Democracy, Freedom, and Apple Pie Aren’t a Foreign Policy

We like to think our way of life is the best in the world. But trying to spread American values always backfires.

Photo by MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

What has gone wrong? Iraq has come unglued. ISIS just announced the founding of a new caliphate. The Afghan presidential election is contested and getting ugly. The nuclear talks with Iran are going slowly, even as opponents devise new ploys to derail them completely. Ukraine is a mess with a tentative cease-fire being blown apart. China continues to throw sharp elbows. Japan is getting martial again. And Britain is getting closer to leaving the European Union. I could go on, but you may not have enough antidepressants handy.

So much for the "new world order" that President George H.W. Bush proclaimed in the heady days following the fall of the Berlin Wall. So much for the alleged demise of "power politics" once hailed by the likes of Bill Clinton and Thomas Friedman. The end of history? Not even Francis Fukuyama believes in that one anymore. The overall level of human violence may be in decline (though a single great-power war could derail that finding), but world politics seems to be spinning more out of control with each passing week.

In the hyperpartisan world of contemporary U.S. politics, Democrats blame these present woes on George W. Bush, while Republicans trace them all to Barack Obama or (looking ahead) to Hillary Clinton. And both sides can find ample evidence for these politically motivated indictments.

But the real blame lies elsewhere. All three post-Cold War presidents have made their fair share of errors, but there is a common taproot to many of their failings. That taproot has been the pervasive influence of liberal idealism in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, an influence that crosses party lines and unites Democratic liberal internationalists with Republican neoconservatives. The desire to extend liberalism into Eastern Europe lay behind NATO expansion, and it is a big reason that so-called liberal hawks jumped on the neocon bandwagon in Iraq. It explains why the United States tried to export democracy to Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, instead of focusing laser-like on al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks. It was the foundation of Bill Clinton’s strategy of "engagement and enlargement," George W. Bush’s "liberty doctrine," and Barack Obama’s initial embrace of the Arab Spring and decision to intervene in Libya. It is, in short, the central thread in the complex tapestry of recent U.S. foreign policy.

Liberalism rests on a clear set of moral and political desiderata. It places the individual at the center of political life and sees each human being as possessing certain inalienable rights. Liberals rightly emphasize individual liberty and are wary of unchecked power, and they believe that these principles apply to all human beings. Accordingly, liberals believe democracy is the best form of government and favor the rule of law, freedom of expression, and market economies. They also believe — with some validity — that most human beings would be better off if these practices were universal.

Liberalism’s central features are extremely appealing, and I for one am deeply grateful that I have lived virtually all of my life in (mostly) liberal America. But the moral appeal of these basic liberal principles does not mean that they are a sound guide for the conduct of foreign policy. In fact, the past two decades suggest that basing a great power’s foreign policy primarily on liberal ideals is mostly a recipe for costly failures.

The central problem is that liberalism does not tell us how to translate its moral absolutes into clear, effective strategies for bringing them about. Liberalism identifies a set of moral objectives — a blueprint that all societies are supposed to follow — but says little about what a liberal state should do if some foreign country or leader refuses to "do the right thing."

For starters, look at what happens whenever some foreign government acts in a decidedly illiberal fashion or objects to U.S. or Western efforts to expand human rights, democracy, or any other cherished liberal principle. The nearly automatic reaction is for U.S. leaders to sputter in rage and then denounce that foreign leader as reactionary and misguided at best, or as the embodiment of evil at worst.

In recent months, for example, Secretary of State John Kerry responded to Russia’s seizure of Crimea by denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin as trapped in "19th-century" rules. Similarly, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush denounced their various authoritarian adversaries (Slobodan Milosevic, Ali Khamenei, Kim Jong Il, Muammar al-Qaddafi, etc.) in the harshest terms. Unfortunately, calling someone a part of the "axis of evil" is not a policy, and pointing out that a foreign leader is a despicable tyrant doesn’t change anything, especially when the accusation is accurate. Needless to say, real tyrants are not sensitive to this sort of criticism.

When moral condemnation fails — as it invariably does — liberalism offers no good alternatives. Economic sanctions are a weak tool and usually end up strengthening authoritarian rulers rather than undermining them. Moreover, they inflict vast suffering on entire populations while leaving the ruling elite largely unscathed, which ought to give anyone who is concerned with the condition of actual human beings at least a moment’s pause. Even when they do succeed — as one might argue occurred in the case of apartheid-era South Africa — it takes decades.

Trying to spread liberal ideals at the point of a gun, however, is even worse. As we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and many other places, violent "regime change" by definition means destroying existing political and social institutions. Unfortunately, the collapse of the old order and the subsequent foreign occupation make it even less likely that an effective democracy will emerge. The resulting anarchy empowers those with a taste and a talent for violence, and it forces local populations to turn to ancient sources of local identity (such as tribes, clans, or religious sects) for protection. It is hard to think of a better way to destroy the tolerance and individualism that is central to liberal philosophy.

Moreover, liberal governments seeking to wage idealistic crusades often end up lying to their own people in order to sustain popular support, and they have to maintain large and secretive national security apparatuses as well. Paradoxically, the more a liberal society tries to spread its creed to others, the more likely it is to compromise those values back home. One need only look at the evolution of U.S. politics over the past 20 years to see that tendency in spades.

Finally, because most liberals are convinced that their cherished beliefs are beyond debate, they fail to recognize that non-liberal societies may not welcome these wonderful gifts from abroad. On the contrary, the more the well-meaning foreign interference overseas — whether through military occupation, sanctions, or even NGOs like the National Endowment for Democracy — the greater the allergic reaction the interference is likely to generate. Foreign dictators will heighten repression, and populations that are supposed to greet their liberators with flowers will offer up IEDs instead. Massive state-building projects end up distorting local economies and fueling corruption, especially when the idealistic liberal occupiers have no idea how the local society works.

The conclusion is obvious. The United States and other liberal states would do a much better job of promoting their most cherished political values if they concentrated on perfecting these practices at home instead of trying to export them abroad. If Western societies are prosperous, just, and competent, and live up to their professed ideals, people in other societies will want to emulate some or all of these practices, suitably adapted to local conditions.

In some countries, this process may occur rapidly, in others only after difficult struggles, and in a few places not for many decades. This fact may be regrettable, but is also realistic. Trying to speed up a process that took centuries in the West, as the United States has been trying to do since 1992, is more likely to retard the advance of liberal values than it is to advance them.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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