Democracy falls victim to foreign policy realism
By Philip Stephens
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: November 23 2006 18:55 | Last updated: November 23 2006 18:55
When George W. Bush condemned the assassination of Pierre Gemayel he spoke of an assault on democracy. In murdering another of Lebanon’s politicians, the perpetrators, widely assumed to have Syria’s backing, were also attacking an idea. America’s idea.
Words, though, have become detached from reality. If the US president has not wavered in his rhetorical allegiance to the goal of democratic transformation in the Middle East, the practice has foundered. It is not hard to see why.
The invasion of Iraq was intended as a demonstration of American power sufficient to cow authoritarian regimes across the region. Instead, the civil war in that country has attested to weakness. The Palestinians elected the “wrong” party in Hamas. As US power has ebbed, so too has Washington’s pressure on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to relax his grip. A strategy of democracy promotion that was characterised only last year as a generational challenge has all but collapsed.
Plenty of people on both sides of the Atlantic are quietly cheering its demise. There is chaos enough, you hear them say, without the US trying to remake the world in its own image. Idealism is all very well, they add, but what we need now is hard-headed realism. After the defeat of the Republicans in the mid-term elections, that is what we are likely to get. My guess is that celebration will soon enough turn to lament.
Realism has many dimensions. At its simplest, it implies no more than a willingness to treat the world as it is rather than as you might like it to be. That is what foreign policy practitioners mean when they say that the US should engage with enemies as well as friends. It talked to Moscow during the cold war; why not Tehran and Damascus now?
A little way along the spectrum of meanings, realists take a Westphalian view of sovereignty. Governments, democratic or otherwise, must be free to do as they please within their own boundaries. The authoritarian nature of a useful ally should not be seen as an obstacle to co-operation.
Further still, realism merges into cynicism, promoting a realpolitik indifferent to the nature of a regime. Dangerous tyrants are fine as long as they are on the right side. The arming of Saddam Hussein against Iran during the 1980s comes to mind.
During the cold war it was this last form of realism that saw the US jump into bed with some of the nastiest regimes in Latin America, Asia and Africa – a policy that appalled as many Europeans then as does now the pro-democracy “imperialism” of the Bush administration.
I have never quite understood European attitudes. The parents of my generation endured the second world war. Their sacrifices, we learned at school, had been made in the name of freedom. They had been worth it because, unlike the communists, those of us lucky enough to live in the west could say what we liked and, at regular intervals, throw out our leaders. Democracy was the prize.
Yet Europeans – or, more accurately, many in the western half of the continent – are more likely these days to value stability. Freedom is fine for us, but better not challenge despots elsewhere.
This is all the more strange because the European Union has been the world’s most successful agent in supporting regime change – in the former dictatorships of Spain, Portugal and Greece and in the post-communist states of eastern and central Europe.
That said, the US administration has not helped its own cause. In Iraq, democracy building appeared an afterthought, a cloak over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Washington was unprepared for nation building.
There are broader lessons from that conflict – most obviously that armed intervention is unlikely to invite the most propitious conditions for democracy. Another I heard often at a conference last week at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland. Organised by the Ditchley Foundation, this gathering explored a deeper flaw in US policy. The mistake was to see democracy almost exclusively through the lens of elections: to assume the act of voting was what mattered.
Well, it does matter, of course. But elections are not a sufficient condition. The rule of law, an independent judiciary, a strong civil society, political parties, a free press and the habit of participation are also vital pillars. Building them takes time and painstaking effort. Without them elections may legitimise populist autocrats. The cross on the ballot paper, in other words, may be nearer the end than the beginning of democratic state-building.
Such insights come too late for the Bush administration. The popular and political backlash against Iraq has dimmed Wilsonian enthusiasm for nation building. The mood among Americans is that someone else can put the world to rights. The US will use its might to defend itself. In Washington, realism is back in vogue.
For all that some may enjoy the humbling of the superpower, I suspect that America’s allies will find the aftermath less palatable if, as seems likely, muscular idealism now makes way for a unilateralism defined by narrow national interest.
It is not hard to imagine the form a realist US foreign policy might take. A bargain with Russia, for example, might ignore Vladimir Putin’s disdain for democracy. Instead, the US would secure Moscow’s co-operation in countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions and seeking to stabilise the Middle East by ending its already faltering efforts to promote democracy on Russia’s periphery. Ukraine and Georgia would be returned to Moscow’s sphere. As for Syria, why not strike a deal that acknowledges its interests in Lebanon? After all, the US has conspired before in Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.
I am not predicting these policy shifts. But it is as well to understand the dark side of a values-blind foreign policy. This was the frame of mind that saw the west arm the jihadists in Afghanistan during the 1980s – and then leave that country to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It was realism, too, that saw Europe and the US stand by as the Balkans fell to ethnic slaughter.
The means by which the US has promoted its democracy agenda can be criticised on many counts. But the debacle in Iraq, the inconsistency of application and the failures of understanding have been about means rather than ends. There is no long-term trade-off between realism and idealism. The spread of democracy is the surest guarantor of security and prosperity. That is something we will understand again after a few years of so-called realism.