Global Mission

Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny.
by Joshua Muravchik.
American Enterprise Institute. 259 pp. $22.95.

Five years ago, a book like Joshua Muravchik’s powerful and well-argued call for an ambitious American foreign policy based on democratic internationalism would have aroused little controversy. This was, after all, the official policy of the Reagan administration. Most conservatives endorsed it, and liberals attacked only its application, not its premises. Today, Muravchik’s view is no longer in the majority, perhaps least of all among conservatives. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many conservatives have reverted to skepticism—some call it realism—about the prospects for democracy abroad, the capacity of American power to foster it, and the interest the United States has in sacrificing blood and treasure on its behalf.

One of the great virtues of Muravchik’s book is to engage these skeptics directly, noting both the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments. In one chapter, he wrestles with the long-held realist view that American democracy is not “exportable.” Acknowledging that exact replicas of the American system may not be suitable for other cultures, he notes nevertheless that in nations as diverse as Japan, India, and Costa Rica, democracies have taken root, each in its own way. To those who say that Japanese or Indian democracy is not democracy as we know it, Muravchik responds that

what the Japanese have, not surprisingly, is Japan-style democracy rather than U.S.-style democracy. This is exactly what they ought to have. Its personalistic factions and emphasis on loyalty and hierarchy reflect Japanese culture. These features may seem repugnant to us. But the system retains the special features of democracy; namely, the main government officials are chosen in honest, open, competitive elections and the citizens enjoy the right to hear and take part in unfettered political discourse.

Finally, to those who say that India and Japan are special cases, their democracy imposed by American and British occupations, Muravchik cites Freedom House’s list of other free countries—39 of them—that lie outside North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

In another set of chapters Muravchik addresses persistent doubts about America’s capacity to promote democracy abroad. His historical journey through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries shows what any American schoolboy once knew: whether through force of example, force of arms, or a myriad of means in between, the United States has succeeded more often than it has failed in its attempts to support or encourage democracy abroad.

But the major argument between Muravchik and the new “realists” is not over whether America can, in fact, foster democratic progress abroad, but whether it should. What troubles many American foreign-policy analysts—and especially many conservatives—about calls to global engagement on behalf of democracy is not the part about democracy but the part about engagement. Only the growing trend among leading American conservative thinkers toward retrenchment and even isolationism can explain why they, of all people, should find Muravchik’s prescription exceptionable at precisely the moment of American democracy’s greatest triumph.

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At the end of 1989, Charles Krauthammer predicted that the “Left-Right debate of today will gradually transform itself into the isolationist-internationalist debate of yesterday.” Despite the wholly unanticipated eruption of the Gulf War, that prediction has been fully vindicated. While the vast majority of Americans savor their military triumph, those who make their livings debating the purpose of American power continue the angry battle they began before the war, when the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up seemingly endless possibilities for the use, abuse, and non-use of America’s singular strength. Among conservatives the debate is especially strident because old alliances have broken down and old agreements are being discarded.

It seems evident in retrospect that many of these old conservative alliances were tactical, not strategic. During the Carter and Reagan presidencies, varied strands of American conservatism, from the Republicans of the Taft-Goldwater era to the apostate Democrats known as neoconservatives, joined in common cause to save the United States from what all agreed was a failure of will and national purpose in the face of the Soviet geopolitical and ideological threat. Thus, a once and future isolationist like Patrick J. Buchanan, in his role as director of communications in the Reagan White House, enthusiastically oversaw the writing of countless presidential speeches about America’s global mission to support people struggling for freedom anywhere and everwhere, from Grenada to Cambodia, against right- and left-wing dictatorships alike. Thus, too, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had earlier questioned the wisdom of imposing American values on traditional dictatorships allied to us, by the end of 1982 was telling the United Nations (where she served as U.S. ambassador) that “the preservation of international peace . . . [and] the preservation of human rights and freedom . . . are inexorably linked.” And thus, finally, the neoconservative Irving Kristol contended in the fall of 1985 that because the U.S.-Soviet conflict was ideological, “any viable conception of the United States’s ‘national interest’ cannot help but be organically related to that public philosophy—ideology, if you wish—which is the basis of what we have to come to call ‘the American way of life.’ ”

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Today, the tactical alliance in favor of democratic internationalism—an alliance formed in order to rally Americans in the fight against Communism, to overcome the isolationist tendencies within American society, and to rebut the charges of the American Left that American power would always be used to promote wicked ends—has broken down. Owen Harries, a consistent realist who is the editor of the National Interest, opposes democratic internationalism in large measure because it would seem to extend American commitments beyond what he deems appropriate and sustainable. Jeane Kirkpatrick, while still declaring it “enormously desirable for the U.S. . . . to encourage democratic institutions wherever possible,” now wants to limit American efforts to making “clear our views about the consequences of freedom and un-freedom” and “encourage[ing] others to adopt democratic practices” presumably through friendly advice rather than through the exercise of economic, political, or military power. As for Patrick Buchanan, he has hot-bloodedly attacked not just the “democratists” but the whole “internationalist set, never at a loss to divert U.S. wealth and power into crusades and causes having little or nothing to do with the true national interest of the United States.”

If Buchanan is at all representative of a trend, the burden on “democratists” has grown; they must show not only that America should involve itself in the world on behalf of democracy, but that it should involve itself at all. This is what Muravchik attempts to do, and he performs the task as well as anyone can. He reminds us of America’s disastrous retreat to isolationism in this century, and he points out what a bizarre kind of “realism” it is to assume that, with the Soviet Union in disarray, no threats lie over the horizon that would require the United States to return to the fray:

In the wake of Communism, we are unlikely to see forces more terrible and more destructive, but we would be foolish to assume that all troubles will cease or to risk turning our back on the world. That we cannot foresee the shape of any possible new threat does not mean that none exists; it may show only the limits of our imagination.

Muravchik might have pursued this theme further, for the unknown threat he rightly expects would most probably arise as a direct consequence of American withdrawal. What many “realists” seem to ignore is that American power in all its forms is also the keystone of power structures in many different regions of the world. In East and Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, in Latin America, in Western and now increasingly Eastern Europe, in large parts of Africa, the mere existence of American power affects the decisions and attitudes of leaders and would-be leaders every day. Withdraw American power from these systems, and personal and national ambitions, now tempered, and perhaps not yet even felt, will inevitably blossom. New horizons will open for men who never dreamed of them.

Is this not after all the lesson of Saddam Hussein’s unanticipated adventurism? The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war created an opportunity, and he seized it. He believed, with reason, that Americans would not care. Though in the event they surprised both him and themselves, who is to say that the next Saddam Hussein will not succeed?

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The United States must, then, remain involved overseas. But as the experience of the cold war proved, we cannot sustain such a consistent involvement without a justification that goes beyond realism and appeals to the deeply rooted moral principles Americans share. No one would claim, and Muravchik certainly does not, that the United States must engage in a feverish and uncompromising democratic crusade in every country in the world at all times, regardless of the cost or risk or likelihood of success. This is the Wilsonian caricature that realists love to assail, but it is not what democratic internationalists recommend or what America, even when most seized by the crusading spirit, has done. What America can practice is the prudent support of democracy, using all the many tools at its disposal, most of them well short of military force. Muravchik carefully lists these tools, describing their strengths and weaknesses, and the appropriate times and places for their use.

America can also practice the patient support of democracy—not forcing change when change is impossible, but waiting for conditions to ripen, nurturing promising developments, discouraging those which threaten what little hope for progress may exist. Muravchik examines important moments in the histories of several countries, including Nicaragua in 1978-79, El Salvador in the early 1980’s, and the Philippines in 1986, to show how relatively subtle American actions at the appropriate moment can make the difference between the success and failure of democracy.

To say that democracy should be the polestar of American foreign policy is not to remove our responsibility to navigate carefully through the hazards history lays in the path of all nations. “We cannot foresee the exact form of the new global politics or new problems in other directions,” Muravchik writes. Yet rather than withdraw into ourselves in the face of uncertainty,

we ought to press ahead with what has brought us success—the advancement of the democratic idea. . . . [W]e ought never forget the general rule that the more democratic the world becomes, the more likely it is to be both peaceful and friendly to America.

Such a prescription seems, above all, realistic.

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