Long-term investment, not rapid intervention, nurtures democracy


Many Americans no longer seem to value the liberal international order that the United States created after World War II and sustained throughout the Cold War and beyond, according to Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013, and president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“The unprecedented prosperity made possible by free and open markets and thriving international trade; the spread of democracy; and the avoidance of major conflict among great powers: All these remarkable accomplishments have depended on sustained U.S. engagement around the world,” they write for The Washington Post:

Americans need to be reminded what is at stake. Many millions around the world have benefited from an international order that has raised standards of living, opened political systems and preserved the general peace. But no nation and no people have benefited more than Americans. And no nation has a greater role to play in preserving this system for future generations.

But the record of the past three administrations suggests that the U.S. is unable to undertake the political engineering that muscular interventionist strategies imply, but should rather make long-term investments that empower local actors to take the initiative, according to a new book by Johns Hopkins University’s Michael Mandelbaum.

Washington should have shunned the role of architect of new societies in the post-Cold War world, Mandelbaum concludes; better to be a “gardener” who can help “create and maintain the conditions in which nation building would occur if local circumstances made this possible,” The Post’s Carlos Lozada observes.

The U.S. inclination to use “the formidable power with which it emerged from the conflict with the Soviet Union” to liberalize and democratize regimes was, according to Mandelbaum, “distinctive and unprecedented,” The Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz notes:

To be sure, the American impulse to improve others stretches back to the nation’s Puritan forebears who sought to build a political order that would serve as a model to the world, and it extends through the whole of American history. But the traditional aim of foreign policy—to provide security in a dangerous world—dominated American thinking from the nation’s founding through the Cold War, when the aim was “containment” of Soviet communism. The tremendous new power America enjoyed as a result of its victory in the Cold War and its emergence as the world’s lone superpower, however, provided the luxury of embracing a new goal—“transformation.”

“Mandelbaum contends, however, that the failure to bring democracy to Iraq does not distinguish the Bush administration from the preceding post-Cold War administration or the one that followed,” he notes. “Like Bush, Mandelbaum shows, Clinton and Obama pursued foreign policies that elevated the advancement of American values over the pursuit of vital national security interests. In their efforts to transform regimes, Mandelbaum concludes, all three presidents failed.”

Mandelbaum is quite right about the illusions that made possible Clinton’s democracy promotion in Russia, Bush’s in Iraq, and perhaps even Obama’s in Afghanistan, analyst James Traub writes for Foreign Policy:

Nevertheless, he has to do a lot of shoehorning to fit all this diverse reality into his single explanatory device. He exaggerates the expectations of the Clinton administration that China could be coaxed toward reform, and of the Obama administration that a nuclear accord with Iran could reconfigure the Middle East. ……The problem isn’t intervention but the aftermath. In this respect, Mandelbaum makes the very important point that the kind of “soft power” that leads political cultures to change over time “operates like the force of nature” rather than like an instrument of statecraft; it works not by steady application but through inadvertence and slow accretion.

Though Mandelbaum justifies the war in Iraq on realist grounds—as an effort “to prevent Saddam from acquiring weapons with which he could overturn the status quo in the region”—he is deeply skeptical about America’s nation-building ambitions in the region, Commentary’s Gary Rosen adds.

“Imitation,” he suggests, “is the motor of history,” and the world’s backwaters will soon enough recognize on their own that “power and prosperity” are the fruit of “democracy and free markets.”

For more than 20 years, one of the main goals of U.S. foreign policy has been to promote democracy and human rights in other countries, from Afghanistan to Libya and beyond, Doyle McManus writes for The LA Times:

The underlying theory was that democracies would be less likely to threaten their neighbors or turn into breeding grounds for terrorism. But U.S. efforts to transform political systems in those countries didn’t succeed. Failed states, beginning with Syria and Libya, still provide bases for terrorism.

“The main focus of American foreign policy shifted from war to governance, from what other governments did beyond their borders to what they did and how they were organized within them,” Mandelbaum writes in his new book, “Mission Failure.”

American exceptionalism is based on the embrace of individual liberty and political, economic, and social freedom. It maintains that these virtues are not the exclusive province of Americans but rather the birthright of all mankind, argues Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. And at its core, the notion of exceptionalism holds that the United States, in light of its history and power, should play a leading role in helping to secure these rights in lands where they are denied, he contends.

What, then, does it take to revitalize American exceptionalism? Fontaine asks:

It requires first the renewal of American power. The combination of economic strength and military might, together with the appeal of our institutions and ideals, will determine the degree to which the United States remains the world’s central player. America needs enough power to shape international order, bring coercive power to bear on transgressors, defend its national interests and values, and serve as an attractive security and economic partner for developed and developing countries alike. …. 

It takes American leadership. No other country today can lead an international order reflective of the values we hold dear, and none will be able to so for decades to come. Too often the desire to see others act where we wish not to remains just that: an aspiration. …. 

Finally, it requires American legitimacy, and demonstrating that the United States acts with a greater good in mind. Doing so not only accords with what makes America exceptional, it is also good statecraft. Promoting human rights and democracy abroad — not the revolutionary imposition of American ideals, but the evolutionary support of universal values — demonstrates that behind American action is not the half-hidden hand of imperialism, but rather leadership on behalf of the intrinsic rights of all.


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