In one of the most telling and least-perceptive columns of the year, Jackson Diehl went to hear a spokesman for Iranian opposition leader Mehdi Karoubi speak at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and came away appalled. Karoubi, you see, wants political reform in Iran and not the neoconservative political agenda for the region. But rather than inspiring any rethinking of anything, Diehl just huffs and puffs.
The basic reality that neocons are going to have to grapple with if their nominal pro-democracy agenda ever makes any headway is that opposition leaders in places like Iran, Russia, China, etc. are still patriotic citizens of their home countries. I wouldn’t go the whole realist hog and say that the nature of the domestic regime has no relevance to foreign policy, but it has much less than the American discourse often seems to assume. In general, countries that have some specific fear of being overwhelmed by a stronger neighbor (think Poland) are going to be interested in more American power in their area, whereas countries that see themselves as fighting for a place in the sun (think Iran or China) will chafe at American power. We often see a construction wherein Iranian pursuit of the knowledge necessary to construct a nuclear weapon is somehow an outgrowth of Islamist ideology when, in fact, countries such as Japan and Sweden have pursued this path and the majority of nuclear weapons states are democracies.
Political democracy is great. And it does make cooperation on issues of mutual interest easier. But it doesn’t change the fact that there isn’t always mutual interest. It’s hard to envision a Chinese government embracing the Tibet independence movement (imagine the head of a large Indian tribe raising funds in Russia for an independence drive) or a Russian government smiling at the prospect of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO (imagine Mexico signing a military alliance with China) under any form of government.