The Unintended Consequences Of Promoting Democracy


By Paul McLeary

Published August 22, 2007, issue of August 24, 2007.
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Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy
By Amitai Etzioni
Yale University Press, 336 pages, $27.00

In the eyes of Amitai Etzioni, the Soviet Union’s relegation to the dustbin of history hasn’t changed the fact that what is left of the former empire remains the greatest threat to international security on the world stage. But this isn’t your father’s expansionist Russian bear. In fact, according to the calculus used by Etzioni, professor of international relations at The George Washington University, the Russian state is more dangerous for its inaction rather than for anything it is actually doing.

Since the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s, one of the biggest fears of many policymakers in the West has been that “loose nukes” — unsecured nuclear material of which the Russians have done an alarmingly poor job in keeping track — might end up in the hands of terrorists or unfriendly rogue regimes. This threat, along with the failure of the United States to take a more proactive stance in helping to track these materials, provides Etzioni with a gripping way to introduce his “Security First” thesis, as well as to sketch how an over-reliance on democracy promotion, at the expense of helping to provide basic security for failed or unstable states, is working against the United States in its efforts to combat terrorism and reform unstable regimes.

In his latest book, “Security First: For A Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy,” Etzioni argues that the great flaw of post-9/11 — indeed, post-Cold War — American foreign policy has been the single-minded and often simplistic devotion to democracy promotion, as opposed to the more complicated, subtle work of setting the conditions under which democracy might flourish. At the heart of his argument lies the often hard to quantify goal of personal security, the fountain from which all other rights and privileges spring. Etzioni dispenses with the usual intellectual niceties in formulating the baseline from which the rest of this “security first” theory arises when he says flatly, “when and where the right to security is violated, all other rights are violated as well.”

It’s no surprise that the word “moral” appears in the title of Etzioni’s book, or that in sketching his vision of how to best promote democracy, he starts with the idea that personal security, which in turn is shared by all of the members of a community, is the block on which the foundation of just foreign policy must rest. Etzioni has long been a member of the communitarian movement, which, as much as it can be defined, advocates for a strong sense of personal responsibility wedded to a social responsibility focused on positive rights — the right of citizens to things such as health care, education and an expectation of safety. In light of this, he views the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as failures, since both invasions have utterly failed to provide security — either for the citizens of those countries or the broader international community — even though both have birthed democratic systems, however ineffective they may be.

But Iraq and Afghanistan are small fish in a big sea of instability — dominated by such unpredictable nuclear powers as Russia, China and Pakistan — in need of strong governments and widely accepted legal codes much more than they need American-style democratic systems. “Leverage used against Russia and China to pressure them to democratize should instead first be deployed to encourage them to contain the spread of nuclear weapons and related technologies,” he writes. This would increase security not only for the populations of these countries but also for the world community as a whole. Only once these nuclear powers are stabilized can the work of promoting democracy — even through “illiberal” actors — move forward.

The problem with the American approach to international relations under the Bush administration hasn’t been its insistence on promoting democracy, but rather that those driving the policy got their priorities mixed up. Instead of establishing a baseline of basic security followed by economic development programs and the promotion of civil society, the Bush administration went for the quick fix, forcing elections on societies unprepared for the final step in democratic development, and ended up handing electoral victories to extremists like Hamas and Moktada al-Sadr in Iraq. Instead of using elections as a quick means to a democratic end, Etzioni counsels patience. He advocates working with what he calls “illiberal moderates” in Muslim societies: people who will reject violence for the most part, but “who do not necessarily favor a liberal-democratic regime or the full program of human rights.” As part of this, Etzioni favors funding moderate religious programs in Muslim countries, to create the social space for a reasoned, indigenous counterpoint to the radical jihadist message that fills the void in such places as Baghdad, Karachi and Saudi Arabia. Etzioni’s point here isn’t necessarily unique, but it’s one worth making again. Democracy is complicated business, and it’s not something that is going to look the same everywhere. A look at the American and European approaches proves this. But the one thing that every democracy shares is a sense of basic security and a reasonable plurality of worldviews. Elections and lofty rhetoric alone can’t produce the social contract that the citizens of a democracy implicitly share; only the basics Etzioni outlines, which start with personal security, can begin to lay the groundwork for a strong, free society.

Etzioni’s idea to fund moderates in the Middle East has some backup. Last year, The New Yorker’s George Packer spoke to David Kilcullen, a former Australian army officer now working as the senior counterinsurgency adviser on the staff of David Petraeus, head of American forces in Iraq. Kilcullen’s view was that Western governments needed to begin funding “trusted networks” in Muslim countries by working with moderate forces in mosques, labor unions and professional groups and associations. Quietly funding and working with these moderate forces will, with patience, go a long way toward establishing what Etzioni refers to as a “moral culture” that respects the rule of law and provides some basic security for the citizens of the nations in question.

Paul McLeary writes for Columbia Journalism Review, Defense Technology International and The Guardian.

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