The West in Disarray

Has the West failed at its dream of spreading democracy?

November 17, 2008

Has the West failed at its dream of spreading democracy?

In a post-American, or “nonpolar” world, the strategic choice the West must make is whether to share power with emerging states.

The long-term future of Western values and interests (which go together, after all) will depend in large part on the way in which it handles this issue.

One option would be to oppose as strongly as we can the emerging states’ challenge to Western supremacy — to ostracize anyone who defies the West, talking only to those we like, categorizing everyone as good or evil, and using sanctions, boycotts, military force or democratization to impose the will of the “international community.”

That option has been the approach of the Bush Administration, which thought it could reshape the “greater Middle East.” But it failed to do so and thus only accelerated the West’s loss of legitimacy in the eyes of more than five billion non-Westerners, even if the United States continues to impress and attract because of its power and wealth.

To reach its goals, the administration sought to maintain an atmosphere of permanent threat, vulnerability and fear. It made the mistake of giving the terrorists the satisfaction of being named threat number one.

It imposed a Manichean vision of the world by hammering home its simplistic vision. It sought to maintain total superiority in all aspects of political and military power.

For a while, that approach worked all too well on American public opinion, while Europeans were always more skeptical. But that approach deprived the West of an extraordinary opportunity to spread its influence.

Alternative Western policies toward the rest of the world are possible. That is true not only with regard to the Muslim world but also with regard to the emerging powers, as many Americans themselves have begun to recognize.

In a general sense, the United States must learn the lessons of the failure to impose democracy by force from the outside in countries where democracy has no roots and where relations with the West remain colored by colonialism.

The idea of remaking the Middle East by promoting democracy was beautiful. It even seduced many Democrats to the point that some of them still today dream of creating a League of Democracies independent of the UN.

But against whom and to do what? I’m afraid the West is going to have to accept that it can no longer impose the regimes it wants any more than it can artificially create nations from the outside.

Does this mean just resigning ourselves to autocracies and burying our democratic aspirations? No. But the promotion of democracy needs to be put on a longer-term footing.

Instead of simplistic and often brutal policies that are based on force and ignore local realities, we need a smarter policy that takes advantage of the potential for democracy in every society, even the most stagnant and archaic ones.

Such a policy could take the form of a partnership for political and economic modernization with those in the region who are ready to move in that direction. There will be more of them than many realize, especially if an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is reached.

What I’m proposing here is a turn away from ideology and a return to politics. In 1945, the United States led in the creation of a world order that American leaders had been thinking about since the start of the war, drawing on the lessons of the League of Nations.

The challenge today is even greater in that the outcome will not be negotiated by two or three victors, but by a large number of countries — established powers, emerging or reemerging powers, regional groupings and ordinary member states of the United Nations that are themselves influenced by the many so-called new actors in international relations.

There will not be a single San Francisco conference nor a single Woods or Havana conference, nor a single special conference of the United Nations.

Rather there will be multiple negotiations and skirmishes stretched out over time. There will be specialized meetings and general meetings, with ups and downs and breakthroughs and set backs, all influenced by economic and environmental factors.

Alliances will be formed and broken, and there will be an infinite number of disagreements among Western powers, just as there will be among the emerging powers.

All this will play out at the UN, the IMF, the WTO, the G8 and elsewhere, including in the area of economic competition, taking place in the shadow of potential environmental catastrophe.

The West must agree on a realistic and strategic vision of these coming changes to avoid disagreements between the United States and Europe that would weaken both.

The United States has nothing to gain from divisions within Europe, which could lead to splits between Washington and some European states on how to deal with particular emerging powers.

After eight distressing years, the arrival of a new U.S. administration is a good time to rethink transatlantic relations.

Europeans are fascinated by — and expect much of — Barack Obama, whose election has had, and will continue to have, an impact all around the world.

Americans and Europeans will have to forge a new strategic alliance based on smart realpolitik.

Europeans must urgently prepare for such a transition, and Americans need to think about what they could bring to the table. The stakes are enormous.

This feature is adapted from HISTORY STRIKES BACK by Hubert Vedrine. Copyright 2008 Brookings Institution Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Takeaways

We need a smarter policy that takes advantage of the potential for democracy in every society, even the most stagnant and archaic ones.

The West is going to have to accept that it can no longer impose the regimes it wants any more than it can artificially create nations from the outside.

In a post-American, or "nonpolar" world, the strategic choice the West must make is whether to share power with emerging states.

The United States must learn the lessons of the failure to impose democracy by force from the outside in countries where democracy has no roots.

The idea of remaking the Middle East by promoting democracy seduced many to the point that some still dream of creating a League of Democracies.