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Missionaries For Democracy?

The apparent collapse of the communist threat around the world raises the important question of what principles should guide U.S. foreign policy during the 1990s and beyond. Since World War II, American policy is most consistently characterized by anticommunism or resistance to Soviet expansionism. Although U.S. leaders pursued these objectives with varying degrees of enthusiasm …

The apparent collapse of the communist threat around the world raises the important question of what principles should guide U.S. foreign policy during the 1990s and beyond. Since World War II, American policy is most consistently characterized by anticommunism or resistance to Soviet expansionism. Although U.S. leaders pursued these objectives with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success, the overall mission now appears thoroughly vindicated. Contrary to what skeptics maintained, Marxism-Leninism strangulated prosperity and freedom in the Soviet Union and its captive nations, and now the emancipated peoples are embracing the principles of the American system.

These developments have generated sharp controversy in Washington, D.C. over the future course of American involvement abroad. The trigger for the debate was State Department official Francis Fukuyama’s article, “The End of History,” in the National Interest, in which Fukuyama argued that the death of Marxism meant the “total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” While conceding that numerous countries continue to assert Marxist doctrine, Fukuyama noted that increasingly the world judged these regimes-and they judged themselves-according to the norms of liberal democracy. Slowly, Fukuyama predicted, the pressure for even reluctant despots to move toward liberal policies would prove irresistible. In short, the American model is now everyone’s model.

Several neoconservative analysts celebrated Fukuyama‘s liberal democratic remedy, but questioned his confident assertion that its global triumph was a fait accompli. Rather, as author Ben Wattenberg put it, the U.S. should now make as its primary foreign policy goal the active promotion and evangelization of democracy. Perhaps there is movement in this direction, Wattenberg wrote, but “as the last superpower, we ought to try to shape this evolution.” What we need, he argued, is a new sense of mission, a new Manifest Destiny.

The democracy cheerleaders met with fierce opposition from a newly emergent group of isolationists, led by Patrick Buchanan. America‘s foreign mission has been accomplished, Buchanan insisted, now it is time to “bring the boys home.” While maintaining political and economic dominance in our own hemisphere, he urged, the U.S. should extricate itself from European, Asian, and African entanglements that do not directly affect U.S. interests. Denouncing global democracy as a chimerical ideal that “no American would be willing to fight and die for,” Buchanan emphasized the maxim that the U.S. can be an exemplar of liberty for everyone but custodian only of her own liberty.

As the U.S. foreign policy debate has developed, positions have become more nuanced and sophisticated. What are we to make of the range of conflicting problems? On the one hand, it is clear that the U.S. cannot be the “world’s policeman,” in the conventional phrase. American resources simply are not large enough, and even if they were, the enterprise would create serious problems. Different countries have different cultures: Afghanistan is very different from Zaire, which is very different from Sri Lanka. Cultural recipes for transforming these nations must take into account their indigenous circumstances, and it is unlikely that American policy can effectively do this.

On the other hand, even outside the Soviet bloc, countries that have no evolved democratic or market traditions are adopting free elections and free enterprise, and quickly reaping gains in prosperity and freedom. Who would have imagined that the Buddhist and Confucian traditions of the Far East would have so malleably adjusted to laissez-faire capitalism? Yet Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Hong Kong have witnessed rapid economic growth. Similarly, Latin America is a region habituated to dictatorship, yet today virtually all of Latin America is democratic. When we see long lines of peasants waiting to cast their votes, at rates of 80-90 percent participation, far higher than in the United States, it is apparent that the urge for citizens to have a voice in their government is a universal longing that is not attenuated by cultural conditioning.

What the foreign policy experts need to consider is the best possible objectives that seem universally desirable. Nobody maintains that economic and political freedom are bad things; the only question is how most effectively to promote them. In this area it seems imperative to avoid the fallacies of extreme moralism and extreme realpolitik.

American foreign policy cannot be animated by moral principles alone. Foreign policy is not philanthropy, as the columnist Charles Krauthammer once put it. The U.S. has no obligation to engage every battle, fix every problem, right every wrong. Yet at the same time, America cannot operate solely on self-interest. Americans do not want to advance themselves at the expense of others. American policy should satisfy the requirements of both morality and expediency, both ethical justification and national interest. This means that the U.S. should advance democratic and free market principles, but not as a global crusade. Rather, it should do so cautiously, incrementally, in cases and circumstances where the project helps American interests and is likely to work.


Dinesh D’Souza is a research fellow in social policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was senior domestic policy analyst in the Reagan Administration. His study, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on the American Campus, is scheduled for publication later this year.

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