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Democratization Isn’t as Hard as You Think It Is

David Tucker and I are more in agreement than otherwise. Among the things we agree on are the nature and limitations of strategy; the nature of the international system of sovereign states, the importance of sustaining ordered liberty at home, the need for homeland and cybersecurity, the utility of alliances, and more. Let me focus on what I take to be our main area of disagreement: the role that democracy-promotion should play in U.S. grand strategy.

Tucker is bearish on global democracy and frowns on democracy-promotion. I disagree with his assessment of how difficult it is to accomplish, and thus how large or small a role democracy-promotion should play in a prudent and sober American grand strategy. He thinks it is very hard or nearly impossible, and thus should not play a role. I look at the evidence of history and conclude it is only mostly impossible, and thus it can play a slightly larger role than he is comfortable with.

Let me summarize the argument of his Liberty Forum essay as best I can. He is at pains to argue that the United States should not spread liberalism by force. He criticizes “the effort to plant it everywhere.” He believes that other people around the world may not want freedom: “other people around the world do not think it would be best for them. For self-interested and better reasons, they do not share, and do not want to share, America’s liberal preferences.” He thinks that the effort to spread liberalism is difficult and would necessarily involve violence. He says, “We have no evidence that persuasion will change minds on such fundamental matters.” Finally, he believes that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan disprove the theory of democracy-promotion because it is too costly and has failed. “American intervention in Iraq has persuaded people” that it is not worth the effort and, similarly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “suggest the unyielding character of human affairs.”

Tucker’s argument against democracy-promotion contains three subordinate claims, each of which is false.

A Straw Man

First, he refutes an argument no one makes. The United States has never tried to coercively democratize the world. To criticize America’s drive for global democratic imperium is to commit the straw man fallacy, par excellence, for such a drive is non-existent. Condemning the effort to coercively democratize the world is de rigueur in foreign policy discussions and has been for the past 10 or 15 years. It is a meaningless talking point; there are no scholars or policymakers who advocate that course of action, and there is no history of America undertaking it. The United States has quite happily worked with, allied with, and supported non-democratic regimes across the world throughout its entire history. In fact, the United States is usually criticized for doing so: policymakers in Washington are routinely damned for pursuing democratization and damned all the more for not.

The verbal tick of opposing the fabled crusade to impose democracy on the world by force is really code for registering opposition to a particular intervention under the guise of a false generalization. Effectively, it boils down to opposition to the wars in Iraq, Vietnam, and sometimes Afghanistan (critics are rarely consistent enough to condemn the successful effort to coercively democratize Japan). Opposing these particular interventions is a perfectly legitimate stance, but those wars did not constitute a global crusade to take democracy and “plant it everywhere,” nor do those failures mean that democratization is doomed to fail anywhere it is tried. It is best to take democratization on a case-by-case basis rather than formulate a global doctrine against it to balance against a non-existent global doctrine in favor.

Second, Tucker is broadly incorrect about the prospects and popularity of liberalism around the world. We are living near the high point of liberalism in all of human history. It is an odd time to doubt the prospects of liberalism around the world. Japan, India, and South Korea are the most obvious examples of thriving, prosperous, and stable non-Western democracies and have been for decades. Botswana, the Philippines, and Turkey are further examples of democracy at varying levels of stability and prosperity. They are a small sample of 64 non-Western states that Freedom House ranked “free” (24 states) or “partly free” (40) in 2017. Europe and America got there first, but plenty of others followed. Liberal institutions are in fact separable from Western history, Western heritage, and Western political philosophy.

Irrefutably, there is a widespread, grassroots, indigenous desire for accountable, representative government around the world, as repeatedly demonstrated by referenda, protests, demonstrations, people’s movements, uprisings, and revolutions—to say nothing of successful elections and peaceful transfers of power. The people of Malawi, who, given the option between one-party rule and multiparty democracy in a 1993 referendum, freely and clearly voted for democracy, would be surprised to hear that, as non-Westerners, they aren’t supposed to prefer democracy.

Tucker is wrong about the difficulty of persuading others about the virtues of democracy. In fact, most successful transitions to democracy are peaceful, and they tend to come in waves after democracy proves itself or the alternative fails, such as after World War II and after the Cold War. These amount to generational acts of persuasion. As President Reagan said in 1982, “Freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.” There is nothing uniquely Western about not wanting to be oppressed. There are sophisticated arguments against democracy in favor of local tradition, and they are eloquently made by powerful men who are members of ruling ethnic or religious groups. If you want to find indigenous democrats in the non-Western world, ask the women and the members of religious and ethnic minorities.

Partial and Halting Progress Is Still Progress

Third, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan do not disprove the possibility of democratization in non-Western societies. They are poor test cases for the theory given that in these cases the United States did most everything wrong. To disprove the possibility of democratization, we’d want to see a strong case—that is, one in which democratization had everything going for it and still failed. Democratization had very little going for it in Iraq and Afghanistan, both plagued with violence, corruption, criminality, tribalism, and (especially in Afghanistan) state failure and extreme poverty. That democratization was not immediately successful is hardly surprising, but it hardly disproves the possibility of its working elsewhere in more favorable conditions.

That is especially true since democracy has not failed in Iraq or Afghanistan quite as completely as Tucker apparently thinks it has. Despite all the difficulties, both countries have actually kept their respective democratic constitutions. Both countries have held repeated rounds of local and national elections over the past 15 years with varying levels of integrity. Democratic ideals are strongly popular in Afghanistan. In repeated rounds of national polling, supermajorities of Afghans continue to express support for representative government, majority rule, elections, and other norms of democracy. Iraq, too, has seen some measure of democratic success. The Polity IV dataset, which measures states’ level of freedom, gave Iraq a score of 3 starting in 2010 and upgraded it to 6 in 2014, making it one of the best examples of democracy in the Arab world. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan are exemplars of the form, but their partial and halting progress should give us pause before we give up on the prospects of democracy outside the West.

Why does it matter? It matters because Tucker argues that “liberal international order seems a mirage,” though a mirage he seems to want to believe in. I have good news: We can keep believing in it because it is more than a mirage. Liberal order is real because the strongest and richest states in the world today are liberal states and because multiple waves of democratization have spread liberal norms across much of the world over the past century.

Liberal values and norms thus help shape and define the culture of world order. Democracies don’t fight each other; they do trade together, they export ideas and innovation but not refugees or terrorists, and they tend to cooperate together on issues of global concern. The resulting liberal international order is a hospitable and friendly environment for American interests, American commerce, and the American way of life. Tucker rightly wants to “deal with problems, and when necessary fight our battles, as far from our borders as possible.” That is exactly what the liberal international order helps us accomplish. Liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security. Sustaining, defending, investing in—and, yes, selectively expanding liberal order, is thus a pragmatic and effective investment in American security.

Tucker and I both want to see an American grand strategy that is prudent, aware of the limits of the real world, shorn of utopian illusions, and focused on truly important priorities. My message is that sustaining the liberal international order is all of these things. It is a useful tool of American security; defending and supporting it is pragmatic, not utopian; and democracy-promotion is occasionally possible within the limits of the real world. Upholding liberal order and, where possible, investing in the growth of democracy, is a legitimate priority because it helps strengthen the outer perimeter of American security. It shores up those distant ramparts and helps ensure we won’t be fighting on ramparts closer to home.

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