Defending Western civilization without advancing democracy?


When President Trump spoke of the need to defend Western civilization in Poland last week, many saw an effort by him and some of his top White House advisers to redefine the mission of American foreign policy away from building relationships and spreading democratic principles, to a more protective stance drawing sharp lines between the United States and those perceived as threats, The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin writes.

Under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, U.S. policymakers took for granted that the world was converging toward a more liberal, cooperative order. China would become, in the words of Robert Zoellick, a “responsible stakeholder.” Europe would steadily spread democracy and liberal norms ever further east. Transnational challenges would push countries toward a stronger version of the international order Washington built after World War II. And then it all blew up, analyst Keith Johnson writes for Foreign Policy.

In All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the Twenty-First Century and the Future of American Power, Brookings analyst Thomas Wright calls for the United States to use its full toolkit to gain cooperation where it can and leverage where it must — all measures, that is, short of war, from economic and trade policy to development aims to a forward-leaning cyber policy, he adds:

Wright views the world through seven decades of postwar U.S. leadership, where a healthy international order — rather than retrenchment and America Firstism — best serves the national interest.  Greater U.S. engagement in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, he argues, should aim to nudge others to become status quo powers. China, in particular, represents a frontal challenge to the existing order in East Asia — which must be checked — but could be a force for stability in Eurasia more broadly. Russia can be both a geopolitical rival, but also a partner on particularly thorny questions, such as nuclear proliferation.

“It is a good rule of thumb that the greater the U.S. disengagement, the greater the global problems,” Wright concludes.

The authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence warned all governments to respect fundamental rights or else face the consequences: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,” notes Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This was a radical stance to take in a world still dominated by kings who claimed to rule by divine will, and it would have profound implications for the new republic’s foreign policy. Unlike their cynical, Old World counterparts, American statesmen could never be content with a realpolitik foreign policy based on Thucydides’s admonition that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” he writes for Foreign Policy:

In his seminal 1982 address at the Palace of Westminster, [for example, Ronald] Reagan vowed “to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” In fulfillment of this pledge, he created the National Endowment for Democracy, embraced dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, and funded “freedom fighters” from Afghanistan to Nicaragua (some of whom turned out to be extremists). He even called on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. These actions helped to hasten the end of the Cold War. It’s easy, of course, to oppose oppression by one’s enemies. But Reagan showed he was sincere in his commitment to freedom by championing democratic transitions in U.S. allies such as El Salvador, Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea.

“Admittedly, America’s devotion to its ideals has always been incomplete and imperfect; in its early years it tolerated slavery and in more recent times it has done deals with dictators. Nor have our ideals always translated into foreign policy success; sometimes, as in Vietnam or Iraq, they have led us astray,” Boot concedes. “But, on the whole, the United States has been more generous and less self-interested than any other great power in history — and that approach has made it the most successful nation in the world over the past two centuries.” RTWT

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