Many observers have suggested that Obama’s foreign policy agenda has abandoned the Bush Administration’s emphasis on promoting democracy, including human rights. Much was made of President Obama’s statement in his inaugural address: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Others have pointed out, critically, that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton did not raise objections to China’s deplorable human rights record during her first visit to that country as an Obama administration official.
The Bush Administration’s policy and the related Neo Con position relied on the observation that only democracies make reliable partners in peace because only democracies do not wage war against other democracies. Hence, when the United States encounters non-democratic regimes (such as those of Saddam’s Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), changing these into democratic ones was regarded not merely a matter of promoting political justice, of creating a regime we believe in, or of bringing the fruits and joys of freedom to oppressed people, but was regarded as a prerequisite for peace and security. Forced democratization for the sake of security was a common rationale given for the 2003 invasion of Iraq; for the military and national reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan; the CIA support for opposition groups in Iran, and other Bush administration policies.
This forced democratization approach has been questioned on several grounds: the same US government that promoted such changes has supported non-democratic regimes in a considerable number of other states, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt; the correlations between democratic regimes and peace is much overstated (e.g., Israel invaded Lebanon); the imposed regimes are at best very flawed democracies; and the human costs of forced regime change are very high. Hence, the suggestions to forgo such regime changes altogether.
Several influential foreign policy mavens have argued explicitly for lowering the bar for admission to the international community–for allowing a nation to become a member in good standing without first democratizing. Some of them draw on John Rawls, one of the most highly regarded liberal philosophers of our age, who, in his 1999 The Law of Peoples, argued that liberal societies ought to build an international community that reflected the liberal value of toleration of difference, and which would thus include not only liberal societies, but all “decent” ones–including hierarchical, non-democratic societies. In a recent article in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Charles Kupchan and Adam Mount suggested that “the terms of the next [international] order should be negotiated among all states, be they democratic or not” and should include all nations that are broadly responsive to the needs of their members–that is, which serve their wellbeing. The authors use the term autonomy, but it is clear that they mean to include and accord full measure in rule-setting to such nations as China and Russia. The only nations that would not qualify under this “autonomy rule” are nations that commit genocide or are otherwise abusive of their people such as North Korea and Burma. In short, in sharp contrast to the Bush administration, a democratic regime is not deemed to be a prerequisite for being a full member in the new global order. Earlier, in the November/December 2007 issue of The American Interest as the Bush administration was entering its final throes, Barry Posen called for a foreign policy of “restraint” and “modesty”, arguing that “the United States needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries…”
These discussions and many others like them ignore a key distinction that is crucial for the issue at hand: the difference between forced regime change and the non-lethal promotion of democracy. In Security First, I suggested that as long as a nation does not support terrorism, did not develop or acquire WMD to threaten with other nations, and did not commit genocide or ethnic cleansing, it should be considered as having met the minimal requirements for membership in the international community (Libya, which abandoned its WMD program and renounced terrorism, is a case in point.) And I detailed the difficulties in developing democracy through long distance social engineering, by a foreign power. I stressed, however, that the rejection of forced regime change as a strategy to promote peace and security need not be understood to mean that we should cease promoting democracy, but only that we must limit ourselves to doing so by non-lethal means.
Like most stark dichotomies, the notion that we either promote democracy or we do not, disregarding differences in means, is a false one. I see no reason the US should cease to educate, persuade, and lead by example toward the development of democratic regimes anytime any place, and–if other nations are so inclined–for them to use such non-lethal means to promote their ideas of what a good regime makes. The list of non-lethal means is well-known and, indeed, very widely employed, usually with little ill effect. These include dissemination of texts, educational films, lectures and the use of scores of other cultural means; exchanges of leaders, students, professional and others; supporting local NGOs; sending of election observers; leading by example by improving our own democracy; providing people with new means of communication such as low costs radios, access to the internet and even cell phones, among others.
To favor the use of non-lethal means of democratization and to reject forced regime changes does not mean that one favors hectoring other regimes, denouncing them publicly, or lecturing them about the defects of their system and the virtues of ours. As with all educational means, the tools of non-lethal democratization are best tailored to fit those we are trying to reach. By and large, humiliating other nations does not work any better than humiliating students in a classroom. True, there are occasions when the conduct of a nation is so outrageous, as when China massacred protesters in Tiananmen Square, that public condemnations are called for. But, most times, being judicious rather than judgmental is more effective.
Economic sanctions do not fit neatly into either category. They are not lethal in the same way as occupations and extensive bombing runs are, and do not constitute outright forced regime changes. At the same time, sanctions are not strictly non-lethal means which seek to change the hearts and minds of the people involved rather than deprive them in order to coerce them to yield; Saddam and many human rights organizations claimed that hundreds thousands of children died as a result of the sanctions imposed on Iraq by US and its allies in the 90s.
Three notes are hence called for in assessing the merits of economic sanctions for democracy promotion. First, truly non-lethal measures are to be preferred to economic sanctions, because the latter can have some lethal effects. Second, sanctions should be rarely applied. I expect that a full study would show that under most conditions engagement is much more effective than sanctions (typically coupled with other isolation measures). For instance, the US has isolated and sanctioned Cuba and North Korea for decades–policies which have not led to democratization or regime change–while it engaged China and Vietnam and achieved comparatively much more favorable results. Finally, even if economic and other sanctions do work under some conditions, there seems to be no reason to doubt that truly non lethal means of the kind listed above–when they work, however slowly–lead to changes that have lower human costs and lead to people and regimes who truly embrace democracy rather than merely pay dues to gain reprise from sanctions.
In short, in the new era, we should not cease promoting democracy in the name of a new global tolerance and pluralism, but rather, should limit such promotion to non-lethal means for all nations that do wage war and terrorize others or their own people.
Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Security First (Yale, 2007). For more, go here.
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