By Tony Karon
(TIME.com) -- Democracy may be as American as apple pie, but it's not quite as universal as, say, the Big Mac. And, unfortunately, in the ambiguous, compromised world of geopolitics, it doesn't provide a basis for foreign policy.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spent the early part of last week in Warsaw, at a conference of 107 nations to celebrate what she considers the Clinton administration's foreign policy legacy -- the spread of democracy. But it may be precisely this idealistic, even ideological conception of foreign policy that has had many pundits from both ends of the political spectrum expressing disquiet over the state of U.S. foreign policy.
The hype in Warsaw notwithstanding, democracy has never been the linchpin of U.S. foreign policy. During the Cold War, the very term "democratic" was simply a synonym for anticommunist -- Suharto, Mobutu, Generals Diem and Pinochet, the medieval Islamists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and many other dodgy candidates were all in the "democratic" camp, remember. Even since communism's decisive defeat has allowed Washington to abandon such questionable company, it's simply not true to proclaim democracy as the basis for U.S. foreign policy.
It wasn't for democracy that we sent our troops to war in the Gulf in 1991. We sent them into Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to protect the vital interests of the U.S. and its allies -- the oil reserves that Saddam Hussein would've controlled if he hadn't been ejected from Kuwait and stopped from invading Saudi Arabia. This was a valid and vital projection of the national interest, even if it meant shoring up Saudi and Kuwaiti regimes that would hardly be deemed democratic by U.S. standards.
The quest for Middle East peace, to which the Clinton administration has devoted so much energy and effort, also has little to do with democracy. Israel is the only democracy in the region, and that may be a good thing if peace is the goal. Popular opinion in Egypt, Jordan and among Palestinians is far more hostile to Israel than are the political elites who interface with Washington. President Mubarak, King Hussein and Yasser Arafat would have had a hard time concluding their peace agreements with the Jewish state if they had to answer, in short order, to an electorate.
China policy, the administration's other major foreign policy thrust, has little to do with democracy. We may placate our concerns with the idea that trade with the West will speed China's democratization -- it may contribute in the very long term, but don't hold your breath -- but it's really based on the economic self-interest of both countries. In fact, many sober foreign policy heads recognize that convulsive social upheaval will accompany the epic transformation from socialism to capitalism currently under way in China and say that a strong (yes, even authoritarian) state might be necessary to avert a cataclysmic collapse. Which is why electoral democracy isn't Beijing's immediate priority, and nor do serious foreign policy players believe it should be.
And while Washington may have insisted that democracy is the precondition for rehabilitating Serbia, that won't necessarily end all of the Balkan troubles: Slobodan Milosevic may be a despot and a demagogue, but the troubling reality is that most of the Serbian opposition accepted the principle that their nation should fight to hold on to Kosovo.
Kosovo, in fact, showed the danger in simply exporting an American conception of democracy into a situation with a very different history. The U.S. led NATO to war against ethnic cleansing, projecting, as an alternative, the notion of a democratic multiethnic Kosovo. Convinced of his own vision of a peaceful Balkan melting pot -- as implausible as that sounded to long-term analysts of the region -- President Clinton lashed out at anyone who dared to view the conflict instead through the politically incorrect lens of centuries of unresolved tribal hatreds. And yet, a year later, it's increasingly clear that a democratic, multiethnic Kosovo is a Western illusion. The Kosovo Liberation Army, backed by NATO against the Serbs, appears to be animated by instincts every bit as violently racist and intolerant as those of its enemies in Belgrade, and simply started its own ethnic cleansing campaign as soon as it had the opportunity. The West may yet have to accept a partition solution despite its discomfort with conceding that in some circumstances, people can't all just get along.
The Clinton administration has been correctly accused of lacking a coherent foreign policy vision, and instead simply responding to crises. In its defense, it must be noted that crises have proliferated on an unprecedented, alarming scale in the decade since communism's collapse. But that deepens the urgency of defining U.S. interests on a world scale, fashioning policy objectives on the basis of those interests, building alliances on the basis of those objectives and using a variety of policy levers to realize them, always guided by a comprehensive global picture.
As gratifying as the spread of democracy and market economics has been, it hasn't necessarily created a uniform interest among nations. Russia is now a full-fledged democracy, according to Washington, and yet since the election of President Vladimir Putin -- whose popularity with voters was derived in no small part from sticking out his jaw in the face of Western criticism over his conduct in Chechnya -- it has positioned itself ever more assertively as a competitor to Washington on the global stage. Putin is working aggressively (and not without success) to win Western European support for his opposition to Washington's national missile defense, and is making a concerted effort to restore Moscow's influence in some of the capitals that most perplex U.S. policy makers -- Pyongyang, Havana and Belgrade. There's nothing ideological about this. It's just a pragmatic, calculating attempt to assert the national interests of a newly capitalist Russia on the global stage, playing Moscow's weaker hand to maximum advantage. And he'll prove quite a match for the next U.S. administration if its conception of foreign policy is limited to exporting democracy.
Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.
~charlie the unicorn~