It is time to lay to rest the 100-year-old drive to democratise the world. The United States should focus on protecting its core interests.

One is reluctant to publish an essay that suggests that the families who lost their loved ones in Afghanistan and Iraq (as well as in Vietnam) – and the even larger numbers who have been maimed there – made these sacrifices in vain. As a former combatant, I know this grief closely. However, a clear-eyed view might prevent even more bloodshed and grief. And so, with much sadness, it must be observed that these sacrifices did not serve to bring about liberal-democratic, pro-Western regimes in these and other nations in the Middle East and Africa. Nor did these sacrifices make the United States safer or contribute to world peace. It is time to lay to rest the 100-year-old Wilsonian drive to democratise the world. Once we let go of that seductive but false hope, we will see the radical changes that can and must be made in US foreign policy and in that of its allies.

The democratisation mirage has had several incarnations. Woodrow Wilson had a dual vision: he sought to promote democratic regimes across the world, and to create a form of world governance based on democratic principles. The neoconservative illusion was that authoritarian regimes were collapsing, and that the freed peoples would naturally seek democratic regimes. In this view, there was no need for extensive political or economic development to democratise; merely removing the authoritarian barriers would suffice. Hence the expectation that the collapsing Soviet Union could be transformed into a liberal democracy within two years, and that Iraq would democratise itself in short order once Saddam Hussein was overthrown. Moreover, the neoconservatives held that if the authoritarian barriers to democratisation did not collapse under their own growing weight, the US and its allies should help history by overthrowing the old regimes. Hence their support for coercive regime change, most recently in Libya and Syria.

Liberals likewise assume that all people aspire to live in liberal-democratic regimes, with the one difference that they oppose overthrowing existing regimes by force. Instead, they call for the US and its allies to support liberal forces that are rising in nations dominated by repressive regimes (for instance, the Green Revolution in Iran; secular, liberal groups in post-Mubarak Egypt; ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria; and so on). Above all, liberals warn the West not to support authoritarian regimes because their tenure is limited, and because, if the US and its allies are associated with the regimes in such places as the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, emerging groups in those countries will become anti-American. Elections, in particular free and fair elections, are cited as the way to bring forth democratic regimes. Thus, the US pressured Saudi Arabia to conduct at least local elections, and the Western media celebrated the elections that took place in post-liberation Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the West Bank and Gaza, as reliable signs of democratisation.

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Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He previously served as a Senior Advisor to the White House, and is the author of Security First (Yale University Press, 2007), Hot Spots (Transaction Publishers, 2012) and From Empire to Community (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

August–September 2015

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