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Democracy Promotion as Foreign Policy

In light of recent developments in Pakistan, this might be a good time to post an exchange I had with Jeff Weintraub a few months ago on the subject of democracy promotion as a foreign policy meta-narrative. The first is his response to this blog post of mine. He is in Italics.

Dear Taylor,

SO LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT…: The moment the democratically elected government [of the PA] is undemocratically reconfigured is the right time for aid to be re-instated? hmmm, now what lesson does this send to those for whom this aid is rightly intended? [....]Tangentially, can we please put the absolutist democracy promotion rhetoric to rest.

Well, at least you recognize that this is “tangential.” In this specific case, the aid was neither suspended nor restored in the name of “democracy promotion,” but on the basis of other issues (as Patrick Porter correctly pointed out in his comment). No one claimed otherwise. So what’s the problem? These are simply two disconnected points. However, if these points are supposed to be connected (as you seem to be suggesting in the overall discussion), then this strikes me as a bit of a non-sequitur.

Your real point seems to be a call to reject “absolutist democracy promotion rhetoric”. That sounds OK to me, depending on what “absolutist” means in this context. But what is it actually supposed to mean? You do on to say, for example …

Rather, I am making a judgment on those who claim that in certain cases the promotion of democracy is an absolute, and in other cases it is well, a little more flexible.


This sounds mostly like a suggestion that some people are sometimes hypocritical (or confused), which is a fair polemical point. But on the face of it, the substantive argument being put forward here is a little confusing. If people treat support for democracy as “flexible” in some circumstances, then it’s not being treated as “an absolute”. So, again, what’s the point?

Your point seems to be this:

Democracy can have good and bad implications, depending wholly on how free people choose to act. Foreign policy must therefore be based on more than simply its “promotion”. It is not a particularly useful meta-narrative.


The first two sentences here strike me as quite right, as far as they go. (As liberalhawk pointed out in his comment, the position laid out in these two sentences is precisely the rationale underlying US policy toward Hamas, Fatah, and the PA–whether or not you happen to think the specific details of that policy are sensible or not.)

It is not a particularly useful meta-narrative.

But that final sentence is either unclear or a non-sequitur. How does that follow from what came before?

What if one argues that <a> supporting and promoting democracy (and democratic political forces) should be treated as an important general goal of foreign policy, which should not easily be abandoned for considerations of short-term expediency or alleged realpolitik, but at the same time <b> it should not be treated as the only important goal of foreign policy, and <c> we should also recognize that democratic regimes will only work in some circumstances and with certain conditions, so it is neither a universal panacea nor something that can simply be parachuted into any society at any time.

That strikes me as a realistic (as distinct from “realist”) approach … and I suspect that it’s one you might actually have some sympathy for, too. Bit if so, then the proper conclusion (it seems to me) is that the defense and promotion of democracy is a “useful meta-narrative” to help guide politics, diplomacy, and foreign policy–as long as it is not understood in an exclusive, unrealistic, or utopian manner.

To put it another way, picking up on David Adesnik’s useful comment, any effective long-term political perspective has to combine commitment to certain core principles with flexibility in practice and the recognition that we always confront multiple, often competing, goals and concerns. (I guess this is mostly just a restatement of Weber, which is OK with me.) Responding to this dilemma by simply abandoning the core principles–i.e., throwing out the baby with the bathwater–is actually a pretty “absolutist” solution itself, even if it masquerades as pragmatism (or “realism”).

Yours for democracy (all things considered),
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Also, by the way, describing the situation in the PA as “the moment the democratically elected government is undemocratically reconfigured” is a little odd, and somewhat misleading. It suggests that there has just been a Fatah/Abbas coup against Hamas, but matters are a little more complicated than that.

Dear Jeff,

Many thanks for taking the time to write. I hope that my reply shows a slightly greater deference to the subject matter than my admittedly flippant blog post.

I think as you say, that it is best we treat these as two separate issues: The issue of recent US policy regarding the PLO, and the larger utility of democracy as a meta-narrative. First though, let me just say that I agree generally with much of what you propose. I think we would probably agree on the desired end goals of American foreign policy. I am simply uncertain whether democracy promotion is a useful meta-theme in order to achieve these ends. While absolutist might have been a bit harsh, there is certainly a degree of ideological doctrine that drives many to promote the spread of democracy at the cost other policy objectives. Objectives that I would consider more important than, and in many cases prerequisites for, successful democratic development. It is this that concerns me.

First, the purpose of pointing out the discrepancy between the rhetoric of middle eastern democracy promotion and policy decisions regarding the democratically elected government of the PLO, was more to make the point that both you affirm, which is that democracy promotion is messy, and there are many interests that seem to override its promotion. In this case, the perceived threat to the security of an ally.

You are right that whether this policy is actually in the best interest of the US is debatable. Many have argued that Hamas was actually willing to conceded more at the time of the election than at any other time in recent memory (the last constitution, now abandoned, seems to suggest this). This, one would think, would be precisely the time that one would want to engage with them, rather then promoting policies that re-radicalizes them. But, I do not know enough about this to say much more. I will leave that to others to take on.

Regarding this fitting within the rhetoric of the Bush Administration, made by you and Libhawk. I respectfully disagree. I think that there is no doubt that neoconservatives put significantly more weight on the utility of democracy than simply ‘it may or may not be useful’. This seems to me to undercut the principle argument of neoconservatism, for better or worse. Indeed, the very underlying principle of current middle eastern policy is that democracy may be destabilizing, but in the long run, it is better for US interests. From this, however, their follows two perhaps. more interesting points on the nature of US foreign policy.

First, if democracy promotion in the short run is very bad for people living through the transition, which research suggests it is, but is good for long term US interests, then clearly US foreign policy puts the later ahead of the former. Fine, this should be acknowledged. Second, does the manner in which democracy is promoted matter to the long term impact on US interests? Here, I would argue yes. A democracy is
obviously not a static state, but rather a representation of its free people. If these people become free through a very violent externally imposed invasion, surely this will effect the end democratic state. If this is even close to correct, then the means of democracy promotion are just as important to US interests as the end democratic state they seek to establish. More thought to the means would also of course enhance the likelihood of bucking the first of these trends, the short term human security of those in the state we are engaging.

On the question of absolutism, you are of course correct that that was hyperbole. However, it is equally disingenuous to claim relativism in the rhetorical use of ‘democracy promotion’ as meta-theme for current US foreign policy. Since the cold war, different people have taken different lines on the degree to which this should be THE guiding principle of US foreign policy. While none may be completely absolutists, I would suggests that some, including current neoconservatives, are ideologically doctrinaire.

In the historical debate on the relative weight that should be placed on the promotion of democracy, or even of the democratic peace theory, neoconservatives certainly fall closer to absolutism than many other foreign policy ideologies. It is this, that I worry has a negative effect on the very things democracy is ideally indented to enable – Higher living standards, human rights, basic needs. Alternatively of course, liberal internationalists are on a different axis of this spectrum, believing that institutions should be promoted which first result in the betterment of the people who live under their mandates, and second, that allow for free and open societies to evolve peacefully. The point is, there is a spectrum, and depending where one puts democracy promotion, there are real policy consequences. i.e.) It was the hope of democracy promotion that put many over the edge in supporting the Iraq war.

Regarding your sensible proposition that: “any effective long-term political perspective has to combine commitment to certain core principles with flexibility in practice and the recognition that we always confront multiple, often competing, goals and concerns” I would simply say: Unless, of course, said core principle does more damage than good.

My main point here is not whether democracy is good or bad, but rather whether it is useful, not just as a theme, but as a meta theme of American foreign policy. For me, to be a useful meta-narrative, or core principle, many other principles of a desired foreign policy would fall under it without compromising the cohesiveness of the meta-narrative, or meta-policy. David points out that there always inconstancies in any ‘core principle’. But just how many inconsistencies are we willing to accept, and at what point do these inconsistencies threaten the very benefits the core principle is supposed to enable, ie, human rights, ect. I guess we all draw our own line here. I personally am simply not convinced that democracy promotion, in the Wilsonian, or Bush second inaugural sense, accomplishes this is a coherent way. The inconsistencies are too vast and the cost to the human costs too large.

For me, the costs to human security, of forceful democracy promotion, often will outweigh the long term benefits of a society which achieved its democracy through violent means. I simply believe that there are other, more beneficial uses for US force and influence, if the objective is the betterment of the human condition. What is more important than democracy promotion? To me, Human Security, which I believe a far more useful overarching goal of an interventionist foreign policy. Of course, a state, democratic or otherwise, may be the cause of insecurity. But this is why we have principles such as r2p and institutions such as the ICC. These are objective to the form of governance, only caring about the treatment of the citizens by the state in question.

I would also ask, whether a democratically elected society achieved through great bloodshed and misery, is better than a non-democratically elected society living in relative peace? This speaks to the problems of conflating democracy promotion with the promotion of basic human rights. The two are undoubtedly often in opposition. Particularly in the transition phase. To me it is simply insufficient to claim long run befits from short term misery in the promotion of democracy. Short term costs cannot be seen as extraneous, or worse, as necessary to the birth of a democratic state. Particularly one being transitioned by outside force. This to me, shows a blind faith in the utility of our actions which is profoundly disrespectful to societies in which we are engaging, or invading, as the case may be.

Finally, on the selective use of a core principle, at what point does the false rhetoric surrounding democracy begin to negatively effect the very things democracy is supposed to enable? This can be far less tangible that polices that directly harm people, and involve the effects of a degraded US position in the world, the impact on the actions of other states and groups, and so on. Democracy promotion as a guiding principle, arguably also limits the positive impact the US can have in countries such as Iran, which are far more open to the human rights discourse, than that of US imposed democratic transition – i.e., regime change.

Kind regards,

Taylor

Hi Taylor,

Thanks for your serious and extensive response to my message. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that we partly agree and partly disagree on the issues you raise. (These include some important questions you raise that I had thought of raising myself, regarding the complicated relationships between “human rights” and “democracy” as possible foreign-policy themes. In the broadest sense, I think we agree that these are partly distinct and partly connected, and I would also agree that there can sometimes be tensions between them, but I think you overdo those tensions and draw some conclusions that I find unwarranted. I also think that your discussion slides too easily from the question of <a> whether supporting and encouraging democracy should be an important goal to the quite different question of <b> whether invading countries with US troops and overthrowing there regimes is generally a good technique for establishing successful democratic regimes. Etc.)

But I’m afraid I will have to put off spelling out the details, since I’m tied up with other things right now. Perhaps soon…. In the meantime, I did want to acknowledge receiving your message and thank you for taking the time & trouble to respond to mine. Enjoy yourself in Rome.

Cheers,
Jeff Weintraub

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