Monday, January 24, 2005

Freedom Isn’t A Doctrine

Richard N. Haass in the Washington Post:

The idea, stated forcefully by President Bush in his second inaugural, that the United States would henceforth support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” is by any yardstick an important declaration. A foreign policy doctrine, however, it is not. This is not to suggest that democracy doesn’t matter. There is, for example, considerable evidence suggesting that mature democracies tend not to make war on one another. Today’s Europe best illustrates this phenomenon.

Promoting democracy can also be useful as one component of the campaign against terrorism. Young men and women who are more involved in their societies and less alienated from their governments might see more reason to live for their causes than to kill and die for them. With luck, they might choose to become teachers rather than terrorists.

But there are more reasons to conclude that it is neither desirable nor practical to make democracy promotion the dominant feature of American foreign policy. The bottom line is that while the nature of other societies should always be a foreign policy consideration, it cannot and should not always be the foreign policy priority.


Prospects for the democratic improvement of a society can prove even worse absent occupation. Those who rejoiced 25 years ago in the overthrow of the shah of Iran should reflect on the fact that unattractive regimes can be replaced by something far worse. We thus need to be measured in what pressures we place on such countries as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Here as elsewhere it is important to observe the Hippocratic oath and first do no harm. Time is a factor in another sense. There is no realistic way that democracy will arrive in either North Korea or Iran before nuclear weapons do. And even if “freedom” were somehow to come to Tehran, it is almost certain that free Iranians would be as enthusiastic as the mullahs are about possessing nuclear weapons owing to the political popularity of these weapons and their strategic rationale given Iran’s neighborhood.

Trade-offs for the United States are unavoidable. President Bush’s statement Thursday that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one” doesn’t hold up to careful scrutiny. The United States has a vital interest in China helping to eliminate the North Korean nuclear program, in Russia helping to eliminate the Iranian one, in Pakistan going after al Qaeda, in Israelis and Palestinians making peace. We may prefer that China, Russia, Pakistan and Palestine also be democratic, but a preference is something markedly less than a vital interest. The United States simply cannot afford to allow promoting democracy to trump cooperation on what is truly essential.

Remember the mantra of the Carter Administration; human rights above all else? It was a noble goal, and it sounded like the perfect counterpoint to the dark tone of the Cold War. In practice it made more trouble for America than the policies of detente of the Nixon adminsitration in opening the door to China; accepting the lack of human rights in China while courting their billions of consumers seemed like the right way to defuse tensions and make a few bucks. (That doesn’t apply to Cuba, but that’s a whole other story.) Now Bush has basically said to the world, “My way or the highway,” just stopping short of appointing Steven Segal as Secretary of State. I think he’s going to have about as much luck with this bulging-bicep approach as Jimmy Carter did by enouraging everyone to hold hands and sing “Feelings.”