The Democratist War on Diplomacy
Understanding democratism’s hold over the Western governing elite is vital for explaining the unique hostility found in so much of foreign policy commentary towards a soberer and more realistic appraisal of the world.
While the long-term results of the People’s Republic of China’s diplomatic outreach into both the Middle East and Ukraine remain unknown, it is apparent that the foreign policy establishment in Washington DC was taken aback by the speed at which Beijing’s reputation is rising. They shouldn’t be. The long-running Saudi-Iranian rivalry has been partially fueled by the United States, meaning that Washington could never serve as a reliable mediator for all parties. China’s distance and relatively non-partisan-seeming approach to the region, however, enables more parties to be willing to at least discuss putting aside one of the more dangerous rivalries of the twenty-first century. Elsewhere, India plays an agile game of diplomacy, neither endorsing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nor rejecting its long-standing and beneficial security relationship with Moscow that dates back to independence. Brazil, increasingly, tows no one’s line at the UN and is quick to question narratives from the great powers. France asserts that European core interests and North American core interests are rapidly diverging.
Commentary on the return of the multipolar world has rightfully arisen. The industrial and economic share of American power on the global stage has narrowed considerably since its heydays in the Cold War and even at the start of the twenty-first century. Regardless of what anyone thinks about it, the multipolar world is already here. And rather than being regarded as some great shock or oddity, a multipolar world is in fact the normal condition of the international system. What we are seeing now is the world emerging out from under an outlier period and into something more typical with the majority of history. It is apparent by the actions of countries like China, India, and Brazil that most of the world knows this and is working towards adapting to such a future.
But the United States and many of its dependent allies are not. The rhetoric from places such as Washington and London is one of appealing to the logic of a “New Cold War”, where an “Axis of Authoritarianism” is rising between China and Russia that seeks to wage an ideological battle against “The Free World” in a bid for total global supremacy. With the possible exception of a reactive and increasingly culture war-obsessed Russia, however, few outside of the North Atlantic world take this rhetoric seriously. They have already moved on to focus on their regional self-interest. This begs the question: how can so much of the foreign policy class in the Beltway continue sacrificing the outcome of results for more tired declarations of loyalty to an ideology of global conflict over universal values? What is it that holds Anglo-American elites in thrall to a way of viewing the world which was questionable even in the Cold War, but is surely beyond unhelpful now?
Last year, the scholar Dr. Emily Finley released an important and comprehensive book that charts the history of this worldview. In The Ideology of Democratism, Finley charts how the world view of Rousseau, built upon by later additions coming from Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, John Rawls, Leo Strauss, and up through the Bush Era neoconservatives, injected a universalist faith in liberal democracy as the guiding principle of not just specific societies and local circumstances (the preference of Washington, Hamilton, and the early Federalists in U.S. history), but of the entire world. Democratic systems are no longer outgrowths of particular historical and geographic circumstances but are taken to be the inevitable destiny of all of mankind. For a democracy to be threatened anywhere is to be threatened everywhere. Thus, democracy becomes a kind of civic religion known as “Democratism.”
One of the paradoxes of Democratism, as described by Finley, is that the democratist claims to speak “for the people” while also being highly dismissive of local concerns or popular opinion should these contradict the missionary mentality of expansion of democracy abroad or deviate from the plans of democracy experts. The “national will” is not something left up to individual elections but is rather a long-term project that can only be entrusted to the technocrats of democratic governance. In other words, only the democratists themselves can govern policy because only the mission of democratization is a legitimate purpose for a government whose goals transcend day-to-day concerns about security and infrastructure. Finley contends that this is now the default ideology of the governing and media classes in the North Atlantic, and especially in the foreign policy establishment of Washington. In a world where the U.S. expects Europe to hold solidarity with it on Taiwan (or Japan to not breaks ranks sanctioning Russia over Ukraine), it becomes apparent that, whether cynically or genuinely used, democratism is the rhetoric if not the purpose of present-day global over-extension.
While not the entirety of the reason why the Beltway struggles to shed its imperial hubris and adapt to the new multipolar world, (much of that is simply complacency) understanding democratism’s hold over the governing elite is vital for explaining the unique hostility found in so much of foreign policy commentary towards a soberer and more realistic appraisal of the world. From the bafflement expressed at countries failing to rally behind support for Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, to the clueless exhortations for a “values-based” diplomacy that prioritizes a nation’s domestic politics over its strategic opportunities, democratists will not concede that perhaps their worldview is unsuited for the proper practice of diplomacy under conditions of multipolarity. Particularly in a world where non-liberal powers have a variety of localized interests and abilities to assert themselves to greater degrees than were previously possible.
Perhaps the most damaging manifestation of the democratist worldview is the assignment of a type of karma point system to how nations are ranked. “Good” countries have policies that reflect Anglo-American norms and thus are worthy of some sovereignty, while “bad” countries can have their sovereignty violated on a economic or humanitarian pretext for failing to play their assigned role in the view of North Atlantic policymakers. The backlash this inevitably causes is taken as further proof that this contest for political power is a Manichean struggle of good versus evil which is existential, rather than a clash of interests that could be solved by diplomacy. Such tendencies serve only to drive nonaligned powers further away from partnership with countries enthralled by the democratist worldview.
Geopolitics is the contest for resources and power among territorial units jealous of their security and suspicious of their rivals. The rising and more assertive middle powers cannot coast on the received wisdom of ahistorical ideological projects, they must develop and survive. Having no comforting mythological narrative to blind them, they embrace the world as it is, rather than as they wish it to be. It is this that gives them a key advantage over a self-indoctrinated global power whose commitment to democratist and exceptionalist rhetoric prevents it from adapting to the very real world in which its power is embedded. Nations that understand this dynamic will outperform expectations and those that do not will comparatively underperform. You can have effective situational crisis management, or you can wage a global jihad for abstract universal values. You cannot have both.
Christopher Mott (@chrisdmott) is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and the author of the book The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia.