American "exceptionalism" and interventionism


Democracy, Freedom, and Apple Pie Aren't a Foreign Policy
We like to think our way of life is the best in the world.
But trying to spread American values always backfires.

by Stephen M. Walt
foreignpolicy.com, 2014-07-01

What has gone wrong?
Iraq has come unglued.
ISIS just announced the founding of a new caliphate.
The Afghan presidential election is contested and getting ugly.
The nuclear talks with Iran are going slowly, even as opponents devise new ploys to derail them completely.
Ukraine is a mess with a tentative cease-fire being blown apart.
China continues to throw sharp elbows.
Japan is getting martial again.
And Britain is getting closer to leaving the European Union.
I could go on, but you may not have enough antidepressants handy.

[Somehow Walt omits the failure (yet again!) of Israel and Palestine to make peace.

Also, if Britain should leave the EU, I am not at all sure why I should care.
In fact, if the EU should break up,
as an American I am not sure why I should care.
When the U.S. was facing a united, powerful, and expansionist Soviet Union,
it clearly was in the U.S. interest to encourage European unity
to face the menace of the Red Army.
But, anti-Russian paranoids notwithstanding,
I hardly see Putin's Russia as having the ideological foundation
on which to make a military threat to Western Europe.
So European unity is far less significant to the American national interest.
(As if many in the new, post-WASP male "elite"
had the slightest interest in the American national interest,
vice their trans-national interests based on
female, Jewish, black, and homosexual worldwide solidarity.]

So much for the "new world order" that President George H.W. Bush proclaimed
in the heady days following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
[I am not sure precisely what Bush-41 included in his "new world order."
But it is certainly true that the old bipolar structure, discussed in say
Paul Kennedy's 1987 The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,
has now been replaced by a very multipolar world,
with the U.S. delusionally pretending that it still possesses the dominance it used to.]

So much for the alleged demise of "power politics"
once hailed by the likes of Bill Clinton and Thomas Friedman.
The end of history?
Not even Francis Fukuyama believes in that one anymore.
The overall level of human violence may be in decline
(though a single great-power war could derail that finding),
but world politics seems to be spinning more out of control
with each passing week.

In the hyperpartisan world of contemporary U.S. politics,
Democrats blame these present woes on George W. Bush,
while Republicans trace them all to Barack Obama
or (looking ahead) to Hillary Clinton.
And both sides can find ample evidence for these politically motivated indictments.

But the real blame lies elsewhere.
All three post-Cold War presidents [42, 43, 44] have made their fair share of errors,
but there is a common taproot to many of their failings.
That taproot has been the pervasive influence of liberal idealism
in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy,
an influence that crosses party lines
and unites Democratic liberal internationalists with Republican neoconservatives.
The desire to extend liberalism into Eastern Europe lay behind NATO expansion,
and it is a big reason that so-called liberal hawks
jumped on the neocon bandwagon in Iraq.
It explains why the United States
tried to export democracy to Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East,
instead of focusing laser-like on al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks.
It was the foundation of Bill Clinton[42]'s strategy of "engagement and enlargement,"
George W. Bush[43]'s "liberty doctrine,"
and Barack Obama[44]'s initial embrace of the Arab Spring
and decision to intervene in Libya.
It is, in short, the central thread in the complex tapestry of recent U.S. foreign policy.

Liberalism rests on a clear set of moral and political desiderata.
It places the individual at the center of political life
and sees each human being as possessing certain inalienable rights.
Liberals rightly emphasize individual liberty and are wary of unchecked power,
and they believe that these principles apply to all human beings.
Accordingly, liberals believe democracy is the best form of government
and favor the rule of law, freedom of expression, and market economies.
They also believe -- with some validity --
that most human beings would be better off if these practices were universal.

Liberalism's central features are extremely appealing,
and I for one am deeply grateful
that I have lived virtually all of my life in (mostly) liberal America.
But the moral appeal of these basic liberal principles
does not mean that they are a sound guide for the conduct of foreign policy.

In fact, the past two decades suggest that
basing a great power's foreign policy primarily on liberal ideals
is mostly a recipe for costly failures.

The central problem is that
liberalism does not tell us how to translate its moral absolutes
into clear, effective strategies for bringing them about.
Liberalism identifies a set of moral objectives --
a blueprint that all societies are supposed to follow --
but says little about what a liberal state should do
if some foreign country or leader refuses to "do the right thing."

[Walt is wrong here.
The central problem is that many people in the world, who have and will continue to have significant power,
such as many in the Muslim and Sinic or Confucian cultures,
do not share those tenets.
Walt has apparently rejected the teaching of one of his mentors, Samuel P. Huntington,
who wrote powerfully and in detail in The Clash of Civilizations (1996)
of how civilizational and cultural differences breed conflict.

For starters, look at what happens
whenever some foreign government acts in a decidedly illiberal fashion
or objects to U.S. or Western efforts
to expand human rights, democracy, or any other cherished liberal principle.
The nearly automatic reaction is for U.S. leaders to sputter in rage
and then denounce that foreign leader as reactionary and misguided at best,
or as the embodiment of evil at worst.

In recent months, for example,
Secretary of State John Kerry responded to Russia's seizure of Crimea
by denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin as trapped in "19th-century" rules.
[Similarly, how often have you heard pundits decry "medieval" regimes,
like other cultures had an obligation to hop to
whatever crazy PC ideas the new "elite" is pushing.]

Similarly, Bill Clinton [42] and George W. Bush [43] denounced their various authoritarian adversaries
(Slobodan Milosevic, Ali Khamenei, Kim Jong Il, Muammar al-Qaddafi, etc.) in the harshest terms.
Unfortunately, calling someone a part of the "axis of evil" is not a policy,
and pointing out that a foreign leader is a despicable tyrant doesn't change anything,
especially when the accusation is accurate.
Needless to say, real tyrants are not sensitive to this sort of criticism.

When moral condemnation fails -- as it invariably does --
liberalism offers no good alternatives.
Economic sanctions are a weak tool
and usually end up strengthening authoritarian rulers
rather than undermining them.
Moreover, they inflict vast suffering on entire populations
while leaving the ruling elite largely unscathed,
which ought to give anyone who is concerned with the condition of actual human beings
at least a moment's pause. Even when they do succeed --
as one might argue occurred in the case of apartheid-era South Africa --
it takes decades.

Trying to spread liberal ideals at the point of a gun, however, is even worse.
As we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and many other places [hello, Syria],
violent "regime change" by definition means
destroying existing political and social institutions.
[Like these clowns couldn't figure that out in advance.
But hey, they are politically correct.
So what else matters?]

Unfortunately, the collapse of the old order and the subsequent foreign occupation
make it even less likely that an effective democracy will emerge.
The resulting anarchy empowers those with a taste and a talent for violence,
and it forces local populations to turn to ancient sources of local identity
(such as tribes, clans, or religious sects) for protection.
It is hard to think of a better way to destroy the tolerance and individualism
that is central to liberal philosophy.

Moreover, liberal governments seeking to wage idealistic crusades
often end up lying to their own people in order to sustain popular support,
and they have to maintain large and secretive national security apparatuses as well.
Paradoxically, the more a liberal society tries to spread its creed to others,
the more likely it is to compromise those values back home.
One need only look at the evolution of U.S. politics over the past 20 years
to see that tendency in spades.
[Notice the chain of casuality:
U.S. support for Israel's actions against Palestinians
leads to
Muslim attacks against the U.S.
leads to
strong U.S. surveillance of communications to detect future such attacks
leads to
liberal protests against that surveillance.]

Finally, because most liberals are convinced that their cherished beliefs are beyond debate, they fail to recognize that non-liberal societies may not welcome these wonderful gifts from abroad. On the contrary, the more the well-meaning foreign interference overseas -- whether through military occupation, sanctions, or even NGOs like the National Endowment for Democracy -- the greater the allergic reaction the interference is likely to generate. Foreign dictators will heighten repression, and populations that are supposed to greet their liberators with flowers will offer up IEDs instead. Massive state-building projects end up distorting local economies and fueling corruption, especially when the idealistic liberal occupiers have no idea how the local society works.

The conclusion is obvious. The United States and other liberal states would do a much better job of promoting their most cherished political values if they concentrated on perfecting these practices at home instead of trying to export them abroad. If Western societies are prosperous, just, and competent, and live up to their professed ideals, people in other societies will want to emulate some or all of these practices, suitably adapted to local conditions.

In some countries, this process may occur rapidly, in others only after difficult struggles, and in a few places not for many decades. This fact may be regrettable, but is also realistic. Trying to speed up a process that took centuries in the West, as the United States has been trying to do since 1992, is more likely to retard the advance of liberal values than it is to advance them.

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