The outcomes of American interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya during the last fifteen years suggest that in many countries the active promotion of American values, democracy, and human rights are unlikely to succeed, according to a new bipartisan report, Pragmatic Engagement Amidst Global Uncertainty: Three Major Challenges, edited by Amy Zegart and Stephen D. Krasner.
Instead, the most fruitful path toward spreading democratization comes not from toppling dictators when there is no clear path to a successor regime, but from bolstering civil society to lay the foundations for internal democratic evolution and demonstrating the benefits of democracy by example, says the Hoover Institution’s Working Group on Foreign Policy and Grand Strategy:
Quasi-governmental and non-governmental agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the German party foundations are ideal instruments for supporting civil society organizations that may prove critical for democratic transitions at some future historical juncture. The world is not inexorably moving toward consolidated democracy, but American policy can help to put in place the pieces that make such transitions more likely and more successful when they occur…..
America’s finest foreign policy moments have involved the triumph of democracy over autocratic, repressive, and sometimes racist regimes. The defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the Second World War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, were singular moments in world history.
“The present international environment offers no equivalent opportunities,” the report notes.
The future of democracy, prosperity, and liberty, not just in America but throughout the world, will depend on how well the United States manages three long-term challenges to national security, it adds:
Two are large conventional countries with substantial resources, Russia and China, one declining and the other rising. The third challenge consists of “black swan” dangers such as nuclear, biological, or cyberattacks that could kill thousands or even millions of people or could severely disrupt liberal society. These black swan dangers arise from states as well as non-state actors such as transnational terrorist groups.
The working group stresses three orienting principles in responding to these challenges:
- The first is that the United States should be unapologetic about its pursuit of our economic and security interests and more tempered in the pursuit of ideals. … The most important opportunities for America to shape the future derive from the success of the American model: democracy, accountability, economic openness, and an assimilationist culture based on shared liberal values. America’s ability to shape the future trajectory of world development and security will depend more on how well its domestic polity and economy function than on its ability to intervene in other countries.
- Second, the United States should leverage existing strengths by nurturing alliances and adapting institutions that have formed the cornerstone of the international order for seven decades. This includes standing by NATO against Russia, bolstering networks in the Asia Pacific, and modernizing governance structures such as the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations.
- Third, the United States must develop flexible unilateral capabilities that can be deployed against varied threats. This begins with establishing a strategic energy policy and drawing more attention to counter-messaging.
“We are living in a world of uncertainty and anxiety when it comes to foreign policy,” said co-author Amy Zegart, Hoover Institution senior fellow and Center for International Security and Cooperation co-director. “While presidential campaigns may be polarized when it comes to issues of national security, Americans are unified in their desire to make our country strong and secure. This strategy serves as a foreign policy road map in hopes that the United States will become the leader in a more peaceful world.”
Stanford scholar Francis Fukuyama was not wrong in pointing in 1989 to the end of history, the report asserts:
After the defeat of fascism and communism, no globally legitimated set of norms has emerged to challenge the principles associated with a market economy (limited state power, protection of property rights, sanctity of contract, rule of law) and consolidated democracy (free and fair elections, freedom of religion, human rights, an independent civil society, a critical and autonomous media).
What is contested is the relative importance and especially the most effective way to promote the values that inform the American polity: democracy and human rights. America has always stood for universal freedoms, but we have pursued those freedoms abroad in different ways, to different degrees, in different times as the external environment demanded and internal capabilities allowed. Sometimes the United States has declared the importance of these values without assertively encouraging their adoption or imposing them elsewhere. Sometimes the United States has pursued an active Wilsonian policy designed to install, instill, and promote democracy and human rights in other countries. Wilsonianism worked in Germany and Japan after the Second World War.
“Instead of direct interventions, the United States can best improve the security capacity of weak states by fostering confederal and consociational structures,” the report adds. “These strategies require identifying, where possible, local actors who have their own interests in providing security,” the authors note, citing Plan Colombia as a case in point.
Greater engagement in the war of ideas should be a key component of a more effective strategy for containing the Russian threat in Europe, the authors suggest:
At the end of the Cold War, democrats thought that they had won this war of ideas. Liberal democracies, especially those in Europe, stopped engaging in efforts to advance liberal, democratic agendas. Budgets for academic exchanges were cut. Media outlets, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the BBC, received far less. With a few exceptions, most US government and non-governmental organizations engaged in supporting civil society groups in the non-democratic parts of Europe also saw their budgets decline significantly in the last decade. Putin then made it even harder for them to operate inside Russia, by closing down USAID, banning some other American organizations from operating in Russia, and making criminal the receipt of foreign money by Russian NGOs. In parallel, the Russian state has devoted tremendous new resources to its own soft power projects both within Russia and abroad…..
In Russia, as in other closed-access polities around the world, there is not a set of policies that can put a country on a secure path toward consolidated democracy. Support for civil society groups, or even specific bureaus, can, however, help to create a network of organizations committed to greater openness that could be (although will not necessarily be) consequential at some point in the future. At the right historical moment, organizations that appeared to be on the margin, such as Helsinki Watch Groups in Europe, may be critical.
“Our leaders appear to be distracted by the day-to-day headlines, allowing for more pressing foreign policy challenges to fester and grow,” said co-author Stephen D. Krasner, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “In this complex threat environment, reactive and ad hoc measures are not adequate. We need a strategy that makes clear what we stand for, what our goals are, and what capabilities we need to achieve them.”