A foreign policy for advancing democracy


The debate about American foreign policy has always divided along two dimensions. How close in or far out should America protect its security? And for what moral or political purpose does America exist and participate in world affairs? George Washington University’s Henry R. Nau told a recent foreign policy roundtable:

  • Nationalists’ adopt the close-in approach to American security, generally confined to America’s borders and the western hemisphere. They dominated American foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s. ‘Realists’ venture further out to anticipate and counter threats in distant regions–Europe, Asia and the Middle East–before they reach America’s shores. They formulated the containment doctrine during the Cold War, permanently stationing for the first time American forces in Europe and Asia. Both nationalists and realists focus on security, not the spread of human rights and democratic regimes. They accept the world as it is, not as they might wish it to be.
  • Internationalists’ envision changing the world, eventually making it more democratic and more peaceful. They come in two varieties:
    • Liberal internationalists’ push multilateral diplomacy and international institutions to reduce the role of military competition, promote ideological tolerance and spread the rule of law. They inspired the League of Nations and United Nations.
    • Conservative internationalists’ use a more muscular diplomacy to strengthen democratic and weaken authoritarian regimes while preserving national sovereignty.4 They crafted the arms buildup and superpower diplomacy that ended the Cold War in a starburst of democratic states.

“America should prioritize the promotion of democracy primarily on the main borders of existing democracies, not in regions remote from these borders,” Nau told the forum, which discussed several recent books on U.S. foreign policy*:

Today the main borders include the struggle in Ukraine between a free Europe and authoritarian Russia and in Korea and Taiwan between free Asia and an authoritarian China. Backed by strong, nearby free markets and alliances, border area confrontations with authoritarian powers offer greater chances of success to advance freedom and greater losses if freedom is rolled back. Other issues and regions, such as terrorism and the Middle East, pose material but not existential threats unless they cumulatively destabilize free Europe and Asia.

The international threat environment has become more complex and arguably more menacing since the early post-Cold War years, said William Inboden, Executive Director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin:

The September 11th 2001 decade marked the first phase of the new threat environment, when militant jihadism lent the strategic focus of a clear adversary (even if some of the tactics in addressing the terrorist threat were controversial and ambiguous, such as the Iraq War). The second phase of additional complexity came when a proliferation of challenges to international order emerged, such as the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran, the Middle East’s cavalcade of civil wars and collapsing states, Russia’s aggression against its neighboring states, anthirdd China’s bellicose assertions of territorial control in disputed areas

“Undergirding all of these developments has been a diminishing of faith worldwide in democratic capitalism as the most advantageous political-economic system, which has further eroded America’s influence,” Inboden added.

Nevertheless,” the actual power position of the United States has not eroded to the extent that many observers claim,“ said Georgetown University’s Robert J. Lieber. But, he added, “shifts in the international distribution of power, including the weakening of liberal democracies, make the task of reengagement more complicated and more difficult.

Moral democratic realism

American foreign policy should be grounded in a conception of man, morality, and prudence that inoculates against two dangerous fallacies, argued Pepperdine University’s Robert G. Kaufmann:

  • a utopianism that exaggerates the potential for cooperation without power; and
  • an unrealistic realism that underestimates the potentialities for achieving decency and provisional justice even in international relations.

He offered six principles of moral democratic realism:

  • First, the United States should remain the world’s default power ….Coalitions of the willing can supplement but never substitute for American hard power, particularly American military power.
  • Second, a strong defense is the best deterrent. The greatest dangers to the United States typically arise not from vigilance or the arrogance of American power but from unpreparedness or an excessive reluctance to fight. Historically, retreat, retrenchment, and disarmament pave the road to moral and geopolitical disaster by example.
  • Third, regime type matters vitally for discerning friends, foes, threats, and opportunities. Not all regimes behave alike. A grand strategy anchored in moral democratic realism would give precedence to defending decent democratic friends rather than resetting relations with an increasingly authoritarian Putin who is striving to reverse the outcome of the Cold War; an increasingly repressive China which is striving for hegemony in East Asia; or tyrannies in the Middle East that are enemies of the United States.
  • Fourth, the United States should rank threats, interests, and opportunities on the basis of geopolitical criteria rather than abstract, vague, and unenforceable principles of cosmic justice. …
  • Fifth, American leaders should champion American exceptionalism resting on the trinity of separation of powers, a dynamic market economy, and a Judeo-Christian moral/cultural system….
  • Sixth, different times call for different strategies to best preserve the national interest. Until the twentieth century, the United States could safely pursue a strategy of non-entanglement beyond the Western Hemisphere when it could take the effective operation of the European balance of power for granted. Those options became untenable in the twentieth century. … Presidents must have prevention and preemption in their repertoire of options against such rogue regimes rather than reflexively relying on past strategies. RTWT

The Hoover Institution hosts “Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring” on Monday, November 6, 2017 from 5:00pm – 7:00pm EST.

A powerful tool in the fight against Communism, democracy promotion in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia contributed to liberating tens of millions of people from oppression unleashing what the late Samuel Huntington called the Third Wave of Democracy. Following the 9/11 attacks, as the Bush administration searched for a policy tool kit to address the challenges of tyranny and terrorism emerging from the broader Middle East, democracy promotion emerged as a possible remedy to the crisis of the Middle East, the Hoover Institution notes:

Six years after the Arab Spring, with the exception of Tunisia, the picture is bleak. A civil war in Syria, chaos in Libya, an Islamist victory in Egypt followed by a military coup, civil war and foreign intervention in Yemen, and the rise of the Islamic State have all contributed to disillusionment with democracy promotion. Frustrated by these failures, a new American administration is turning away from democracy promotion. Instead, it believes, America should deal with the Middle East as it is and not as it should be.

In his new bookElliott Abrams [above – a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] marshals four decades of experience as an American official and leading Middle East expert showing that deals with tyrants will not work, making the case that Islamism is an idea that can only be defeated by a better idea: democracy.

The Hoover Institution’s Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies Samuel Tadros will be discussing the book with the author. If you would like to register to attend this event, please email Erin Nichols.

*Eliot A. Cohen. The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force. New York: Basic Books, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-4650-4472-6 (hardcover, $27.99/CDN$36.50).

Robert G. Kaufman. Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-8131-6720-6 (cloth, $40.00).

Robert Lieber. Retreat and its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-1071-4180-3 (hardcover, $89.99); 978-1-3165-0671-4 (paperback, $24.99).

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