For many, our triumph fairly cried out for a bottom-up review of all the alliances created to fight that Cold War and a return to a policy of non-intervention in foreign quarrels where no vital U.S. interest was imperiled.
This was dismissed as isolationism. Seeking some new cause to give meaning to their lives, our suddenly superfluous foreign policy elites settled upon a crusade for democracy as America’s new mission in the world.
Interventions in Panama, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia followed, plus wars in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. To further advance the great goal, the National Endowment for Democracy and agencies like Freedom House set out to subvert authoritarian regimes in Belgrade, Caracas, Kiev, Tbilisi, Beirut and Bishkek. Cold War methods and means were now to be conscripted—for democratic ends.
Yet, considering the high cost in blood, money and lost leadership and prestige since our victory in the Cold War, the democracy crusade scarcely seems worth it. For while we have been bogged down in two wars, China has become the world’s leading manufacturer, steelmaker, auto producer and exporter, and the second largest economy on earth.
Nevertheless, we are ever admonished, we must not flag or fail in our pursuit of global democracy, for only when the world is democratic will our providential mission be accomplished. And only then can we be truly secure.
But setting aside the utopian character of all global crusades, why do we think that the more democratic the world is, the more secure and serene America shall be?
Historically, we have often made common cause with autocrats and dictators when our vital national interests commanded it. In our Revolution, our indispensable ally against the Mother of Parliaments was Louis XVI.
In the War of 1812, where our enemy was the Duke of Wellington, our de facto ally was the tyrant Napoleon.
During our war with Mexico, the Brits were on their side, not ours. During our Civil War, Tsar Alexander I wished us well, while the British wanted to see the United States permanently divided and weakened.
Democratic Sweden, Switzerland and Ireland were neutrals in World War II, while the China of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin did most of the dying on the Allied side.
During Vietnam, autocratic South Korea and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines sent troops. The Brits and French traded with the enemy. Gen. Pinochet, who seized power in a coup in 1973, was a better friend than Chile’s Salvador Allende, who was elected. While the Nixon White House did not cause Allende’s ouster, neither did they weep over it.
Democratic France denied Ronald Reagan overflight rights for his F-111s to hit Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya in retaliation for a terrorist attack, but Portugal’s dictatorship gave permission for Nixon to use the Azores as a fueling station in resupplying Israel during the Yom Kippur war.
Ought not nations judge friends less by the ideals they profess than by how they behave when you need them most?
Moreover, any 21st-century democracy must sooner or later, through elections, reflect the most powerful of the currents surging through society. And, outside the West, and even in parts of the West, what are these? Ethno-nationalism, fundamentalism, anti-Americanism.
When President Bush demanded elections in Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine, the winners were the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas. Bush’s enthusiasm for democracy seemed to wane after that.
The largest democracies in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia—Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and India—are all moving away from the United States. Brazil and India are lining up with China to oppose limits on carbon emissions that would impede their growth.
India and China are resisting concessions to save the Doha Round of trade negotiations. South Africa leads the continent in sheltering the racist tyranny of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Brazil and Turkey launched a joint diplomatic initiative to help Iran break free of its U.S.-imposed isolation and of the U.N. sanctions regime.
Turkey is the archetype of a democratic nation moving away from America, as Ankara more accurately reflects the will of its people.
By moving Turkey off the secularist course set by Ataturk, moving closer to Iran and Syria, denouncing and defying Israel for its war in Gaza and treatment of the Palestinians, President Erdogan has increased his own and his Islamic party’s standing.
In Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt, anti-Americanism and fundamentalist fever are both running high. Why would we want free elections in these nations if the inevitable result would be regimes far more hostile to our interests than the present governments?
America would do well to downgrade the ideological component of its foreign policy and start putting her national interests first. Not all autocrats are enemies; not all democrats are friends.