Selling democracy

April 11, 2004|By Henry A. Kissinger

What marks this century as one of unprecedented upheaval is not primarily the emergence of new centers of power like China or India; that has happened before, though not on this global scale. Nor is it the fact that significant states are losing control over all or part of their territory.

The unique aspect is that when state power weakens, non-state terrorist groups fill the vacuum for the purpose of threatening the state system itself. The challenge is not simply to re-establish the international system but to prevent vacuums that, like black holes, suck into themselves the nihilistic elements trying to destroy order altogether.

At least since Woodrow Wilson, the United States has had its own definition of international order: the idea that wars are caused less by clashing interests than by unrepresentative domestic institutions. In the Wilsonian view, foreign policy based on national interest and state power prevails when democratic institutions have failed. Since democracies settle their disputes by reason, not by war, the spreading of democracy is, to this school of thought, America's ultimate mission and regime change its ultimate sanction.

For America, the belief in the moral significance of democracy has been a fundamental theme of a society settled by immigrants. America must stand for democratic values if its foreign policy is to have any long-term support among its people. The issue is how to apply them.

Nor would a policy based on national interest defined largely in security terms prove practical. Power is an amalgam of capability and will, making it perhaps the most elusive component of international relations to assess precisely. A policy based on interest alone requires perfect flexibility and an instant readiness to adjust to changed circumstance. This was difficult at all times and is increasingly so in the face of bureaucratic complexities, contradictory public pressures and the growing role of non-state actors, both benign and hostile.

But having said this, what does support for democracy mean for the practical conduct of foreign policy? How does the United States promote such diplomacy in the face of widespread international criticism that charges us at the same time with hegemonic power and missionary crusading spirit?

Does the United States have the capacity to achieve its lofty goals and, if so, how quickly?

Democracy in the Western world evolved over centuries. The Catholic Church, though hardly democratic in its internal practices, contributed to the eventual emergence of democracy by insisting on the separation of authority between God and Caesar. This represented a first tentative, but essential, step toward a pluralistic perception of governance.

Centuries later, the Reformation institutionalized religious, and hence eventually political, pluralism by emphasizing the importance of the individual conscience. The Enlightenment took the next step in its insistence on analysis based on reason. The Age of Discovery stretched horizons. Capitalism made individual initiative the engine of successful economies. The concepts of representative institutions, separation of power and checks and balances evolved over centuries from a rich tradition.

To say that democracy has cultural prerequisites does not deny its ultimate applicability to other societies, only that to compress the evolution of centuries into an inappropriate time frame risks vast unintended consequences. Where societies are divided by faith or ethnicity, our practices run the risk of ratifying a permanent distribution of power based precisely on those ethnic divisions. Where the minority has no prospect of becoming a majority, elections may often result in civil war or chaos -- the very breeding ground for militant terrorist organizations.

A foreign policy to promote democracy needs to be adapted to local or regional realities, or it will fail. In the pursuit of democracy, policy -- as in other realms -- is the art of the possible. Diplomacy on behalf of democracy needs to reflect a long-range political design rather than a bow to bureaucratic or public constituencies.

This proposition is often strenuously resisted by those who want to treat democratization as an end in itself. But slogans do not create a foreign policy.

When the United States plays a major role in the destruction of existing institutions, as in the transition in Iran in 1979 and in Indonesia in 1998 and, even more, when it goes to war to bring about regime change, it must do so in the name of some operational definition of democracy and its evolution.

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