While it may be appealing to frame American foreign policy as an ideological battle, it is misleading at best and downright dangerous at worst.
There is an emerging narrative in American foreign policy discourse that seeks to frame the future of world politics as an ideological contest between democracy and autocracy. It goes something like this—the world’s oldest republic, after a nasty tussle with creeping authoritarianism (in which it dodged catastrophe by a hair), must get up and dust itself off to engage in an existential battle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism around the globe. It must return to its position at the figurative head of the table as the “indispensable nation” and custodian of the liberal international order.
This narrative, more a modification of the United States’ post-World War II exceptionalist mythos than anything truly novel, can be found just about anywhere, whether in the opinion section of the New York Times, public statements by Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken, or publicly available US national security documents. With the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation emerging as aggressive regional powers, and with the world in the midst of a very real democratic recession, there’s admittedly something appealing about the pitch. It’s imbued with a sense of moral purpose, a clear cast of heroes and villains, and the possibility of redemption for a nation now widely alleged to be born in sin.
This is particularly true for American liberals who spent the last four years watching Donald Trump undermine the institutions and guardrails of democracy in the United States, reaching a horrifying crescendo in the aftermath of the 2020 election and the events of January 6th. It’s undoubtedly reassuring to feel like one’s country is fighting the good fight once again.
But this narrative is, no matter how appealing, just a narrative. For a host of reasons, it would be dangerous to embrace. Taking a look at its pitfalls holds important lessons for those who want to defend liberal democracy at home and are intent on the possibility of a more democratic future around the world.
One danger of the “Democracy vs. Autocracy” narrative is that it is built on questionable premises and is thus liable to undermine democratic confidence at home. The notion that the United States is returning as the world’s champion of democracy presumes that the US has consistently been such a champion. Its record is, in reality, mixed.
Here it’s necessary to step back and examine, in broad strokes, the kind of order that the United States has built and maintained since the end of the Second World War. It’s hardly a question that the citizens of the world live in the house the US built. The international institutions which have become a fixture of world politics were conceived of and shepherded into existence largely by the United States. From the moment of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 until recently, the United States enjoyed a “unipolar moment,” or unrivaled superpower status in world politics, which allowed it to build on the foundations laid during the Cold War. What’s more, the US has by far the best-funded, best trained, best-equipped, and most expansive military of any nation on earth. Given that a crucial root of authority is capacity for force, it is hard to deny the United States’ physical (if not moral) dominion. The US may not rule the world in the purest sense, but it undoubtedly structured the order that we know today.
It must nonetheless be noted that, contrary to left-wing critics of the United States’ foreign policy, the promotion of democracy does rank as a priority, although rarely among the most important. First of all, there is strong evidence of genuine ideological commitment to liberal democracy among political elites in the United States. The idea that somehow leaders’ rhetorical commitments to the regime merely mask devoted service to a faceless oligarchy gels poorly with the extent to which leaders are enthusiastic about going through the motions of democracy, winning popular adulation, and competing directly for votes. It is intuitive that such a commitment would transfer to the realm of foreign policy.
Second, there is a decided gain in security for liberal democracies when the number of such nations in the international community is high and growing. It is a relatively strong empirical observation that liberal democratic nations don’t go to war with one another and enjoy positive-sum trade relations. This “democratic peace,” as academics call it, suggests that there is good practical reason for the US to support the growth and maintenance of democracy in other countries.
Despite all this, the global order built by the United States has rarely put democracy first and is unlikely to do so any time soon. There are a few reasons for this. The first of these is that just to maintain a democratic order, which has historically been contested by non-democratic nations, the United States must maintain its global power to act as security guarantor for the world’s democracies. Hence it must always be in the business, through its vast array of military bases around the world, of maintaining and expanding its own primacy as threats emerge.
Second and crucially, the United States also seeks to ensure the continued functioning of global markets. As the richest nation in the world and the hotbed of lightly regulated capitalism, the US (or perhaps more precisely the owners of capital who exercise so much influence on policy at home and abroad) seeks to ensure that the global economy which feeds its growth and wealth at home is maintained.
Left-wing critics of US foreign policy have their finger on the pulse on this matter at least. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, democratically elected leaders in Iran, Chile, and too many other nations to name were overthrown with US support when they threatened to nationalize major industries. Even today, there is a tangible through-line from the needs of capital to a merely halfhearted commitment to democracy in US foreign policy. While the US tends not to overthrow democratic regimes in the way it did during the Cold War, it maintains close relationships with repressive dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, which both occupies a strategic location and is a key source of oil.
Democracy, tragically but in a clear pattern, has historically been subordinated to the United States’ commitment to economic liberalism in foreign policy. This is especially true given the immense influence multinational corporations exercise over domestic officials. While the global market economy has brought undeniable benefits to many in the world, those very benefits have hardly been evenly distributed and often have been secured at democracy’s expense.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, democracy is extraordinarily difficult to impose from above. The “democratic peace” theory may hold, but it’s easier to institute a dictatorship situated in a militarily or economically strategic location than it is to go through the messy and volatile process of democratization. Indeed, when the United States has engaged in attempts at nation-building, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, the effects were catastrophic.
This last reason is the crux of why democracy has not been, and likely will never be, the center of US foreign policy, and why this popular narrative of civilizational struggle is so misleading. When democracies emerge, they do so as a product of the tensions, alliances, and conflicts that break out between the citizens and local elites on the ground in a given country. They are not liable to emerge behind a desk at the State Department or the Pentagon, much less at gunpoint. Even as leaders insist that democracy promotion is a centerpiece of US foreign policy, they often (although not always) tacitly acknowledge this fact.
Yet the narrative of an existential struggle between democracy and autocracy is still pervasive. This is understandable, given its appeal, but it represents disturbing possibilities. One of these, the most dangerous, is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy leading directly to war. There are sensible reasons, for example, to seek to deter Chinese expansion in the Pacific, as well as certain commitments to the democratic government of Taiwan. That said, a narrative that centers a struggle between democracy and autocracy risks escalating tensions and the breakout of a conflict that it’s not at all clear the United States can win. It also obscures the fact that in such a scenario the US would likely turn to not-quite-democratic allies in Singapore, the Philippines, India, and other South or Southeast Asian nations for help. This is not to say that such alliances should be jettisoned, but it does suggest that the United States cannot have its cake and eat it too. Either the struggle is primarily ideological, and thus cannot countenance reliance on non- or quasi-democratic partners, or it is a second-order priority that takes a back seat to maintaining military superiority in a contested region.
In addition, the narrative of civilizational struggle could seriously undermine the possibility of cooperation between democracies and non-democracies on issues like climate change. While the Biden administration has stressed its desire to cooperate with China even as it plans to compete, competition could easily come to overshadow cooperation as rhetoric becomes more inflammatory. The United States ought to engage with the world community rather than retreat because of a needlessly provocative approach to foreign policy.
Lastly, the United States is already experiencing a crisis of confidence domestically. Citizens in both major political camps doubt American democracy for their own reasons, which range from reasonable to unhinged. A narrative which is ultimately misleading can only do harm to the already depleted reservoirs of trust in the United States’ democratic system. While the rhetoric of democratic renewal at home has been part and parcel of the “Democracy vs. Autocracy” pitch, renewal should be pursued for its own sake, not as a tool to be leveraged for reputation and dominance in the international system.
This is not to say that democracy cannot play a more moral and constructive role in US foreign policy. In fact it should, given the universality of human rights and the inherent dignity of humanity. Nor does it mean that the order built by the United States is simply evil. The history of United States foreign policy may well contain a litany of condemnable crimes, but under the auspices of the US-led order the number of democracies in the world has greatly increased, and global trade has brought about the largest reduction of poverty in human history. So too is it the case that the immediate replacement of the United States-led order would almost certainly be worse than what we have today. The US ought to remain globally engaged and attentive to democracy, but it must find a more realistic narrative about its place in the world and policies which reflect such a narrative.
There is no fix-all which could be provided here today, but perhaps one avenue of positive change could be an embrace of a qualified pluralism at the international level. America would do well to tolerate nations which emerge from revolution or reform with democratic aspirations—despite different rules about ownership of the means of production or the role of religion in the state—and assist them on their path of democratization where possible. While policymakers at the highest levels of the federal government surely believe that liberal democracy is a superior form of government (as do the editors of Spectacles), the US should engage with fledgling democracies—even those that do not claim quite the same mantle of liberalism—rather than dispatch troops and drone strikes, impose sanctions, or support clandestine attempts to overthrow them. The question is not how the United States can force such countries into line with its ideal vision but how it can help new leaders improve the lives and livelihoods of the citizens to which they are accountable.
With American world supremacy on the decline, the limits of the aspirational narrative of democracy struggling against autocracy must be recognized. Neither today nor tomorrow nor ever, as is likely, will there be a final triumph of one political order over the other. Pragmatic flexibility, cooperation, and security, without abandoning core commitments to human rights and human dignity, constitute a much more compelling and realistic narrative for the United States and its role in the world.
Tomorrow, the World, by Stephen Wertheim.
This book gives an excellent overview of debates over what role the United States should play in the world both before and during the second world war. Wertheim recovers a tradition of non-military internationalism that existed before the second world war.
"A Foreign Policy for the American People," speech by United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Secretary Blinken's speech laying out the future of US foreign policy under the Biden administration gives an overview of the dimensions of the perceived conflict between democracy and autocracy.