On liberty

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

IS AMERICA about to launch a single-minded crusade to promote liberty around the globe, committing the blood and treasure of the United States to spread democracy in the Middle East and around the world at any cost? Some commentators seem to hope so, and to eagerly anticipate the sound of tank engines starting up for a dash to Damascus or Tehran. Others have expressed considerable concern. The differing reactions to President Bush’s second inaugural address reflect the real tension–in the speech itself as well as in our foreign policy–between our interests and our values, which are not always the same, in foreign policy or everyday life.

In the soaring cadences of the speech, Bush drew no distinction between American interests and American values. In fact, he argued that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” Such idealistic rhetoric may be appropriate in setting the vision that will guide his second term. But how the rhetoric becomes reality in day-to-day policy decisions is yet to be seen–and possibly yet to be defined, as even within the administration there are real differences of opinion over the best way to proceed.

To his credit, the president and his team have worked hard to ensure that simplified caricatures of his remarks are seen for what they really are. At his press conference on January 26, 2005, Bush himself reiterated that democratization is a “process” and a “work in progress” and reminded his audience, “There won’t be instant democracy.” He emphasized that his inaugural address laid out a path “toward an ideal world” and that it would take “the work of generations.”

When asked directly about how to apply his commitment to freedom in dealing with countries like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, the president seems to have endorsed a pragmatic and evolutionary approach. This would mean working with existing regimes to achieve “practical objectives” in solving the “problems of the day”, while encouraging them to take steps toward greater freedom and openness. He did not set out a strategy of “permanent revolution.”

The fact that the White House has found it necessary to issue a whole series of clarifications to the speech illustrates the lack of sophistication with which many commentators have approached the whole issue of democracy. Some act as if the emergence of democracy in a country were solely a matter of protests in a capital city’s main square or a single successful election, and they downplay the very real challenges of building the institutions needed to make democracies functional. Others, anxious to prove that the number of “democracies” in the world is growing, seem more eager to color in new countries on the map as “democratic” than to establish sustainable democracies that genuinely provide freedom, justice and a better quality of life to their citizens.

In reality, promoting democracy should be about precisely this: imprinting lives. Here, quantity is not the same as quality. While it is easy to lower standards if one wants to trumpet the success of “democracy”, the picture is quite different if one applies more rigorous criteria.

But such rigor is not useful politically. After all, for much of the 1990s the Clinton Administration wanted to proclaim the victory of democracy in the Western Hemisphere (with the exception of Cuba). Washington accepted as legitimate presidential elections in Mexico in 1988 and 1994 that were far more corrupt than what outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and ex-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych tried to pull last year. Now, in 2005, democracy in the Western Hemisphere is not as stable as we might wish, given the turmoil and upheavals in Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia. Even Mexico’s democratic breakthrough is threatened by corruption and the perception among Mexicans that Vicente Fox, elected with such excitement in 2000, has been unable to deliver on promised reforms.

Developments in Mexico point to another major problem with the “flower revolution” approach to democracy promotion. Once the television crews have departed and the NGOs have moved on, few are interested in consolidating democratic gains and ensuring the emergence of stable regimes. Serbia is a case in point. Growing popular disillusionment with the slow pace of change after the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic–combined with a lack of effective, timely aid from the West–discredited the former democratic opposition and nearly led to the victory. of the Radicals in the 2004 presidential election. A year after Georgia’s “Rose Revolution”, the Council of Europe expressed concern over the lack of a “parliamentary opposition, a weaker civil society, a judicial system which is not yet sufficiently independent and functioning, underdeveloped or non-existing local democracy [and] a self-censored media.”

So democratic breakthroughs are only the beginning; if new freedoms are not enmeshed within a network of rules and institutions, democracy cannot advance. Indeed, following Eric Hoffer’s famous dictum, “When freedom destroys order, the yearning for order will destroy freedom”, we have witnessed “backsliding” whenever too little attention has been paid to concerns about security, order and prosperity–perhaps most notably in Russia. This is why Bush has been correct to emphasize the generational aspect of democracy promotion and to reiterate, as he did at his press conference, that democratization is a process, not an event.

PREDICTABLY, SOME pundits have been quick to blame “the realists” for any perceived weakening of the president’s inaugural message, arguing that realist concerns for “stability” and “order” will restrain the United States from fully employing its power to advance democracy.

But high-minded realists yield to no one in arguing that the United States should support democratic breakthroughs and nurture fragile new democracies. American realists also agree with the president about the real “benefits of a society that honors their people and respects human rights and dignity.” Democratic systems empower their citizens, unleashing each individual’s talents to the ultimate benefit of all. In foreign policy, governments that are open and transparent, subject to scrutiny and criticism, are much more constrained than dictatorial regimes and, in some ways, more predictable.

As desirable as democracy is, realists are painfully aware of the dilemmas we face in advancing it. There are four fundamental problems that any real strategy to promote democracy confronts immediately. Two are political, and have to do with national elites in the undemocratic countries. First, democratization is inherently threatening to existing regimes and elites in undemocratic countries, and open American assistance to opposition parties can breed hostility, and undermine essential cooperation. Second, a leadership that is seen as giving in to U.S. pressure can make itself vulnerable to removal–democratically or otherwise. Spain, Turkey and South Korea, among others, show that it is possible for the United States to succeed. But this requires patience, restraint and an informed assessment of whether targeted U.S. assistance can lead to real improvements that enhance U.S. interests. American influence may indeed be “considerable”, as the president stated. But he acknowledged that it is “not unlimited.”

The other two problems are structural. The United States has a unique ability to apply pressure to others, to forego trade or other economic benefits, and even to sever relations over values issues. Because most other governments are not in the same position, many are reluctant to back activist democracy promotion or even to offer strong criticism in the absence of conditions that are truly extreme in the global context. So we are often alone. Finally, our interests and values are not identical and neither are anyone else’s. Common values do not necessarily produce common interests–or even common approaches to those interests that are shared. Democratic France and Germany opposed the United States on Iraq, and a democratic Iran could remain interested in nuclear weapons.

Realists understand this and do not exaggerate America’s ability “to force history in the direction of democracy by an exercise of will”, in Owen Harries’s famous phrase. It is not a betrayal of American ideals to point out that the cause of democracy is more likely to be advanced meaningfully by incremental steps taken along a generational path. Indeed, speaking in Paris in February, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked about how, in the George H. W. Bush Administration, she had been able to harvest half a century later the “good decisions that had been taken in 1946 and in 1947 and in 1948 and in 1949.” This is why, in the final analysis, it is important for the White House not to let impatient outside agitators define American strategy.

Critics may appropriately decry, the slow pace of democratic change in China or authoritarian tendencies in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But responsibility for change in those two countries–and others–rests predominantly with their leaders and citizens, not Washington. More broadly, it is undeniable that China and Russia today are much more pluralist and free than either was two decades ago. Some want the United States to engage in drastic rather than measured actions, believing that any action to advance freedom is noble, no matter what the result. We disagree. Our approach is the one which served us well during the Cold War: using U.S. leverage to promote change while recognizing that other sovereign nations do not always share our priorities. We must also acknowledge that our actions can have unintended consequences. Acting otherwise, we risk a backlash against America that could endanger not only our efforts to promote freedom abroad, but our ability to maintain liberty at home. It remains to be seen how President Bush will strike this balance.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is executive editor of The National Interest. Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Nixon Center.

COPYRIGHT 2005 The National Interest, Inc.

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