Just imagine the situation: you are the only superpower left on the world stage. For the last fifty years you have been pursuing a focused international agenda of realpolitik, creating, strengthening and supporting rightwing dictatorships all over the world. In the meantime, you have had to endure criticism on every level about your global policies because, instead of international idealism, you opted for national security in its strictest form. The 21 st century comes, and finally you feel that the time has come to push forward some home-made enlightenment, injecting policy with a dose of idealism, pushing for an agenda of democratization and a renewed focus on freedoms worldwide. What happens? Not only do you get scolded like never before, but also those countries that you are freeing from totalitarian oppression become you worst enemies! It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the exasperation of neoconservatives in Washington.
Even without the continued violence in Iraq , the democratization evangelicals are in trouble. In those nations where the U.S. and its European allies are pushing for democratic reforms, the results are generally not those desired. The current situation in Egypt is a case in point. The decades old understanding between the U.S. and Hosni Mubarak’s regime about the freedom to behave distinctly undemocratically in exchange for being a strong ally in the region seems to be coming to an end. U.S. pressure has undoubtedly been the main catalyst behind the slightly freer Egyptian elections on the 7 th of December.
Yet, although Mubarak still seems untouchable with the National Democratic Party’s 333 seats in the legislature, the problem from a U.S. perspective has become blatantly obvious: democratization does not always – or even most of the time, for that matter – lead to the liberal, natural type of allies in the mould of Japan or Germany . As shown by the huge swing towards the Muslim Brotherhood – which is even more impressive given that the 20% of votes was won in a system still very much skewed against opposition – giving power to the people is no guarantee that they will actually look for a western style government. The belief throughout the western world that everyone really wants to be like “us” is increasingly being exposed for what it is: a mix of dogmatic idealism, genuine yet mistaken goodwill, blatant arrogance and cold geostrategic calculations that is binding policymakers to harmful foreign interference.
From a geostrategic perspective, the two most popular arguments in favor of establishing foreign democracies are that such regimes do not go to war with each other and that democratic regimes do not foster terrorism. The first argument depends on definitions. Unless you take a very narrow definition of “democracy” (one that Iraq is not likely to reach any time soon), for example, there have been various occasions in which democracies have fought each other on the battlefield, such as during the 1812 War between the United States and Great Britain . Secondly, democracy does not stop terrorism: Europe has a long history of terrorist groups, and by far most terrorist incidents occur in India , the world’s largest democracy. In any case, it seems highly unlikely that Al Qaeda would for some reason stop its activities in a democratic Middle East . After all, its beliefs are mostly incompatible with a non-authoritarian system.
Of course, it should be pointed out that there exist very real differences between the approaches of for example Europe and the United States . The United States, still conditioned according to its “can-do” culture, are much greater believers in imposition and forced freedoms – a contradiction in terms of ever there was one – than the Europeans, who try to garner support on the inside of non-democratic regimes rather than using a top-down approach. Nonetheless, the basic belief is the same: democracy and liberalism live in the heart of virtually every individual (regardless of whether they know it themselves or not), and the only things that keep that human core from blossoming are the evil institutions and thwarted individuals that lead the non-democratic regimes and ideologies.
Unfortunately, practical experience seems to indicate otherwise. Non-democratic or non-liberal tendencies go much further than the elites of, for example, many Middle Eastern countries. It would be foolish to argue that the populations of Iran , Iraq , Saudi-Arabia, or Egypt , if given the choice, would establish a Western-style political system where individual freedoms reign. More disturbingly from a realist perspective, the likely outcome of popular choice would be regimes much more in opposition to western interests than, say, the current ones in Saudi-Arabia or Egypt . Does this mean that Kant, Hegel and subsequent disciples were wrong? Not necessarily. The more likely explanation is to be found in the works of a usual hero of the political right, Friedrich Hayek.
Essentially, western ideologues, with the neoconservatives at the extreme of that group, have established a lazy intellectual framework that is based on wishful thinking rather than rational analysis. Maybe it is true that there is some deterministic movement towards a global consensus of liberal nations. It is probably true that most human beings have their individual freedoms as a top priority. What is not true, however, is that democracy, liberal consensus or capitalist systems are a conscious choice. As Hayek has convincingly pointed out, they are rather the result of tradition, slow societal evolution and the establishment of customs and habits, all of which take a longer time than the West is willing to give it. The idea that the United States can come in and impose a democratic regime in Afghanistan or Iraq is therefore nonsense. An election does not make a democracy, and a democracy does not make an ally.
Is there anything wrong with trying anyway? Besides the destruction and casualties of violent conflict, there are very real dangers and counterproductive outcomes as the result of the current policy making. Even ignoring the increased heroine production in Afghanistan and the terrorist breeding chamber that Iraq has become, too much meddling in countries such as Egypt or Saudi-Arabia could have serious consequences with respect to regional stability, including all the side effects related to oil supplies and violent conflict. From a more idealistic perspective, a nation in continuous political turmoil because of unnatural foreign pressures for democratization is likely to make its population worse off than a regime like that of Mubarak or the House of Saud.
That is not to say that either the United States should go back to its realpolitik of simply supporting dictators or that it should return to isolationism. The former is ethically unsustainable as well as strategically dubious given for example the role that the current Saudis are playing in fundamentalizing Islam. The latter possibility is simply no option in a globalized world. The best response would be one of less direct foreign involvement and more leading by example: show the benefits of joining the club of western nations by multilateral agreements and treaties; by increased trade liberalization and economic prosperity; through ethical, transparent and consistent policies when it comes to humanitarian action; and by strong support for those nations that are in their early stages of natural – as opposed to forced – democratization. In the end, fighting windmills abroad is not the solution with so many giants to slay at home.