian state that possesses some elementary rule of law and embraces the concept of equal protection for its subjects. Contemporary examples include Russia under Alexander II, whose legal reforms introduced for the first time in Russia the concept of equality before the law, or Germany under Otto von Bismarck, who established the first modern welfare state by offering health insurance and social security to the working class. Closer to our own time, the enlightened authoritarianism of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew lifted millions out of poverty and maintained harmony in a multi-ethnic country.

UNTIL THE end of the Cold War, democracy promotion was not a constituent element of the U.S. foreign policy tradition—the term “democracy” does not even appear in the U.S. Constitution. The United States did not wage war to spread democracy, even in its own sphere of influence in the Americas. The NATO alliance, at its very inception in 1949, was directed squarely against the Soviet geopolitical threat and willingly embraced authoritarian members such as Portugal under António de Oliveira Salazar, whom many considered fascist. Other American allies of the early Cold War period included South Korea and Taiwan—neither of them a democracy at that time. Why did the United States ensure the protection of these non-democracies? It was to protect them from takeover by U.S. adversaries. In the process, this policy allowed American allies to have the freedom of choice, democratic or otherwise. After World War II, America positioned itself as the true leader of the free world—allowing nations with different interests, systems of government, and traditions to determine their own destiny.

The democracy promotion credo is, by contrast, quite different. It goes far beyond the protection of the international status quo and advocates an openly revisionist policy, one that is designed not simply to contain other top non-democratic nations but to change their systems of government. When it comes to major powers, profound transformations of this nature usually arise through internal change or outright military defeat; economic and diplomatic pressures alone typically do not accomplish that much—unless, of course, as in the case of Japan before Pearl Harbor, they trigger a war with clear winners and losers. The Biden administration does not talk about regime change, but its words and actions contribute to a suspicion in Beijing and Moscow alike that regime change would be precisely the result of yielding to American pressure. At a time when the United States is deeply polarized—not only over its foreign policy priorities, but over its fundamental values—pursuing such an ambitious, setback-prone foreign policy while simultaneously undertaking a transformational domestic agenda is reckless.

Most importantly, democracy promotion is unnecessary (at least on geopolitical grounds) because there is little evidence that China and Russia, when left to their own devices, would be eager to form a global authoritarian alliance. Neither power shows much inclination to view geopolitics or geoeconomics primarily through the prism of a presumed great democracy-autocracy divide. China seems perfectly willing to establish close economic ties with the European Union and, for that matter, even the United States. Chinese objectives appear quite traditional—gaining influence, developing friends and clients, without being particularly concerned one way or the other about their standard of liberty. Unlike the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, China isn’t championing an international network of communist movements. When it comes to bullying neighbors, particularly in the South China Sea and beyond, Beijing makes little distinction between relatively democratic countries like the Philippines and autocratic ones like Vietnam. Despite the common challenge they face from the United States, Beijing and Moscow remain reluctant to conclude a formal political or military alliance. Their actual military cooperation goes little beyond largely symbolic military maneuvers and limited exchanges of military information. Both countries emphasize that they are aligned against the United States and, to some extent, the European Union, but they have not formed any meaningful alliance. China, for instance, did not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea and even became the number one trading partner of Russian adversary Ukraine. Russia is likewise rarely reluctant to sell advanced military hardware to China’s rival, India. It therefore remains a fundamental American interest not to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that pushes China and Russia closer together.

EVEN IN the relatively stable U.S. political system—where institutional safeguards have usually functioned under the most difficult circumstances, from Watergate to the Trump-Biden transition—it is widely agreed that foreign meddling is unacceptable. Why then do U.S. officials and politicians expect that China and Russia, without similar democratic legitimacy and without legal safeguards to protect their elites in case of defeat, are prepared to accept foreign interference in their fundamental internal arrangements? China and Russia are hardly natural allies, but this fact does not mean that the creation of an assertive “alliance of democracies” would not push a reluctant Xi and Putin together. The perception of an imminent common threat might force both leaders to conclude that whatever their differences in tactics, political cultures, and long-term interests, in the short run at least, they must work together to oppose the danger of democratic hegemony. If Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin reach this conclusion, it will be increasingly difficult for them to speak to the United States with different voices—even on issues where it would be perfectly logical in terms of their substantive interests to do so.