Wednesday, November 15

The central fallacy

Scholars always bang on about the debate between "realism" and "idealism" in U.S. foreign policy, but the truth is that for most of the past century we've been simultaneously realistic and idealistic -- in favor of democratic change and deeply wedded to status quo stability -- much to the confusion of everyone else.
That from what I call Anne Applebaum's Halloween Essay (America to World: "Trick or Treat!") for the Washington Post titled Supporting Democracy -- Or Not. The essay is her grim commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolt against Soviet Communism, which saw a shameful response by the US government:
[...] Only after four days of street fighting did the American secretary of state, John Foster Dulles -- a man who had spoken often of liberating the "captive nations" of Eastern Europe -- finally declare that the U.S. government did not consider the Hungarians "potential allies." The message was clear: The West would not intervene.

Or almost clear: At the same time Dulles was reassuring everybody that nothing would be done, Radio Free Europe was explaining to its listeners how to make molotov cocktails and hinting at the American invasion to come. To use contemporary language, a part of the U.S. government was "promoting democracy." Another part was "advocating stability."

The result was a bloody mess. The Hungarians kept fighting even after Soviet tanks arrived, believing help was on the way. Hundreds died. And Western policy in the region suffered a setback from which it took nearly 40 years to recover.
Applebaum goes on to ask whether anything has really changed for US policy since then. She delivers a 'What If" scenario in the form of a democratic revolt against the Saudi government, then interprets the US response along the lines of the Hungarian Revolution.
The result: By simultaneously supporting democracy and stability, we would anger the rest of the Arab world, make U.S.-Saudi relations impossible however the rebellion was resolved, and probably damage, in multiple unforeseeable ways, U.S. interests all over the world.

[...] And the moral? Don't blame George W. Bush: Chaos in U.S. foreign policy is nothing new. But pity those, whether the Hungarians in 1956, or the Shiites in 1991, who take our democracy rhetoric too literally: Sometimes we really mean it -- and sometimes we don't.
I sympathize with Applebaum's pessimism but the debate between realism and idealism sets up a false dilemma. It's a fallacy to argue in this era that the choice is between democracy and stability; this can be seen by noting that mature democracies are stable societies.

The choice for the United States is between supporting oppression, which inevitably leads to instability (witness the Hungarian Revolt!), and supporting democratic reforms. The reforms don't automatically create stability but there is no way but through democracy to create genuine stability.

The difference between a half century ago and today is that now it's virtually impossible for a government to achieve stability through repression without massive outside help. In the case of North Korea, the regime would collapse without backing from China. In the case of Iran, the oppressive regime would collapse without backing from Britain, France and Germany. And so on.

So the debate today is actually between intelligence and stupidity. Unfortunately the debate has been repressed by the Wonk Establishment and the Theoretical Bubbleheads who inhabit US foreign policy circles.

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