During his recent visit to Russia, George W. Bush had main objectives. The first and foremost was to keep a working-relationship with Vladimir Putin. The United States cannot afford to alienate this country to such an extent that it will no longer be open to partnership in areas such as energy policy and non-proliferation. The second aim of Bush\’s visit, however, was exactly contrary to the first, namely to reinforce the strategic position of the United States in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Given that this is mostly a zero-sum game with respect to Russia\’s strategic interests, the schizophrenic nature of American policy was on full display during the celebrations in Moscow. More importantly, by abusing the processes that lead to democratic countries, the White House jeopardizes the delicate progress that is being made in those countries that are in transition.
The foundation for the objectives in Eastern Europe and Central Asia was laid by Bush\’s criticism of Putin\’s undemocratic record within Russia and its \”meddling\” in the domestic affairs of its Southern neighbours. By flying to Tbilisi straight afterwards, proclaiming that \”Georgia has come a long way very quickly\”, Bush reinforced his drive for influence in the region. His vehicle, as usual, is the fight for democracy and freedom. By \”a long way\”, Bush officially referred to the democratization process in Georgia since Mikheil Saakashvili\’s rise to power. In reality, of course, the US is relieved by the fact that Georgia is now looking to the West, rather than the North, for strategic partnerships. Not only is it far too early to tell whether Georgia is indeed becoming a truly democratic country, but the US has repeatedly shown where it stands when it has to choose between democracy on the one hand and strategic interests on the other. Countries such as Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Saudi-Arabia show that democracy and American interests do not always coincide, and that once the democracy and freedom vehicle is no longer useful, it is discarded without scruples. Although Georgia is the most recent example of these double standards in US policies, the region most affected by such US interference is undoubtedly the Middle-East. Under the guise of democratisation, the Bush administration continuously meddles in internal affairs of these countries as well as seriously endangers possibilities of true progress.
So what if the US has alternative motives? Why not encourage the American President to look after US interests if it is more likely to lead to a free and democratic country? Surely Georgia has a greater chance of successful development under a Western sphere of influence than under Russian dominance. Perhaps, but the historical evidence of success in this area is weak. Moreover, there are three fundamental reasons why this type of US activity can be very damaging to progress in global welfare and freedom.
First the historical evidence; the Western track-record in actually accomplishing its democratic goals abroad is disappointing, to say the least. Democracy requires such a highly complex interaction of different actors within a society – ranging from institutional capacity to popular support and from economic success to political stability – that external support will only be effective if all these requirements are already in place. If they are not, it is ludicrous to believe that foreign governments can actually impose these conditions artificially. Japan successfully democratised under US control after the Second World War only because there was a cohesive, willing and capable population supportive of the American agenda, which was virtually unchallenged both internally as well as externally. This goes some way in explaining why other military interventions such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have been so much less successful. It is also worth noting that the Second World War had not been fought on a \”democratisation platform\”. Rather, democratising Japan seemed expedient once the fighting was over, and cannot be regarded as much more than an afterthought to the Allied victory.
In those cases where democratisation took place without military intervention, such as Eastern and Central Europe, Western support has been successful because of a unique combination of overwhelming internal support on the one hand, and possible entry to the EU on the other. So far it is unclear whether the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine are also the start of a truly democratic future. In any case, the benefits of Western involvement are unclear at best given its bias towards strategic interests (see my article on Ukraine of 30/12/04). Historical evidence for the idea that democratic success depends on foreign involvement is hard to come by.
Lack of success is not in itself an argument against Western support. It is also important to distinguish here between the cavalier attitudes of the current White House administration and the more moderate approaches by most European governments. The \”West\” as such is of course not a homogenous entity. Indeed, there are many European policies in this respect that seem to distinguish much more clearly between on the one hand following and encouraging democratisation processes, and on the other hand imposing such a process from abroad. Iran is an obvious example of such differences between the transatlantic partners. However, a Bush speech in Georgia is still seen as representative of \”Western\” values. By not distancing themselves from White House policies when this occurs, European governments must still be regarded as tacit accomplices of such misguided policies. Given the potential damage that this type of external involvement can cause, it is clear that the White House and European leaders are going down a highly dangerous path.
First of all, it is seldom obvious who the representatives of a democratic future are. Regardless of all the overwhelming bias in the West in favour of Saakashvili and Victor Yuschenko, it is far too early to determine whether they will truly implement democratic regimes. Both face considerable internal opposition, something not typical of those historical examples that in fact managed to evolve into democratic regimes.
The situations in Iran and Venezuela show similar problems. In the former, interests and ideals of the various groups are too blurred to properly identify a massive, Western-style democratic movement. In Venezuela, the infamous support by the United States for the brief coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002 demonstrates the difficulty in choosing the right side. If support is regarded as biased towards one group rather than towards the concept of democracy in general, the effect of foreign involvement is likely to be counterproductive and alienate the country from the well-intentioned but misguided foreign policies.
Secondly, the push for democratization worldwide is increasingly becoming a divisive factor by separating those that are open to Western style reforms from those that are not. This is clearly visible from US rhetoric; terms such as \”outposts of tyranny\”, \”rogue states\” and \”axis of evil\” clearly carve up the world in \”good\” and \”bad\”. This severely complicates global cooperation that is so desperately needed when it comes to proliferation issues, the environment, and terrorism. By pushing for democratization too strongly, the West is antagonizing large parts of the world that view it as a new form of domination rather than liberation.
This objection is reinforced by the third problem, namely the bilateral nature of democratic support. Because democratization efforts are rarely carried out at a multilateral level, it is often impossible to separate strategic interests from the official motives. The blurring of Realpolitik with idealism creates an atmosphere of distrust and antagonism both among political leaders as well as the general population of the targeted country. This mechanism has adverse consequences internally as well as endangers international cooperation by making every effort look like a Trojan Horse for alternative motives. It is no coincidence that by far the most important and beneficial foreign intervention in the Orange Revolution came from the OECD monitoring the elections and not from White House or Downing Street rhetoric.
One of the main reasons why economists often argue against government intervention is that the government simply does not have sufficient information to understand the outcome of its intervention. This same argument can be used in international relations and democratization. As long as a country is not overwhelmingly clearly on the path towards democratic success, foreign governments need to be highly hesitant in meddling too openly in the internal politics. Moreover, any support for democratic developments needs to be as multilateral as possible. If this is not feasible because of political differences, a hands-off policy is preferable to unilateral action.
If Georgia is indeed evolving into an open and free society, it deserves full-hearted Western support. However, this type of support needs to follow the domestic Georgian agenda, rather than trying to set the pace from abroad. When Bush calls the country a \”beacon of liberty\”, the result is likely to be more darkness for the foreseeable future, both in Georgia as well as for the international community at large.