• November 19, 2008

Should liberals promote liberal democracy?

Should liberals promote liberal democracy?

The new U.S Administration will inherit an intimidating array of foreign policy challenges, not least the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat of a nuclear Iran, a stagnant Middle East peace process, and addressing Russia’s resurgent authoritarianism. As in every other administration, there are likely to be internal differences on strategy and policy.


A pre-taste of some of the debates likely to emerge can be found in an ongoing Council on Foreign Relations forum on liberal foreign policy under the Obama Administration, which includes the question asked by CFR’s Peter Beinart: how central is the promotion of liberal democracy to a liberal foreign policy?


… even if one grants that democracy promotion mostly requires non-military means, that it should be done multilaterally, that it should address questions of economic justice as well as political freedom, and that it should focus on the rule of law rather than merely elections, the broader question remains: Is democracy promotion really that valuable anyway? Does a liberal foreign policy have to make democracy and human rights central to America’s relationship with, say, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, China or North Korea? Or can liberals comfortably say that questions of domestic, regional and international security take precedence given America’s lack of influence, and perhaps lack of wisdom, when it comes to the internal affairs of other states?


A key issue is which of the Democratic Party’s liberal foreign policy traditions emerge as dominant, suggests the Progressive Policy Institute’s Will Marshall. Will it be the anti-war tradition or tough-minded liberal internationalism. He suspects that President-elect Obama will “fashion a foreign policy synthesis that is uniquely his own.”


One way of transcending the traditional Democratic divide between hawks and peaceniks is to focus on the value of law and institutions, says Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter.


The merits of promoting democracy in the Middle East should be determined by the “diplomatic equivalent of the Hippocratic oath“, argues Aaron David Miller. “Above all do no harm but beyond that avoid failure.”


This is correct, argues Georgetown University’s Samer Shehata, but continued support for Arab authoritarian regimes does harm US interests and standing in the region. “Formulating new, intelligent effective yet cautious American policies to support democracy in the region will not be easy,” she notes. “The difficulty will be working out a range of policy options that intelligently and effectively support the principles of democracy (e.g., rule of law, accountability, transparency, participation and hopefully good governance) which are realistic and workable-and reflect American principles.”