Through persuasion, exhortation, legal process, economic pressure, and sometimes military force, American foreign policy affirms the United States’ view of how the world should be run. Only two countries in recent history have had such world-transforming ambitions: Britain and the United States. Over the past 150 years, they are the only two countries whose power – hard and soft, formal and informal – has spread to all parts of the world, plausibly allowing them to aspire to the mantle of Rome.
When the United States inherited Britain’s global standing after 1945, it also inherited Britain’s sense of responsibility for the future of the international order. Embracing this role, America has been an evangelist of democracy, and a central goal of American foreign policy since the fall of Communism has been to promote its spread – sometimes through regime change, when deemed necessary.
In fact, this manual dates back to the days of US President Woodrow Wilson. As historian Nicholas Mulder writes in The economic weapon: the rise of sanctions as a tool of modern warfare, “Wilson was the first statesman to make the economic weapon an instrument of democratization. He thus added an internal political justification for economic sanctions – to spread democracy – to the external political objective that … the European supporters of the sanctions aimed for: interstate peace. The implication is that, where the opportunity presents itself, military and non-military measures should be used to overthrow “malicious” regimes.
Questioning the theory of democratic peace
According to democratic peace theory, democracies do not start wars; only dictatorships do. A fully democratic world would therefore be a world without war. This is the hope that emerged in the 1990s. With the end of communism, the expectation, famously expressed by Francois Fukuyamathe 1989 article, ‘The end of the story ?,’ was that the most important parts of the world would become democratic.
American supremacy was supposed to ensure that democracy became the universal political norm. But Russia and China, the main communist states of the Cold War era, did not embrace it; nor many other centers of world affairs, especially in the Middle East. Thus, Fukuyama recently recognized that if Russia and China were led together, “then you would really live in a world dominated by these undemocratic powers…[which] is really the end of the end of the story.
If democracy replaced dictatorship everywhere, world peace would automatically follow.
The argument that democracy is inherently ‘peaceful’, and dictatorship or autocracy ‘warlike’, is intuitively appealing. He does not deny that states pursue their own interests; but it assumes that the interests of democratic states will reflect common values such as human rights, and that these interests will be pursued in a less belligerent manner (since democratic processes require the negotiation of differences). Democratic governments are accountable to their people, and the people have an interest in peace, not war.
In contrast, according to this view, the rulers and elites of dictatorships are illegitimate and therefore insecure, leading them to seek popular support by stirring up animosity towards outsiders. If democracy replaced dictatorship everywhere, world peace would automatically follow. This belief rests on two propositions that have been extremely influential in international relations theory, even if they are theoretically and empirically ill-founded.
The influence of the international system on domestic politics
The first is the notion that a state’s external behavior is determined by its national constitution – a view that ignores the influence that the international system can have on a country’s internal politics. Like the American political scientist Kenneth N. Waltz argued in his 1979 book, The theory of international politics“international anarchy” conditions the behavior of states more than the behavior of states creates international anarchy.
Waltz’s “world systems theory” perspective is particularly useful in the age of globalization. One has to look at the structure of the international system to “predict” how individual states will behave, regardless of their national constitutions. “If every state, being stable, aimed only at security and had no designs on its neighbours, all states would nevertheless remain insecure,” he said. observed“for the means of security of a State are, in their very existence, the means by which other States are threatened”.
Rather than trying to spread democracy, he suggested it was better to try to reduce global insecurity.
Waltz offered a bracing antidote to the facile assumption that democratic habits are easily transferable from place to place. Rather than trying to spread democracy, he suggested it was better to try to reduce global insecurity.
While there is undeniably some correlation between democratic institutions and peaceful habits, the direction of causality is debatable. Was it democracy that made Europe peaceful after 1945? Or did America’s nuclear umbrella, victor’s fixing of borders, and economic growth fueled by the Marshall Plan finally enable non-Communist Europe to accept democracy as its political norm?
Political scientist Mark E. Pietrzyk dispute that “only relatively secure states – politically, militarily, economically – can afford to have free and pluralistic societies; in the absence of this security, states are much more likely to adopt, maintain, or revert to centralized and coercive authority structures.
Too simple a theory
The second proposition is that democracy is the Natural form of state, which people everywhere will spontaneously adopt if they are allowed to. This dubious assumption makes regime change easy, as the sanctioning powers can count on the welcoming support of those whose freedom has been suppressed and whose rights have been trampled upon. By drawing superficial comparisons with post-war Germany and Japan, the apostles of democratization grossly underestimate the difficulties of establishing democracies in societies lacking Western constitutional traditions. The results of their work can be seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and many African countries.
The idea that democracy is “portable” leads to a gross underestimation of the military, economic and humanitarian costs of trying to spread democracy to troubled parts of the world.
The theory of democratic peace is above all lazy. It provides a simple explanation of “warrior” behavior without considering the location and history of the states involved. This superficiality lends itself to overconfidence that a quick dose of economic sanctions or bombings is all that is needed to cure a dictatorship of its unfortunate affliction. In short, the idea that democracy is “portable” leads to a gross understatement of the military, economic, and humanitarian costs of trying to spread democracy to troubled parts of the world. The West has paid a terrible price for such thinking – and it may be about to pay it again.
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