Promoting democracy abroad

The spreading protest movements in the Middle East have provoked a
debate about the appropriate American response. That debate has
frequently been framed as a contest between American interests and
American values. On the one hand, it is suggested, American interests
may be threatened by the democracy movements in the region. After all,
some autocratic rulers there have conducted themselves as responsible
and moderate actors in their diplomacy, and have tended to respect
American interests in the region. On the other hand, America is the
world’s premier democracy, and as such it behooves us to welcome the
spread of democracy in the Middle East and even to do what we can to
support it.

This framing of the issues is generally popular, and it is especially
welcome to those who favor a values-first, democracy-promoting policy
for America. Who, after all, wishes to be so petty and mean as to admit
to favoring our selfish interests over our universal values? This
framing of the issues, however, oversimplifies and so distorts our
understanding of American values and their relationship to foreign
policy.  We must resist such oversimplification and seek clarity on the
perennial question of how America’s founding principles should influence
its conduct in international relations.  Such an inquiry need not, and
is not intended to, dictate any particular response to current events in
the Middle East, whether of intervention or non-intervention with the
aim of promoting democracy or American national interests.  The point,
rather, is to suggest a framework for thinking about a range of key
considerations besides the promotion of democracy that must guide our
foreign policy.

In the first place, the easy dichotomy between our interests and our
values obscures the truth that, within certain limits, a nation’s
interests are its values. To put it more clearly, a nation’s
government has a moral obligation to defend the nation’s interests.
National interests are not simply morally unimportant selfish concerns
but a matter of serious obligation to the government to whose care those
interests are entrusted. This truth can be illustrated by drawing an
analogy between the family and the political community. A man’s values
may tell him that abortion is a grave evil. To the extent that he acts
on these values, doing what he reasonably can to end abortion, he is
morally praiseworthy. But if this man is a husband and father, and if
his pro-life activities leave him bankrupt and unable to support his own
wife and children, he has gone too far. His apparently heroic
resistance to abortion loses its heroic quality, in fact shades into
injustice, to the extent that he deprives those entrusted to him of a
support to which they are entitled. This is true despite the fact that
the things that he has denied his family are material things. It is not
mere selfishness to provide those things to people who are owed them.

So it is with nations. America may firmly believe that democracy is
the best form of government, and that movement toward democracy is just
and good. None of this, however, justifies the government of the United
States in regarding America’s national interests as a matter of mere
moral indifference in comparison to the advance of democracy in a
particular region, such as the Middle East. This is not to say that our
own interests would justify our interference with a view to suppressing
democracy and propping up wicked regimes, any more than the legitimate
needs of his family would justify a man in making his living by working
in an abortion clinic.  For both men and nations, negative obligations
are more absolute than positive ones.  That is, we must never do evil,
but we are not obliged always to collaborate in every good. 
Accordingly, we are not automatically obliged actively to promote
democracy, especially when the outcome of such a democratic movement is
so uncertain for our own vital interests. To embrace this view, by the
way, is not to introduce some alien, amoral political realism into an
American political culture that has been formed by the moral and
political principles of the Declaration of Independence. For this view
of foreign policy, according to which the nation’s interests must be
safeguarded, was held by leading founders, such as Washington and
Hamilton, whose commitment to the principles of the Declaration is
beyond serious question.

Indeed, the Declaration itself teaches us that democracy is not the
only important American value. It therefore suggests that even to the
extent that our fundamental values should govern our foreign policy,
that policy’s overriding aim still cannot be the promotion of democracy.
The Declaration does indeed proclaim the right of peoples to throw off
existing governments and institute new ones according to their judgment,
and it is precisely these passages that seem to demand our support for
reform movements in the Middle East. But in the very act of asserting
this popular right of revolution, the Declaration also invokes the
ancient, sober virtue of “prudence,” which it says dictates that
“governments long-established should not be changed for light and
transient causes.” By noting this passage in this context I do not mean
to diminish the oppressions that have been suffered by the people of the
Middle East at the hands of their own governments, to say that the
causes impelling the present protest movements are merely “light and
transient.” Nevertheless, the Declaration’s invocation of prudence—a
virtue aiming not at what is best but at what is the best
attainable—reminds us that the badness of a government is never a
sufficient justification for its overthrow. That grave action can only
be justified if we can reasonably expect that the overthrow will result
in something better than the existing order. And all political
experience suggests that this consideration will give every thinking
person pause.

Many of the most famous revolutions carried out in the name of the
people have resulted in regimes as bad as, or even worse than, the
governments they displaced. We need only name France, Russia, and China.
No doubt the Mubarak regime was bad. Was it so bad that we can be
assured that the new order must be better? The only honest answer to
this question is that we cannot know for sure. If the people of Egypt
believe that their attempt at democratic revolution will better their
situation, then our part is not to interfere in their efforts. But we
cannot be obliged positively to promote those efforts when we do not
even know whether they will in fact lead to the establishment of

Finally, if we mean by America’s fundamental values those values that
were held by America’s founders, we will find not only that those men
were prudently aware that the attempt to institute a democracy might
fail. They also believed that even a successfully established democracy
might be, politically and morally, a bad thing. That is, they did not
treat democracy as the greatest political value. Judging from the
Declaration itself, as well as the surrounding discourse of the time,
the founders viewed individual natural rights—to, for example, private
property and religious liberty—as equally foundational, and perhaps even
more foundational, than democratic self-government. They were,
moreover, very much aware that these goods do not necessarily or even
easily go together: that democracy often proves itself hostile to the
natural rights of individuals, which is another way of saying that a
democratic government is not a reliably just government. James Madison,
for example, stated openly that the propensity of popular governments to
trample on the rights of individuals and minorities was almost enough
to require the friends of freedom to repudiate popular government. That
requirement was avoided, he and the other founders believed, by the
discovery of new principles of political science that could permit
popular rule while simultaneously moderating it, or could permit
majority rule while avoiding majority tyranny.

This possibility, however, depended on the establishment of a rather
sophisticated system of institutions—such as separation of powers,
bicameralism, an independent judiciary—the success of which they
regarded as far from certain even in the case of America. Can such
institutions be established in the newly democratizing nations of the
Middle East? Again, the only sober answer to such a question is that we
cannot know for sure. To that extent, whether democracy will turn out to
be a blessing or a curse to that region is unknown to us. This, again,
is certainly no reason to try to impede the advance of democracy there.
But it is a more than sufficient justification for resisting the claim
that our values oblige us actively to support it.

It is easy to understand why many Americans would sincerely believe
that American values require America to promote democracy. Nevertheless,
such a simple judgment in fact has little grounding in the sober and
subtle moral and political understanding of the men who actually founded
the American republic.

Carson Holloway is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This article was first published on Public Discourse and is reproduced here with permission.



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