Has the US Government dispensed with promoting democracy abroad, a traditional core goal of US foreign policy? The 2014 foreign assistance budget for 2014 is almost $48 billion, less than in previous years but still a hefty sum. Nevertheless, the Washington Post accuses the Administration of “doing a U-turn on democracy and human rights.”
For many, democracy promotion is a well intentioned but misguided objective for failing to “deal with the world as it is not as we wish it to be.” Whether one believes democratization requires a receptive local political culture to take root or naturally reflects the universal rights of man we ignore at our peril is beside the point from the objective perspective of US national security.
Recently I attended a lecture by a past graduate school professor, a noted neo-Realist and critic of US interventionism. The realist school, in a nutshell, posits states as drivers of international affairs. With survival as the primary aim within an anarchic world and unclear about the intentions and military capabilities of its neighbors, states strive to maximize their relative power. Better safe than sorry. To avoid an arms race and accidental conflict, we rely on statesmen to find arrangements that reduce mutual fear and misunderstanding and artfully manage ever-shifting power balances.
In this theoretical construct a state’s character is irrelevant.Trying to change it actually undercuts the diplomatic architecture for managing conflict. US history is replete with examples of foreign policy realism in which we worked closely with states with diametrically opposed political systems – détente with the Soviet Union, trade with Communist China, nuclear arms agreement with North Korea and, most recently, an accord with Syria’s brutal dictatorship to rid it of its chemical weapons.
However, it is also fact that democracies do not wage war against each other. We are allied with South Korea, yet North Korea is a potentially existential threat. Similarly so 25 years ago with East versus West Germany. The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed massive reductions in defense spending as the European theatre was transformed from a potential nuclear wasteland into a peaceful and unified trade zone. Cuba has posed a threat, Jamaica never. The character of states matter.
And for predictable reasons.The fears and misunderstandings about each other’s intentions and capabilities are substantially reduced by the openness and transparency of democracies. Defense budgets and spending priorities are made public. Decisions about war and peace are not the secret domain of a few unaccountable decision-makers but are the product of a deliberative process visible to all. Want to know what the US military industrial complex is up to? Use Google.
To cite another of my professors, Charles Lipson: “The resulting transparency means foreign partners can gauge the depth of a democracy’s commitment to specific policies, not only today but over time, as policies are implemented.” The risk of self-binding agreements is thus made low. Such openness about intentions and capabilities undercuts the logic spurring arms races.
Not only do democracies create a more stable environment between states – to the benefit of US national security - they do so within them by offering tools and mechanisms to peacefully redress grievances, equitably share political power among competing groups and offer effective ways to manage conflict. In a recent joint press conference with Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, President Obama laid out the argument for promoting democratization by highlighting the importance of Iraq’s upcoming, and third, parliamentary elections and other meditating institutions to help its sectarian groups manage their differences. In contrast, the absence of mediating institutions in Syria has plunged the country into a spiral of violence that destabilizes its neighbors, reminiscent of Afghanistan’s implosion during the 1990s that gave rise to the Taliban and a launching pad for Al Qaeda -- the costs of which we continue to bear a steep price.
In sum, democracy and security are two sides of the same coin and modest investments in the former reduce the high costs of achieving the latter. The cost differential, especially military, are enormous. A state at peace within itself is most likely to be a state at peace with its neighbors. And promoting that just makes good, realistic, sense.