US foreign policy and the pursuit of “democracy”

US foreign policy and the pursuit of “democracy”

The problem with the US effort to push “democracy” is that it doesn’t seem to help anyone. When the US talks democracy, it means the kind it has – with checks and balances and all. Yet, democracy cannot simply be transferred or grafted onto another country, it rather must arise from within the historical experience and political culture of a society. 

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

Once again the United States is hoist with its own petard. In favor of democracy until national interest seems to demand an exception be made. After weeks of reportedly seeking to intervene in Egyptian domestic affairs by urging the Morsi government and Muslim Brotherhood leaders to reach a “compromise” with their opposition, the US stood down from democracy to watch the Egyptian military overthrow democratically elected civilian leaders. Then Washington choked on the word “coup.”

To be clear, at dawn on July 3, Morsi awoke president of Egypt. By nightfall, the military had intervened and he was president no longer. That is a classic military coup. But also, to be clear, it was the business of the Egyptian people and not of anyone else.

US foreign policy has fallen into a trap of its own making. It insists upon telling other countries how to govern themselves. Deprived of an easy organizing principle since the fall of the “Evil Empire” – and embarrassed by its behavior in the face of the Rwanda genocide and the Bosnian conflict – a stated commitment to democracy and human rights moved to the fore. The US encouraged the “emergent democracies” of the Arab Spring. It criticizes other countries – such as Russia – for their democratic failings. Two things are wrong with this approach: it’s not practical and it doesn’t help.

US support for “democracy” isn’t practical because it’s too often overrode by perceived US national interests to be seen as a consistent policy. There are many places the US doesn’t apply it – think the Arabian peninsula for instance. The US itself often acts as a classic status-quo power putting its own requirements first. Egypt is only the latest example. The US was troubled by the Islamist-leaning regime and dependent on the military there to keep the country friendly to wider Mideast interests. If the US were to act on its commitment to democracy, the Obama administration would have called the coup a coup and urged the military to restore Morsi to power. Its Embassy in Cairo would have made this clear to the military beforehand. Instead, after the fact, President Obama expressed “concern” but refused to use the “C” word. The most he could muster as to a commitment to democracy was to “call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible.” Any “democratically” elected government will apparently do, if not the one just overthrown.

It’s impractical too because it is not always clear that the US can actually determine the course of events or even know which side is the “right” one to choose. Unintended consequences tend to follow the effort to cloak intervention with talk of “human rights” and “democracy,” as with Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The decision to arm the Syrian rebels runs similar risks.

But the deeper problem with the US effort to push “democracy” is that it doesn’t seem to help anyone. When the US talks democracy, it means the kind it has – as Obama repeated in his statement on Egypt – with checks and balances and all. But democracy – of any type – cannot simply be transferred or grafted onto another country. Democracy must arise from within the historical experience and political culture of a society. External support to NGO’s, political parties, civil society, etc., cannot replace the process of a people working their own way through their issues and difficulties. The process may be long and sometimes bloody, but that is the way it has been for the West as well since the first stirrings in the meadows at Runnymede. Experience suggests there are no real shortcuts.

Western-style democracy also requires considerable wealth. Only when the pie is big enough for everyone to have a share can compromise, mutual tolerance, fair play and peaceful competition for power be sustained. In developing societies, where there is simply not enough to go around or where fundamental differences exist about the role of government, seeking to impose Western democratic practices may be premature or even unleash conflict. The US wastes time and money and disappoints those who accept US help and enrages those who feel themselves the target of such intervention. No one wins when the US goes off on its rhetorical tangents.

The US needs to more clearly formulate – reformulate – its foreign policy and explain it to its citizens and to the world:  admit the US will put its own national interests first, as all states do even in this 21st century.  Accept that when it believes it cannot stand back and watch bad things happen – genocide, mass killing, systematic abuse of whole peoples – it will work within the international community and through the UN for a truly international approach. Eschew unilateral interventions and allow other societies to plot their own way through history, without outside interference. First do no harm.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010.  He will serve as Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year.

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