For citizens of the world’s most powerful democracy, it ought to be a source of satisfaction, and even of pride, that peoples all over the planet have struggled to adopt our model of government—and, in recent years, have succeeded in doing so at an astonishingly high rate. In the wave of democratization that swept the world between the late 1970’s and early 1990’s, more than 30 nations of widely diverse cultures and locales became democratic. Many of these transformations would once have been unimaginable: democracy in Taiwan? in Nicaragua? in Romania? in South Africa? Although some have since faltered and slipped back toward dictatorship, in most democracy has sunk its roots deeply and appears to be settling in for a long stay.
The United States played a central part—indeed, an indispensable part—in spurring and supporting this global transition. To be sure, in Latin America and Asia, growing economies and indigenous political forces made dictatorship more precarious. Within the Soviet empire, stagnation and decay hollowed out Communist tyranny from within. But in the absence of American exhortation, pressure, and in some cases direct intervention, these broad historical trends could easily have been cut short by guerrilla victories, military coups, or violent repression. Instead, they were seized upon by local leader after local leader, from Corazon Aquino and José Napoleon Duarte to Lech Walesa and Boris Yeltsin, each of whom was favored with American support at the crucial turning point.
Can anyone doubt that the spread of democracy these past twenty years has been a good thing, both for the United States and for the world? To contemplate today’s situation is to appreciate anew the wisdom of American policy-makers in the late 70’s and throughout most of the 1980’s who placed a special value on promoting democratic governance abroad as part of America’s grand strategy. Indeed, given the remarkable success of this policy, one would have every reason to expect that it continues to command a great deal of support in the foreign-policy establishment and among American public officials.
But one would be wrong.
Over the past four or five years, a new pessimism, a new indifference, and even a new distaste for the promotion of democracy abroad have rippled through intellectual circles and out into the political arena. The assault comes from many different directions: from both the Right and the Left, from isolationists and internationalists, from the avatars of realism and the apostles of free-trade liberalism. But for all its diversity, the trend is unmistakable. The policies that helped shape the present, democratic era are losing legitimacy.
As one rather remarkable illustration, consider two “data points.” In 1991, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published a book, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, which exhaustively chronicled and unapologetically celebrated the advance of democracy around the world from the late 1970’s onward. Although Huntington recognized some significant obstacles to the further extension of this trend—not least, the limits on political pluralism and individual rights that might be imposed by certain cultures, especially the Islamic and the Confucian—he reminded his readers that similar arguments had once been made about the inhibiting effects of Catholicism, and had been proved wrong in Spain, Portugal, Poland, and Latin America. Cultures need not be “permanent obstacles to development in one direction or another,” he wrote. “Cultures evolve.”
Thanks to broad, impersonal forces like economic growth, “time,” Huntington concluded in 1991, was “on democracy’s side.” Still, though economic development and modernization helped make democracy possible, only “political leadership makes it real.” Democracy would continue to spread only “to the extent that those who exercise power in the world and in individual countries want it to spread.” Urging the United States to take a leading role in the process, Huntington departed from the analytic mode of the social scientist to propose, at several points in his book, “Guidelines for Democratizers.”
Now for our second data point. It could not have been very long before the Huntington who wrote ringingly in 1991 that “I believe . . . democracy is good in itself and . . . has positive consequences for individual freedom, domestic stability, international peace, and the United States of America” began revising his optimism downward. By 1994, he had published an article in Foreign Affairs, “The Clash of Civilizations,” in which he outlined the view—later developed in a book of the same title—that culture, or civilization, pretty much determined politics after all. As he would put it in another article in Foreign Affairs two years later, such hallmarks of democracy as the separation of spiritual and temporal authority, pluralism, the rule of law, representative government, and respect for individual rights and liberties were a product of European civilization, and “the belief that non-Western peoples should adopt Western values, institutions, and culture is, if taken seriously, immoral in its implications.” The message now was that the United States and the West should stay out of the affairs of other civilizations and tend to their own—which happened, by the way, to be in a perilous state of decline.
Huntington’s may be the starkest but is far from the only example of the swift journey traveled by many foreign-policy thinkers from optimism to skepticism, and from participation, however qualified, in the euphoria occasioned by the spread of democracy and the downfall of Soviet Communism to denunciation of that euphoria. One can discern the origins of the new dourness in the virtually uniform response among intellectuals to Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 article, “The End of History.” In that now-famous work, Fukuyama suggested that the collapse of Communism augured nothing less than “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Although Fukuyama conspicuously did not say this spelled an end to all human troubles, he was taken as saying it, and the reaction was fierce. It was not enough to prove that Fukuyama had exaggerated the good news; it was necessary to declare that he was entirely wrong, and that the news was in fact bad.
The harbingers of bad news have multiplied in the intervening years. We have been told that the world, far from being in somewhat greater harmony as a result of the spread of democratic government, is really Out of Control (the title of a 1993 book by Zbigniew Brzezinski) or in a state of Pandaemonium (the title of a book by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the same year). The Yale historian Paul Kennedy, undeterred by history’s refutation of his 1988 work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (in which he had warned of the impending bankruptcy of the United States under the weight of “imperial overstretch”), produced, in Preparing for the Twenty-first Century (1993), a new catalogue of global horrors: population explosions, disease, growing disparities of wealth, environmental catastrophe, the breakdown of nation-states. In “The Coming Anarchy,” an influential article in the Atlantic Monthly later fleshed out in the portentously titled book, The Ends of the Earth, Robert D. Kaplan gave “personal meaning” to Kennedy’s tale of miseries by providing a worldwide tour of the future now awaiting us: “Poverty, the collapse of cities, porous borders, cultural and racial strife, growing economic disparities, [and] weakening nation-states.”
Although Huntington himself has not fully endorsed the new “chaos paradigm,” the picture he has painted in the last few years suggests the futility of any efforts at amelioration. In a world in which, as he wrote last year, “the word ‘genocide’ has been heard far more often . . . than it was in any half-decade during the cold war,” talk of supporting the further spread of democracy seems not only silly but misguided. In a New York Times op-ed piece, Robert Kaplan has suggested that we “shift our emphasis in the third world from holding elections to promoting family planning, environmental renewal, road building, and other stabilizing projects.” What many third-world countries now need, in Kaplan’s view, is not democracy, which tends rather to weaken than to strengthen society, but a dictatorship that can lead them through the stages of economic development necessary before democratic government becomes thinkable.
Kaplan is not alone in proposing that democracy may not only be too difficult for some people to achieve but actually bad for them. Two political scientists from Columbia University, Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, have discovered a hitherto unknown “historical pattern” linking “democratization, belligerent nationalism, and war.” Reinterpreting the origins of the Crimean war, World War I, and such modern conflicts as the wars between Serbia and Croatia and between Armenia and Azerbaijan; and citing the fact that “the electorate of Russia’s partial democracy cast nearly a quarter of its votes [in 1993] for the party of radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky,” Mansfield and Snyder have concluded, with mathematical precision, that
states that make the biggest leap, from total autocracy to extensive mass democracy—like contemporary Russia—are about twice as likely to fight wars in the decade after democratization as are states that remain autocracies.
Indeed, the splitting-up of the Soviet behemoth into fifteen new states has provided ample fodder for the new debunkers of democracy. In seven of those states democracy is intact though precarious, while in the remaining eight it is either increasingly flawed or absent. But these eight make up fully half of a worldwide list compiled by Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment as proof positive of a “retrenchment” that “is stripping away the illusions that have surrounded the pro-democratic enterprise of recent years.” Similarly with the break-up of Yugoslavia, where, according to Mansfield and Snyder, the “inexorable pressure for democratization” is what allowed the old elites to create “a new basis for legitimacy through nationalist propaganda and military action.” After all, Fareed Zakaria, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, pointed out in early 1996, it was through the quintessentially democratic procedure of elections that a “xenophobic dictator,” Slobodan Milosevic, could consolidate his power in Serbia.
To the list of bad things produced by democracy has been added, finally, the deeply problematic outcome of elections in the Islamic world. In Algeria in 1992, such elections seemed certain to yield a victory by Muslim radicals, and were therefore canceled by the military. In Turkey, elections in 1995 produced a victory for the Welfare party, whose leader, Necmettin Erbakan, upon taking power in 1996, set about encouraging Islamic fundamentalism at home and courting the radical governments of Iran, Iraq, and Libya abroad; he was forced from his perch this year by the secular Turkish military. In both cases, it took a violation of democratic process to put a halt to what the democratic process had alarmingly yielded, and in both cases many observers and government officials heaved a sigh of relief: surely, they reasoned, it is better to have in place an orderly authoritarian government we can work with than a radical one we cannot.
Ironically, that is the kind of reasoning that Jeane J. Kirkpatrick pursued many years ago in these pages in “Dictatorships and Double Standards,”1 the seminal and wide-ranging article which led to her appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and influential adviser on foreign policy to the newly elected Ronald Reagan.
Kirkpatrick came at the issue from within the context of that historical moment. Specifically, her article was aimed at the blunderings of the Carter administration in foreign affairs over the preceding three years, and the “double standard” referred to in her title was this: the administration, and its liberal supporters, had reacted with punitive outrage to violations of human rights perpetrated by right-wing regimes allied to the United States, while taking a relatively accommodating view of the far more systematic abuses of Communist tyrannies that were actively threatening American interests around the world. Worse, by hectoring our allies and pressuring them to democratize overnight, the Carter administration, she argued, had transformed two such allies, Iran and Nicaragua, into hostile, radical dictatorships.
But much of Kirkpatrick’s essay also transcended the particular issues of the day and was meant to enunciate durable political truths, however hard she thought they might be for some Americans to swallow. One of these was that dictatorships, like the poor, would always be with us. At a time when the number of democracies outside Western Europe, the United States, and Canada could be counted on one hand, Kirkpatrick declared, quite accurately, that “most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another.” And yet, she went on, “no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances.”
This idea, in Kirkpatrick’s judgment, was simply false. In “Dictatorships and Double Standards” she took sharp issue with the notion of modernization’s inevitability (an idea associated with the work of Samuel P. Huntington), and went out of her way to slam Zbigniew Brzezinski, the main foreign-policy intellectual in the Carter administration, for his insistence on viewing the world not from the “perspective of American interests or intentions” but from that of “the modernizing nation and the ‘end’ of history.” Although Kirkpatrick did not deny that U.S. policy could “encourage [the] process of liberalization and democratization” in some autocratic regimes, she came close to doing so. The attempt should certainly not be made, she wrote, “at a time when the incumbent government is fighting for its life against violent adversaries.” Moreover, the proposed reforms would have to be “aimed at producing gradual change rather than perfect democracy overnight.” And “gradual” did not mean a few years. “Decades, if not centuries” might be “required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits.”
Eighteen years and more than 30 new democracies later, Kirkpatrick’s intellectual followers include, amazingly enough, some of the main targets of her criticisms in 1979—and on both the Left and the Right. On the Left, especially in the giddily optimistic crowd of free-trade liberals, some of the same people who wanted the United States to topple Somoza and the Shah in 1979, and who denounced “constructive engagement” with South Africa in the 1980’s, today argue with equal passion for “constructive engagement” with China. A hefty portion of the Right similarly defends a tolerant attitude toward China, as well as other dictatorial regimes, on the solid Kirkpatrickian grounds that we cannot and must not expect “perfect democracy overnight.”
To be sure, the new debunkers of democratization have had to digest the inconvenient fact that democracy can, indeed, spring up “anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances.” But this does not appear to have fazed them. Whether the subject is Indonesia, a classic authoritarian government, or, more incongruously, China, which still retains many of the defining characteristics of a totalitarian society, the current wisdom holds that tyrannies should be given time to evolve naturally, which is to say, as Kirkpatrick explained, “slowly.”
In one sense, of course, the return of the Kirkpatrick thesis is only part of a broader resurgence of an older and more established tradition in foreign policy: namely, “realism.” In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the leading prophets of this influential school of thought, Hans J. Morgenthau and George F. Kennan, constantly warned against “crusades” on behalf of democracy, which they thought would lead either to nuclear holocaust or to the immoral dominance of one power—the United States—over every other.2 Kennan, for one, did not much care for democracy, believing that, in Latin America and other less developed parts of the world, it made for weak and untrustworthy allies in the fight against Communism. And as for democracy in the United States, he once compared it to a dinosaur with a “brain the size of pin.”
Today, modern realists from Huntington to Owen Harries, the editor of the National Interest, complain about the “arrogance” of American efforts to impose our values on others, while some echo Kennan’s view that democracies may be too weak to withstand the onslaught of radicals (in today’s circumstances, these are usually not Communists but religious fundamentalists). Still others, like Henry Kissinger, admire the “Asian values” which allegedly form the basis of political society in Singapore, Indonesia, and China: in particular, the emphasis on “order” and “community” over individual rights and freedoms. And the aversion to promoting democracy abroad is also heavily influenced, just as it was in the past, by a deep pessimism about the health of democracy here at home.
This is especially, but not exclusively, true among conservatives. If, in the 1950’s, the realists’ hostility to ideological crusades was closely related to their disgust at what they perceived to be the wild and irresponsible behavior on display during the McCarthy era, today many conservatives are worried about the balkanization of American culture, about the impact of immigration and multiculturalism on our national identity, about threats to the American family, about an overweening government bureaucracy on the one hand and rampant individual license on the other. “The central issue for the West,” Huntington warns in The Clash of Civilizations, “is whether, quite apart from any external challenges, it is capable of stopping and reversing the internal processes of decay.”
It is hard to say just how much this pessimism about democracy at home has influenced the reorientation of attitudes toward foreign policy, but one suspects it is quite a bit. What is clear, in any case, is that this reorientation has spread far beyond the think tanks and the universities and has profoundly affected the world of policy-makers.
A year ago, a panel of experts, former senior officials, and members of Congress produced a report on American interests in the post-cold-war era.3 The panel—which included such eminences as Brent Scowcroft, who served as National Security Adviser under Presidents Ford and Bush; Graham Allison, a top Pentagon official in Bill Clinton’s first term; David Gergen, a senior White House official in the Reagan and Clinton administrations; Dole campaign adviser Robert Ellsworth; and Senators John McCain and Sam Nunn—listed those interests under the categories of color-coded poker chips. Blue-chip interests were “vital,” that is, “strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance the well-being of Americans in a free and secure nation.” Red-chip interests, deemed “extremely important,” represented conditions that “if compromised would severely prejudice but not strictly imperil the ability of the U.S. government” to preserve American well-being. There were five of the former sorts of interest, eleven of the latter.
Then came the white chips, among which, at last, democracy made its appearance: the panel deemed it “just important” that the United States promote this interest, but only in “strategically important states” and only “as much as feasible without destabilization.” A broader approach, “enlarging democracy elsewhere or for its own sake,” was listed at the very bottom, as a translucent chip—something “intrinsically desirable” but having no major effect on the ability of the U.S. government to safeguard the freedom, security, and well-being of Americans.
A decade ago, these conclusions, by these people, would surely have provoked considerable discussion. They would have been taken, and rightly, as a strong repudiation of the policy followed by the Reagan administration, which had made a very high priority out of promoting democracy in such places as El Salvador, Chile, the Philippines, and South Korea, as well as in Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union. Today, however, the report’s hierarchy of interests aroused not the smallest hint of controversy. Nor was it meant to: rather, it was a conventional representation of conventional thinking.
It is true that the Clinton administration, at least until recently, has tilted against this prevailing wind. Indeed, the President and his top advisers have declared the “enlargement” of the democratic sphere to be something of a red-chip or even a blue-chip goal, and in some areas their rhetoric has been complemented by action. Thus, the administration has devoted considerable energy to supporting democratic forces in Russia, often in the face of indifference and skepticism in Congress and the foreign-policy establishment. It has used the process of NATO enlargement as a means of both preserving and encouraging democratic reforms in former Warsaw Pact countries. It played an important role in the continuing transition to democracy in South Africa. In Latin America, it helped support a crucial, second free election in Nicaragua, blocked a military coup in Paraguay and another in Guatemala, and, in a very bold move for which it was harshly condemned by Republicans, even used force to restore a democratically-elected president in Haiti.
More recently, though, the administration’s commitment has faltered. Instead of treating the “enlargement” of the democratic world as a high American priority, it has increasingly settled into the establishment view that democracy is only a white or translucent chip and hence subject to barter in return for other benefits, especially of the economic or commercial variety. As Thomas Carothers correctly notes, the administration has “shied away” from pushing hard for democratic reform in Nigeria (which has oil); it has kept largely silent about the move toward authoritarian rule in Kazakhstan (which also has oil); it has been unwilling to take a hard line against the increasingly authoritarian president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosian (there is a domestic constituency for continuing aid to Armenia); and it has been sporadic, at best, in its support for democratic reforms in Croatia and Serbia. In Asia, though willing to apply sanctions against tiny and inconsequential Burma for suppressing the democratic movement of Aung San Suu Kyi, Clinton has placed the avidity of American business for “emerging markets” in China and Indonesia ahead of concerns about those regimes’ tyrannical practices.
In short, what we are seeing in the administration’s moves, as in the experts’ report, is the emergence of a new consensus, created more by default than by design and based on today’s version of a double (or, rather, multiple) standard. Democracy is to be supported in Western Europe and parts of Central and Eastern Europe, but not necessarily in Southeastern Europe. It is to be celebrated in those Asian nations, like Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, which have already chosen the democratic path; but in those that have not, we are to respect the dictators’ right to impose “Asian values” on their people. (In Hong Kong, this may require some particularly uncomfortable contortions, but the pain will pass.) In Latin America, democracy is to be supported almost everywhere, except (if you are a conservative) Haiti or (if a liberal) Cuba. Democracy is altogether too dangerous to support in the Islamic world, except, partially, in Turkey, which is a member of NATO. In the states that once made up the former Soviet Union, the issue is largely one of culture: the peoples of the Baltic states, Russia, and Ukraine are to be held to a much higher standard than the peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia. As for the African nations, if they hold elections, we will be happy; if they cancel them, or start slaughtering each other, we can rest content in the knowledge that they were not ready for elections in the first place.
Two decades ago, it may have made sense to be pessimistic about the prospects for democracy. As Jeane Kirkpatrick noted at the time, autocracy in one form or another was the norm, democracy the rare and fragile exception. Much less understandable is today’s dour and cynical view, which is so at odds with the global experience of the intervening two decades.
Are some of the world’s new democracies unstable or faltering? Of course they are. But the largest chunk of these troubled nations lies in a part of the world—the former Soviet Union—that possesses a number of unique qualities. The main problem is not that such newly independent states as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have no history of democracy; there is plenty of evidence from elsewhere in the world that this need not be an insuperable obstacle to democratization. The far greater problem is that they have no history of independent nationhood. Their institutions, such as they are, are the provincial remnants of the Soviet system. As Alexander J. Motyl notes in this year’s Freedom House survey,4 most of the non-Russian Soviet republics began their lives lacking almost everything—“elites, civil society, rule of law, and, the market”—necessary to support almost any form of government. It is certainly disappointing that democracy in about half of these countries is in trouble, but the miracle is that it continues to survive in so many. And in any case it is an analytical error to lay disproportionate stress on these failures in any objective global assessment.
Similarly with Africa. Thanks, in part, to breakthroughs in the southern part of that continent, Thomas R. Lansner writes in the Freedom House survey, “the basic terms of debate over governance in Africa is evolving toward respect for fundamental freedoms.” Lansner continues:
Stronger civil societies are emerging in many countries, forging ties beyond race, religion, and ethnicity. African leaders are increasingly accepting that domestic peace demands the consent of the citizenry.
That the African picture is a mixed one is powerfully proved by the horrors of Rwanda and Burundi, the brutal tyranny of Nigeria, and the turmoil of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). But given Africa’s history, and given the long-term failure of the United States and other democracies to address themselves to its political problems, the wonder once again is that the continent’s record is as mixed as it is.
If it is one kind of mistake to overstate the bad news by measuring today’s much-improved reality against some imagined Utopia, a much bigger mistake is to shape our policy around the failures. The notion, for instance, that we would do better to focus on economic development, on establishing the alleged “prerequisites” of democracy rather than democracy itself, simply ignores the lessons of the recent past. As the political analyst Adrian Karatnycky has noted, the states of the former Soviet empire that “have made the greatest progress in creating market economies” have, for the most part, also been those “that have made the greatest progress in consolidating their democratic transitions.” Conversely, the failure to achieve economic reform has been most notable in states showing the least progress toward political reform. These findings, Karatnycky argues,
contradict the argument that economic reform can successfully be implemented by authoritarian rulers who [allegedly] can take decisive and unpopular steps because they are not inhibited by public opinion, . . . rival political parties and movements, or free trade unions.5
What about the idea that democracy leads to instability, bloody ethnic conflict, and war? Surely no one can seriously believe it would have been better to preserve the Soviet or Titoist tyrannies intact after 1989—let alone that this would have been possible. The collapse of these regimes did, indeed, unleash ethnic conflicts and innumerable border disputes. But was democratization to blame? Absent the firm intervention of outside powers, would the break-up of Yugoslavia have been more peaceful if the successor governments had been more uniformly tyrannical? If this century has taught us anything, it is that dictators are perfectly capable of whipping up ethnic and/or nationalist hysteria, and of initiating genocide, for their own purposes.
Finally, the claim by Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder that states in transition to democracy are twice as likely to engage in war cannot withstand scrutiny. Even leaving aside their interpretation of earlier historical events, it is simply wrong to conclude that today’s Russia is more warlike because nearly a quarter of the Russian electorate voted in 1993 for a radical nationalist, or because Boris Yeltsin used murderous force against the breakaway republic of Chechnya. The fact is that Zhirinovsky reached his political zenith in 1993, and his support has dwindled ever since. Russia’s new democratic system, meanwhile, has compelled the Kremlin to give up its disastrous effort to crush the Chechen revolt. (In the czarist era, Russia fought wars of this nature for decades.) And democratic Russia has likewise peacefully negotiated a settlement with democratic Ukraine for control of Sevastopol and the Black Sea fleet; somehow, one doubts that Stalin, or even Gorbachev, would have been so accommodating. If, in sum, today’s Russia offers evidence of anything, it is the generally pacifying effect of democracy on a leadership not traditionally known for its pacific policies.
Democracy is not the solution to the world’s problems. But it is a better solution than the alternatives. And it is the only solution the United States can ever support with a modicum of enthusiasm or consistency.
This, certainly, was the hard-learned lesson of the Reagan era. Contrary to what everyone expected at the time, the Reagan administration did not ultimately conduct its foreign policies according to the Kirkpatrick thesis, though for a time it tried to do so by instituting closer ties, or at least less hostile relations, with certain dictatorial regimes in Latin America and elsewhere. (Reagan himself had fond feelings for the Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.) But the practice proved unsustainable, and for a simple reason.
Reagan, who was no realist in the Kissingerian mode, elevated the global struggle with Communism to a high priority; rather than accept a condition of permanent coexistence, he took steps to try to undo Communism whenever and wherever the opportunity beckoned. A couple of years into his first term, however, administration officials began to realize that such a battle against the world’s most formidable tyranny could not be won by a policy that was officially sanguine about lesser and friendlier tyrannies. It could not be won, that is, under a double standard. And so, instead of accepting the permanence and legitimacy of friendly dictatorships, the administration set about pressing them to reform, often not under conditions of relative calm and safety but when, precisely, they were engaged in “fighting for [their] life against violent adversaries,” and not over decades or centuries but quickly.
In El Salvador, in the Philippines, in Chile, and elsewhere, the Reagan team found a way to accomplish this without suffering the fate of the Carter administration in Iran and Nicaragua. In the countries where the “Reagan doctrine” was applied, democratic reformers did indeed gain strength and guerrillas and terrorist groups were indeed weakened. This record looks all the more impressive in the light of today’s sober warnings that we should support democracy abroad only when the risks to our security, or to our oil, or to our export markets, are negligible.
One area in which the Reagan-era experience holds obvious implications today is the Islamic world. Clearly it is in our interest to prevent radical fundamentalist regimes from taking power there. In fact, the battle against the radicals in Iran, in Sudan, and in Afghanistan should be waged more tenaciously than it has been. Simultaneously, however, we could and should be holding authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to higher standards of democracy, and encouraging democratic voices within those societies, even if it means risking some instability in some places. At the height of the cold war, the strategic risks in Central America and in Asia were at least as great as they are today in the Middle East—and the gamble, once taken, paid off.
The real question before us today is the same question Samuel P. Huntington posed, in Lincolnesque fashion, seven years ago: “How long can an increasingly interdependent world survive part-democratic and part-authoritarian?” Huntington’s point was not that the world would ever become completely one or the other, but that a modern, closely interconnected world must move generally either in one direction—i.e., toward greater liberty—or in another—toward greater tyranny. Although the United States may not have the final say over the outcome, as the leading power our say can well be determinative. If we act wrongly, we may lose something even more valuable than our relative security.
For the day we adopt a neutral attitude toward the fate of democracy in the world is the day we deny our own essence, an essence rooted in a commitment to certain principles which we believe to be universal. Anyone worried about our national identity, and about the challenge posed to it by the balkanization of our culture, must know that we can hardly expect to unite our own country if we decide that those principles apply only in a few, rare circumstances and to a limited number of fortunate peoples. Nor can we expect to achieve renewal at home if we conduct ourselves abroad in a mood of despair and cynicism about the very things we hold most dear.
It is often argued that vitality abroad depends first on vitality at home. But the reverse is also true: the active defense of our principles abroad has encouraged us to support them even more vigorously at home. The fight against Nazism and Communism in the 1940’s and 50’s helped build a national consensus behind the civil-rights movement. In the Reagan era, confidence about America’s beneficial role in the world was closely linked with confidence about the democratic project at home. This is a point on which the Samuel P. Huntington of 1991 needed no instruction. “Other nations,” he wrote,
may fundamentally change their political systems and continue their existence as nations. The United States does not have that option. Hence Americans have a special interest in the development of a global environment congenial to democracy.
There is no stasis in international affairs. Some day, the world may well turn back toward autocracy. The United States, the world’s leading democratic power, could lose a major war to some rising, nondemocratic power. Or some calamity, whether man-made or not, may devastate the civilization we have created. But precisely because nothing lasts forever, and in the full knowledge that democracy is not inevitable but requires constant effort by those who mean to sustain it, the task facing us is to preserve and extend the democratic era as far into the future as possible. As it happens, and precisely because of the success of earlier policies, the present moment is one of relative safety, and therefore one that offers special opportunities. It would be a timeless human tragedy if, out of boredom, laziness, carelessness, or unfounded gloom, we failed to seize them.
1 November 1979.
2 I have written on the realists at greater length in “American Power—A Guide for the Perplexed,” COMMENTARY, April 1996.
3 America’s National Interests, published by the Commission on America’s National Interests (1996).
4 “1997 Freedom Around the World,” Freedom Review, January 1997.
5 Many conservatives today like to point to the experience of Chile under General Pinochet, whose authoritarian regime gave way under American pressure to today’s democracy. But the example tells us less than they imagine. Dictators in Africa and Central Asia are more likely to be kleptocrats in the mold of a Mobutu than free-market reformers in the mold of a Pinochet.