Export Security, Not Democracy

What pragmatism can do for peace


Freedom is on the march. Backward. "Global Freedom in Retreat," headlines a recent press release from Freedom House. In 2007, for the second consecutive year, the group's annual survey of democracy finds a global decline in political rights and civil liberties. In the Middle East, modest gains have halted. Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria are backsliding.

In his new book, The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World, Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, looks at freedom in 23 "strategic swing states," countries outside the industrialized West with large populations or economies. More than half, he finds, have either remained firmly authoritarian or degenerated politically. "We have entered a period of global democratic recession," he writes, "with the swing states as harbingers of a possible broader downturn."

This is not what Dr. Bush thought he ordered when he prescribed a forward strategy of freedom. Perhaps even more alarming, and certainly more puzzling, is the collapse of American moral authority.

By American lights, President Bush's dedication to the cause of ending tyranny everywhere should have made the United States the world's white hat. Instead, as James Kitfield noted in this magazine last week, "Poll after poll shows the United States' standing and influence in the world sinking to unprecedented lows," with majorities in 10 of 15 recently polled countries saying they did not trust the United States to act responsibly, and majorities even in some closely allied countries—Britain, Canada, Mexico—calling Bush a threat to world peace.

After 9/11, democratizers, with Bush in the lead (and, full disclosure, with me among the followers), claimed plausibly to be the only true realists. "The policy of tolerating tyranny is a moral and strategic failure," Bush said last year. Extending freedom "is the only realistic way to protect our people in the long run."

Today, even some neoconservatives are wondering what went wrong. "These are hard days for democracy," Charles Krauthammer admitted in a Washington Post column in early January. Yet neocons still think they hold a trump card: No one has a better idea. "Six years after September 11," wrote Krauthammer, "there is still no remotely plausible alternative to the Bush Doctrine for ultimately changing the culture from which jihadism arises."

If that ever was true, it ceased to be as of last summer. That was when Amitai Etzioni published an important book called Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy. A professor of international relations at George Washington University, Etzioni argues that the United States should export security, not democracy.

If you want to discuss foreign policy in the age of terrorism, try consulting an ex-terrorist. As a teenager in the 1940s, Etzioni was a fighter in the Palmach, a Jewish insurgent group that tried to bomb the British out of what was then Palestine. The group aimed at infrastructure, not people, but Etzioni says the experience gave him a lifelong appreciation of the awfulness of war and the centrality of security.

Today, pondering the presidential race, Etzioni sees ample criticism of Bush, but nothing resembling an overarching alternative to the Bush Doctrine. American foreign policy needs a positive vision with a moral basis. But exporting democracy, Etzioni says, isn't it.

Why not? First, the Bush Doctrine suffers from Multiple Realism Deficiency Disorder. Democracy grows gradually from within, by stages, and cannot be imposed from without. The Bush Doctrine thus promises what it can't deliver. In any case, Washington often has little practical choice but to cooperate with friendly authoritarian regimes, such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia; we can't expect cooperation from regimes we're working to overthrow.

All of that you have heard before. Etzioni's signature contribution is an intriguing second argument. Putting democratization at the center of U.S. foreign policy, he says, is counterproductive. It turns against America millions of the very people it needs to win over: illiberal moderates.

The Muslim world is full of people who aver support for democracy. But comparatively few mean liberal, secular democracy, which is what Americans mean. Instead, they mean a combination of democracy and theocracy that Americans would not recognize as liberal-democratic at all. For example, they tell pollsters they want democracy while also saying their governments should be more Islamic.

These people reject American-style social liberalization, such as equality for women, which Americans regard as a democratic linchpin. On the other hand, the great majority of them abhor violence. Thus, writes Etzioni, "major segments of the Muslim world are neither pro-liberal-democracy nor pro-violence."

These "illiberal moderates," he argues, are "a kind of global 'swing vote,' " far outnumbering both illiberal extremists (who support violence) and liberal moderates (who support Westernization). A democratization agenda that implies American-style liberalization strikes illiberal moderates as a threat to their religion, not a promise of freedom. No wonder the Bush Doctrine offends them in droves.

But most of them will gladly support an American foreign policy in which basic security heads the agenda. Note the word "basic." To provide basic security, in Etzioni's framework, a government need not have a spotless human-rights record, independent courts, or even elections. It must merely protect its own people from genocide and ethnic cleansing, and refrain from invading other countries, supporting international terrorism, and posing a nuclear threat. If a regime provides that much internal and external security, the United States should promise not to overthrow it—even if it is unsavory or unfriendly in other respects.

Of course, the United States will still care about, and advocate, democratization and other core values. But top priority should go to basic security, on which everything else depends.

Realists insist that stability is the precondition for democracy; neocons, that democracy is the precondition for stability. Etzioni is saying that basic security is the precondition for both, a lesson stingingly learned in Iraq. "In Iraq our problem was that we did not focus on security," he says. "We focused on trying to build another America."

The template for Security First is Washington's handshake with Libya, a nasty regime that gave up weapons of mass destruction and terrorism and, in Etzioni's view, should have been more promptly rewarded for doing so. If Iran and North Korea were to follow Libya's example, they should get the same deal.

Shaking hands with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il for doing what any civilized regime should do is distasteful; but remember, exchanging peace for security is the beginning, not the end. Over time, governments that provide their people and the world with basic security furnish the soil in which civil society and, ultimately, democracy can take root.

Making security the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy sounds pretty minimalist. But, Etzioni argues, it is both more practical than trying to democratize the world and more moral than hard-bitten realism. After all, Security First rests on the deepest and most universal of moral foundations, respect for human life and repudiation of deadly violence. It would authorize, indeed require, international humanitarian intervention against genocide, which the United States would help organize but not necessarily lead.

Is "Provide basic security!" an idealistic enough mission for an America that likes to think of itself as a light unto nations? "Talk about peace instead of security and we're there," Etzioni replies. Dwight Eisenhower got terrific mileage, at home and abroad, by dedicating America to peace, which he promised to uphold in the face of the Communist threat.

Does Security First resolve all of the dilemmas that authoritarian governments and humanitarian crises pose? Hardly. The United States would still have problems dealing with a non-nuclear North Korea or a nonterroristic Iran. It would still need to walk a tightrope in dealing with friendly governments that torture (like Egypt) or provoke their neighbors (like Pakistan).

What Security First has going for it, however, is its congruity with so much of what U.S. foreign policy winds up doing anyway. Whatever the heady rhetoric of John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, or George W. Bush, for the most part Washington tolerates ugly regimes that provide basic security. It relies on Disney and consumer goods and the passage of time to do the rest.

Security First is realism with a caring face, idealism in sensible shoes. Maybe you need to be an ex-terrorist to think of it.

© Copyright 2008 National Journal

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.