It seems strange to the rest of the world, but we Americans can’t seem to stop talking about how other countries should be democratic like we are. From George Washington’s boast of being “irresistibly excited whensoever, in any country, I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of freedom,” to Woodrow Wilson’s vow to make the world safe for democracy, to George W. Bush’s second inaugural, our presidents have invoked the aspiration to expand self-government ever outward. The expansion of democracy is for us what empire was for the great world powers before us: a rallying cry that makes us proud and keeps us unified — while also serving our interests.
As ideal and slogan, though, the creed of exporting democracy differs from the creed of expanding empire in one important respect: When we fail to follow it, we look hypocritical. An empire that extends itself selectively is just being prudent about its own limitations. A republic that supports democratization selectively is another matter. President Bush’s recent speech to the United Nations, in which he assailed seven repressive regimes, was worthy of applause — but it also opened the door to the fair criticism that he was silent about the dozens of places where the United States colludes with dictators of varying degrees of nastiness.
Pakistan is a case in point. As Pervez Musharraf pursued his bid to be re-elected as president this weekend, the government jailed key opposition leaders and blocked others, like the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, from entering the country. Although Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, spoke out against the arrests, American support for Musharraf remains solid. Meanwhile, Egypt has been cracking down on the press as it prepares to transfer the presidency from Hosni Mubarak to the presumptive heir, his son Gamal. And Saudi Arabia — one of our most powerful and durable allies — hasn’t moved beyond the largely symbolic local council elections that it held two years ago.
In each of these cases, the fear that Islamists would come to power in free elections — as they did in the Palestinian territories — makes the United States’ interest in supporting the status quo understandable. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, sometimes sounding suspiciously like an apostate from the democratization cause, argued in a recent speech for the necessity of using realist methods — including short-term alliances with despots — to pursue idealist goals such as the establishment of more democracy. And of course he is right to say that the United States cannot suddenly abandon its useful allies when they do not put themselves up for election.
But Gates’s measured realism has its weaknesses. The problem is that our support for dictators in some countries tends to undermine our ability to encourage democracy elsewhere, because it sends the message that we may change our tune the moment an immediate interest alters our calculations. The monks of Yangon have put their lives on the line; if our embrace of their cause is conditional on, say, our not needing any favors from the ruling junta this week, why should they trust us? Double standards are not merely hypocritical, but something much worse in international affairs: ineffective.
Under these circumstances, the best option is to pursue a chastened version of the democratization doctrine — one that makes no exceptions for friends while also recognizing that building durable institutions may do more good than holding snap elections. In Pakistan, the Supreme Court, buoyed by the national association of lawyers, pressured Musharraf into promising to resign his powerful position as army chief of staff and demilitarize the presidency. That kind of bravery deserves our support — especially because it reminds us that strong and functioning institutions are the preconditions to successful democracy; without them, elections may actually make things worse.
Of course, it’s possible that America’s next president — Republican or Democrat — will pay lip service to democratization of this patient and careful variety while in fact abandoning the cause and going back to the expedient but foolish policy of promoting our own interests regardless of the consequences to others. Another risk is that we are so tainted by our failures in Iraq that even serious democratization efforts will be met with scorn or disbelief. Or we may simply lack the finesse to pull off the nuanced job of supporting domestic institutions in foreign states without making those institutions seem to be our pawns.
These difficulties, though, need to be seen as hurdles to overcome, not reasons for inaction. Certainly, incentives can be as effective as sanctions: in Turkey, the prospect of European Union membership has encouraged the ruling party to combine its Islamic values with liberal policies. Now that we have learned the lesson that democracy rarely grows from the barrel of an invader’s gun, we need a new and credible strategy. Otherwise we will creep inexorably back to our past of shameful collusion in political injustice — an approach that, it must be remembered, failed even the realist criterion of keeping us safe.
In short, we need to do the hard, slow work of aiding courts, legislatures, political parties and journalists wherever dictators try to suppress them. Our national faith in the value of democracy is not wrong, whatever the world’s skepticism and our evident shortcomings in implementing it. Empires inevitably fall, and when they do, history judges them for the legacies they leave behind. It would be both sacrilegious and ahistorical to believe that our power will last for eternity. If liberty and self-government are among our legacies, then our strength will not have been squandered.