- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Whereas during the early stages of the upheaval in Iran, the United States seemed to be practicing a new form of tantric foreign policy, come Honduras what we saw from the Obama administration was more a page out of the Kama Sutra for Teenage Boys. It was emphatic, fast, and we bent over backwards to demonstrate that neither were we involved nor were we still caught up in the reflexive left vs. right tug-of-war of the Cold War days. It won Obama big points with regional leaders reaffirming his status as the most innovative new yanqui leader since Joe Torre.
Of course, another reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one … regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today. No wonder the State Department’s official mascot is the pushmi-pullyu.
And while it may well be that someday U.S. actions with regard to the situations in Iran and Honduras will someday be viewed as absolutely appropriate, questions remain. Does the fact that Iran conducted an election legitimize their government, whether or not that election was fair or other fundamental rights of the Iranian people were denied? Will we treat them as though nothing has happened, as though Neda were still alive, the next time we sit down to negotiate with them? And in the case of Honduras, we now must wonder what we should do if the missteps of President Zelaya’s opponents (well described in an op-ed by Alvaro Vargas Llosa in today’s New York Times) will empower him on his almost inevitable return to that country, making it easier still for him to follow through on his ambition to rewrite the constitution so he can serve beyond current limits. This may look and feel fair and even democratic, but using the power of the majority (or of office) to lock into place the power of a single individual or political group is actually neither.
You don’t have to look too far way, of course, to see the potential damage such an approach can cause. In fact, it is clear that Zelaya, a charter member of the Hugo Chávez fan club, was contemplating the kind of political sleight of hand that rewrote the rules in Venezuela.
Immediate policy responses aside, what the juxtaposition of the Iranian and Honduran examples clearly illustrates is the ongoing set of problems associated with a too simplistic view of democracy and its role as a key metric in determining U.S. policy.
Our embrace of such a view over the past few years has sent the message that the mere act of publicly conducting a vote is seen as a shield behind which all manner of misdeeds can be undertaken with impunity. In Iran’s case the illusion of democracy is used to excuse, forgive and enable fraud and repression. For Hugo and those seeking to emulate him, it is used to cloak the undermining of important elements of the rule of law.
The technique has been used with ever-growing chutzpah from Moscow to Zimbabwe. It is the blending of hypocrisy and democracy into a cocktail that could be known as “democrisy.” And that cocktail is a particular weakness of U.S. foreign policy at the moment. This is in part our own doing. We’re the ones who elevated the unidimensional, ballot-box-centric definition of democracy to a near-theological concept. But as we have seen again in recent weeks, a society that votes but has no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, no freedom of religion, no free press, no provisions to protect minorities from tyranny of the majority, and/or a disregard for the rule of law is no more a democracy than a dog that walks on his hind legs is a principal ballerina for the Bolshoi.
We knew it all along, of course. But we were so eager to salute the spread of democracy as an American triumph that we started taking credit for a bunch of lowest common denominator democratic revolutions and the rise of tinpot Jeffersons when we should have been more circumspect and demanding. Voting without the intent to honor basic rights is no more a sure step on the road to real democracy than making out in the back seat of your car is a step on the road to marriage.
Ten years after Fareed Zakaria’s introduction of the idea of “illiberal democracy” and 220 years after the Federalist Papers, we ought to know better. Of course, a cynic might argue that we do. It often suits us to use a minimalist definition of democracy and we do so as manipulatively as any of the populists or authoritarians we decry. We use it to justify inaction against regimes when we simply don’t want to get involved for one reason or another — because in Iran we have other fish to fry, because we want to feel like things are going better than they are in Afghanistan or, similarly, because we want to feel ok about getting the heck out of Dodge (Baghdad and Fallujah) in an Iraq where the government can hardly be said to be sufficiently transparent or effectively representative of the views of the Iraqi people.
Such an approach is convenient for us. But we can hope it will evolve. Just as it is reasonable to decry the coup in Honduras as a throwback to the days when Woody Allen’s Bananas looked like a documentary, so too might we hope for a time when the hemisphere and the world might move beyond acceptance of the edition of “Democracy for Dummies” that has become the standard textbook for demagogues and start embracing and demanding higher standards from its elected leaders.
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