Morton H. Halperin
DEMOCRACY IS STILL WORTH FIGHTING FOR
As the United States struggles to wind down two wars and recover from a humbling financial crisis, realism is enjoying a renaissance. Afghanistan and Iraq bear scant resemblance to the democracies we were promised. The Treasury is broke. And America has a president, Barack Obama, who once compared his foreign-policy philosophy to the realism of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: "There's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain," Obama said during his 2008 campaign. "And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things."
But one can take such words of wisdom to the extreme-as realists like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and writer Robert Kaplan sometimes do, arguing that the United States can't afford the risks inherent in supporting democracy and human rights around the world. Others, such as cultural historian Jacques Barzun, go even further, saying that America can't export democracy at all, "because it is not an ideology but a wayward historical development." Taken too far, such realist absolutism can be just as dangerous, and wrong, as neoconservative hubris.
For there is one thing the neocons get right: As I argue in The Democracy Advantage, democratic governments are more likely than autocratic regimes to engage in conduct that advances U.S. interests and avoids situations that pose a threat to peace and security. Democratic states are more likely to develop and to avoid famines and economic collapse. They are also less likely to become failed states or suffer a civil war. Democratic states are also more likely to cooperate in dealing with security issues, such as terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
As the bloody aftermath of the Iraq invasion painfully shows, democracy cannot be imposed from the outside by force or coercion. It must come from the people of a nation working to get on the path of democracy and then adopting the policies necessary to remain on that path. But we should be careful about overlearning the lessons of Iraq. In fact, the outside world can make an enormous difference in whether such efforts succeed. There are numerous examples-starting with Spain and Portugal and spreading to Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia-in which the struggle to establish democracy and advance human rights received critical support from multilateral bodies, including the United Nations, as well as from regional organizations, democratic governments, and private groups. It is very much in America's interest to provide such assistance now to new democracies, such as Indonesia, Liberia, and Nepal, and to stand with those advocating democracy in countries such as Belarus, Burma, and China.
It will still be true that the United States will sometimes need to work with a nondemocratic regime to secure an immediate objective, such as use of a military base to support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, or in the case of Russia, to sign an arms-control treaty. None of that, however, should come at the expense of speaking out in support of those struggling for their rights. Nor should we doubt that America would be more secure if they succeed.
Morton H. Halperin is senior advisor to the Open Society Institute and co-author of The Democracy Advantage.