Monday, September 17, 2007

Gates: A Realist View of Democracy Promotion

Passing along some remarks made by the Defense Secretary today at the World Forum on the Future of Democracy in Williamsburg, VA. (Readers of TWR may want to compare to former Secretary of State Jim Baker's comments on the subject in his recent TNI essay.)

The Secretary said:

How should we incorporate America’s democratic ideals and aspirations into our relations with the rest of the world? And in particular, when to, and whether to try to change the way other nations govern themselves? Should America’s mission be to make the world “safe for democracy,” as Woodrow Wilson said, or, in the words of John Quincy Adams, should America be “the well-wisher of freedom and independence of all” but the “champion and vindicator only of our own”? ...

In short, from our earliest days, America’s leaders have struggled with “realistic” versus “idealistic” approaches to the international challenges facing us. The most successful leaders, starting with Washington, have steadfastly encouraged the spread of liberty, democracy, and human rights. At the same time, however, they have fashioned policies blending different approaches with different emphases in different places and different times.

Over the last century, we have allied with tyrants to defeat other tyrants. We have sustained diplomatic relations with governments even as we supported those attempting their overthrow.

We have at times made human rights the centerpiece of our national strategy even as we did business with some of the worst violators of human rights. We have worked with authoritarian governments to advance our own security interests even while urging them to reform. ...

Americans have never been a patient people. Today, we look at Russia, China, Afghanistan, Iraq, and others – and wonder at their excruciatingly slow progress toward democratic institutions and the rule of law.

The eminent French historian Helene Carrere d’Encausse wrote in 1992: “Reforms, when they go against the political traditions of the centuries, cannot be imposed in a hurry merely by enshrining them in the law. It takes time, and generally they are accompanied by violence.” She added: “Reforms that challenge centuries of social relations based on . . . the exclusion of the majority of society from the political process, are too profound to be readily accepted by those who have to pay the price of reform, even if they are seen to be indispensible. Reforms need time to develop . . . It is this time that reformers have often lacked.”

For more than 60 years, from Germany and Japan to South Korea, the Balkans, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq, we and our allies have provided reformers – those who seek a free and democratic society – with time for their efforts to take hold. We must be realists and recognize that the institutions that underpin an enduring free society can only take root over time.

___ [End of the excerpts taken from the Secretary's remarks]

The conclusions that the Secretary draws from this in terms of policy prescriptions, however, may be subject to debate by others who view themselves as being part of the realist continuum, particularly with regard to Iraq.

I will close with one more excerpt that I think also stands as a challenge, implicitly, to those who glibly talk about a global concert of democracies: the future of Afghanistan. The Secretary noted:

"Afghanistan is, in a very real sense, a litmus test of whether an alliance of advanced democracies can still make sacrifices and meet commitments to advance democracy. It would be a mark of shame on all of us if an alliance built on the foundation of democratic values were to falter at the very moment that it tries to lay that foundation for democracy elsewhere – especially in a mission that is crucial to our own security."

Germany's Egon Bahr takes a much different tack, writing recently why Europe must say no to a "global" NATO. I would be curious to see whether Gates' speech provokes a reaction in Europe along the lines of what Bahr wrote, that such proposals are designed to bring about "a new NATO, in which members are obligated to support the United States in achieving its global objectives."

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