Folly in Exporting 'Liberty'

January 26, 2005

By Michael Desch

In his second inaugural address last week, President George W. Bush boldly declared: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Even as these stirring words were still ringing across the Washington Mall, debate began about whether he was announcing a radically new foreign policy agenda for his second term.

Senior Bush administration officials hastened to assure Americans and their allies abroad that this policy did not represent a radical departure, but was rather "an acceleration, a raising of the priority" consistent with efforts of previous US administrations to foster global democracy.

In one sense, Bush's spin-doctors are right: the promotion of democracy has been a part of US foreign policy, at least since the 1970s. Jimmy Carter made democracy and human rights the centrepiece of his foreign policy. Ronald Reagan famously promised to roll back the "Evil Empire" and replace communist autocracy with liberal democracy. And for Bill Clinton, the expansion of democracy was the cornerstone of his strategy for keeping the peace in the post-Cold War world.

In another sense, however, Bush's renewed commitment to "the expansion of freedom around the world" marks a dramatic departure from previous US policies. Unlike Carter, Reagan or Clinton, Bush is willing to have the US wage this crusade unilaterally, if necessary, to spread liberty. And historically unprecedented hegemony has convinced many in his administration that the US can accomplish this massive exercise in global social engineering. Thus, there are grounds for seeing the speech as heralding a new era of assertive US democratic activism.

Bush argued: "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," presumably because he believes with many adherents of the "democratic peace" theory that democracies do not go to war with each other, are more likely to trade with each other, and do not sponsor terrorism against each other. By fostering the expansion of liberty around the world, the US is making itself better off and also keeping faith with its values, in their view.

But can the US really spread democracy to large portions of the world? And even if it can, would the global spread of democracy really serve both US interests and values as the President and his supporters maintain?

Take the question of whether the US can reasonably expect to spread democracy to large swaths of the globe. History teaches us that democracy is a fragile flower that blooms only in the most hospitable soil. Without the requisite economic and cultural preconditions, which most of the world lacks, the prospects for spreading stable democracy are poor. Outside efforts have rarely brought democracy, the much discussed post-World War II German and Japanese cases notwithstanding.

Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington shows that of the roughly 35 cases of democratisation between 1974 and 1990, only Grenada and Panama came about through direct US military intervention. Both were small countries right in the US's backyard and neither became a robust democracy. In the other 33 cases, democracy was largely the result of internal developments in those states.

The US is so powerful that it can probably topple other authoritarian regimes, as it did with the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and impose elections on those countries. But because they lack the requisite institutional and cultural foundations, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq will likely become stable democracies. And weak and unstable democracies usually suffer from serious internal problems and are more likely to go to war than non-democratic regimes.

But even if the US has reasonable prospects for fostering democracy around the world, history makes clear that it has not believed the spread of democracy always furthers its interests. Over the past 50 years, the US has found it to be in its national security interest to overthrow democratically elected regimes in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973). Today, US economic interests have led it to make the authoritarian People's Republic of China its largest trading partner and the Bush administration maintains close relations with Vladimir Putin's increasingly autocratic regime in Russia.

Nor is the spread of democracy a panacea for terrorism. Even established democracies such as Britain, Spain, and Israel have faced long-lasting and deadly terrorist movements in Northern Ireland, the Basque region and the Occupied Territories. And despite common democracy, relations with Europe appear to be worsening, with the BBC reporting that more than half of the people it surveyed in Europe regarded Bush's re-election as making the world a more dangerous place. This does not bode well for his efforts to hold together the global democratic coalition fighting the war against terrorism.

Indeed, the countries that have been among the US's closest allies in the global war on terrorism have been authoritarian regimes such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. In an influential article in the late 1970s, neo-conservative pundit Jeane Kirkpatrick took to task the Carter administration for pushing democracy and human rights and undermining friendly authoritarian regimes in Iran and South America in the face of the global struggle against Soviet communism.

Today's neo-conservatives are in danger of being hoisted on their own petard when they argue that the global spread of democracy is a critical component of the war on terrorism.

Given unprecedented US military preponderance, there is little to stop the Bush administration from trying to spread democracy around the globe.

But while the US may be able to topple a few tyrants and hold some elections, Americans should not fool themselves that they are really planting the seeds of stable democracy around the world, as events in Iraq and Afghanistan make clear. Indeed, Bush should be careful what he wishes. Despite democracy's many virtues, spreading it around the world may not necessarily serve US interests or make the world safer.

Michael Desch holds the Robert M. Gates chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-making at the George H.W.Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and is a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. This article originally appeared in The Australian on January 25, 2005.

Posted by coalition at January 26, 2005 09:54 AM

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