Confidence in Democracy

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Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry have an important article in Foreign Affairs pushing back against the notion, put forward by Robert Kagan and other neocons, that the world is heading into some inevitable phase of conflict between democracies and an “authoritarian bloc.” One strand of the argument in the piece that I think is especially important is that democracies should be confident in our system of government. We ought to understand that democracy will tend to succeed, and that it will tend to spread precisely because it’s successful. There’s no need to organize our foreign policy around the specific goal of trying to force other countries to become democracies, and relatedly no need to try to conceive of international politics as a titanic ideological struggle. But this isn’t because democracy isn’t value, it’s because democracy is valuable. A point that, as I’ve said before with regard to the Bush administration’s rejection of the rule of law, has important applications in the domestic security context as well. One excerpt I liked that highlights that aspect of things:

Third, autocratic hierarchies have to contend with limitations on their performance because of weak accountability and insufficient flows of information. Their top-down, closed structure chokes off information from outside sources and distorts it, due to the imperatives of political control. Closed political systems are prone to policy mistakes arising from bad information. The historical record of tyrannies, despotisms, and dictatorships bears this out. Contemporary autocratic capitalist regimes show much greater capacities than their precapitalist predecessors, but they are still intrinsically impeded by censorship and the absence of open debate on policy alternatives. The SARS outbreak in China in 2003 vividly illustrated both the presence of closed decision-making and its severe consequences for public welfare and political legitimacy. Even faced with something as apolitical as the emergence of a dangerous new disease, Chinese officialdom’s routine penchant for secrecy and unquestioned decision-making turned what should have been a manageable problem into an international public health crisis.

Rather than trying to get democracies to band together to contain autocracy, democracies ought to be confident that our model will succeed and spread over time and seek instead to cooperate with as broad a range of states as possible on issues of common interest:

The resilience of autocracies calls not for abandoning or retreating from liberal internationalism but rather for refining and strengthening it. If liberal democratic states react to revived autocracies solely with policies of containment, arms competition, and exclusive bloc building, as neoconservatives advise, the result is likely to be a strengthening and encouragement of illiberal tendencies in these countries. In contrast, cooperatively tackling common global problems — such as climate change, energy security, and disease — will increase the stakes that autocratic regimes have in the liberal order. Western states must also find ways to accommodate rising states — whether autocratic or democratic — and integrate them into the governance of international institutions. Given the powerful logic that connects modernization and liberalization, autocratic regimes face strong incentives to liberalize. The more accommodating and appealing the liberal path is, the more quickly and easily the world’s current illiberal powers will choose the path of political reform.

This is one important reason to say no to “Global NATO” and other efforts to construct a worldwide democratic military alliance. Instead, they sensibly remark that “proposals such as a ‘concert of democracies’ should be configured to deepen cooperation among democratic states and reinforce global institutions rather than to confront nondemocratic states.” I think this is just right — democracies have certain values in common and its sensible for us to try to work together, but it would be a huge mistake to try to turn this into the main organizing principle of international relations, in which a new democracy club faces off against its foes.

Last, they make the important point that Americans should perhaps be a bit more open-minded about what constitutes a democracy:

At the same time, Americans should always acknowledge that there will be variation in the preferred liberal democratic model and that the United States is not always the best or the fullest embodiment of liberal democracy. In particular, the tendency to equate Western liberal democracy with the Reagan-era antigovernment ideology and the minimalist “Washington consensus” version of state regulation does injustice to the protean character of the liberal model and the often important ways in which appropriately crafted state interventions are essential for its success. The Western liberal model has flourished because of its capacity to creatively mutate in the face of new problems and challenges — and its next adaptations to problems such as the current financial meltdown may well produce a new balance between the state and the private sector. As the world becomes increasingly liberal and democratic, there are growing opportunities for even the most successful liberal states — such as the United States — to learn from their partners.

Again, spot-on. The whole piece is recommended. I think there will be some important tensions around this sort of line of argument in progressive foreign policy going forward. I cast my lot firmly with Deudney & Ikenberry and Nina Hachigian & (deputy chief of staff-designate) Mona Sutphen who are trying to push this cooperative, self-confident vision rather than the confrontationalist alternative.