Why America Need Not Turn Every Country Into A Democracy
America should negotiate a global concert of power—from a position of strength.
The deepening conflicts of the United States with Russia and China raise the question: Should the goal of American foreign policy be to make the world democratic—or to make the world safe for democracy? Different answers to this question lead to different American grand strategies.
The prevailing wisdom in American foreign policy has been “democratic peace theory”—with the premise that countries with democratically-elected governments will never go to war with each other. It follows that replacing non-democratic regimes of various kinds with electoral democracies everywhere would result in perpetual global peace. That thread runs from Woodrow Wilson to John Kennedy to George W. Bush and persists in the current claim of a global struggle between “democracy” and “authoritarianism.”
But there is another tradition in American foreign policy, dating back to the Founding era. In this view, great-power peace and security, more than form of government, are necessary for the domestic social pluralism that underpins genuine democracy.
In this tradition, making the world safe for American democracy does not require that every country in the world be democratic. It means that the U.S. should use military, diplomatic, and economic means to shape a world order in which external security threats are so low that there is no need to undermine republican liberty at home by defensively creating an American garrison state. The alternative to shop-worn “democratic peace theory,” then, is the theory of democracy-enabling peace. By seeking to bring about great power peace from positions of strength, using confrontation and conciliation as appropriate, the U.S. and its allies can make the world safe for democracy without going to the enormous trouble of trying to make the entire world democratic.
The challenge within this mode of thought is to figure out the necessary level of defensive domestic military preparedness. Even in the absence of war, mobilizing society in the interest of national preparedness can require transferring decision-making—out of necessity!—to the executive branch of the central government and too many resources—out of necessity!—to the government. The fear of democratic pluralists is that, even in the absence of the destruction of democracy at home by foreign conquest or a domestic coup d’état, the costs of defense in a dangerous world will be too high. The private businesses and nonprofit institutions that make up “civil society” will find themselves competing with the government for economic resources that are needed for the nation to construct what the political scientist Harold Lasswell called “a garrison state.”
An early acknowledgement of the danger posed to republican liberty even by voluntary defensive military preparedness can be found in George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 in which Washington cautioned against “those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”
Similar concerns would be articulated by American statesmen ranging from Alexander Hamilton to Woodrow Wilson and then again, in 1950, by President Truman’s National Security Council in the memorandum known as NSC-68:
As the Soviet Union mobilized the military resources of Eurasia, increased its relative military capabilities, and heightened its threat to our security, some [Americans] would be tempted to…[create] a regimented system which would permit the assignment of a tremendous part of our resources to defense. Under such a state of affairs our national morale would be corrupted and the integrity and vitality of our system subverted.
The question becomes how the U.S., together with other countries, can deter or defeat great-power aggression and promote great-power peace, thus minimizing the need for permanently high defense budgets that drain resources from civil society and civilian business.
The post-Cold War dream of neoconservatives to promote American military domination of the world ran aground on the refusal of China and Russia to accept the implicit offer of second-tier status and on the waste of blood and treasure by the United States on failed and counterproductive “forever wars” in the Middle East.
What is left then are two options in a multipolar world: a favorable balance of power and a favorable concert of power.
A favorable balance of power is one in which an aggressive great power is checked by a defensive coalition of other great powers which together enjoy not merely a slight superiority but a considerable “preponderance of power.” Even better than that would be a favorable concert of power, in which every great power, whether democratic and liberal and pluralist or not, agrees to work out differences and bring about legitimate geopolitical change by peaceful means while negotiating arms control.
My proposal is to synthesize these two options into a “concert-balance strategy.” In the heated atmosphere of today’s Cold War II, only the balance part is possible. The immediate priority should be a military buildup coupled with a program of reshoring defense-critical manufacturing for the U.S. and for its European and Asian allies. Such a program would raise the costs of aggression to China and Russia while balancing their power. Meanwhile, in the long term, such a move could enable Washington and its allies to negotiate a modus vivendi with Beijing and Moscow—something close to a concert of power—from a position of strength rather than weakness.
Some might object that building up military power now in order to negotiate mutual disarmament later might backfire, by provoking even greater military mobilization by China and Russia, if not spiralling via arms races into direct war. But the military and economic resources of Beijing and Moscow, while substantial and, in the case of China, growing, are limited. Having reaped a “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and its European and East Asian allies spend relatively little in defense compared to their expenditures during the first Cold War, which did not spiral into all-out war and did not turn Western democracies into regimented garrison states.
Regime behavior can change, even if the regime does not. The goal of the U.S. and its allies should be to change Chinese and Russian foreign policies, not to change their regimes. In the future, China and Russia might be admitted as non-aggressive members of an informal global great-power concert, even if internally they remain illiberal and autocratic. Over time, a prolonged period of great-power peace might strengthen democratizing and liberalizing reformers in autocracies that rely for their legitimacy on false claims that they are protecting their subjects from foreign threats. But autocracies come in many kinds, and the long history of military rule in Latin America and strong-man rule in post-colonial Africa, in countries that have not fought international wars in living memory, is a reminder that peace is a necessary but not sufficient condition for internal pluralism and healthy democracy.
For now, a world in which all countries are pluralist democracies is a dream of the distant future. But while the ability of the U.S. to promote pluralism and democracy in foreign societies is limited, American foreign policy can seek to promote the global conditions, including peace among non-aggressive great powers, that make it less necessary for countries to make a tragic choice between democratic pluralism and defense.
Michael Lind is a contributing editor of Tablet and the author of The American Way of Strategy (2006) and Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages is Destroying America (2023).
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