Ronald G. Suny


Democracy and Empire

The United States can be proud of its liberal ideals of human rights, democracy, equality, and tolerance of difference that it inherited from the European Enlightenment. But when it attempts to export those ideals to other countries, particularly when it does so with bayonets, tanks, drones and missiles, its idealistic civilizing mission is bound to fail.

All the news in the United States for the last two weeks has been about America’s retreat and defeat in Afghanistan and the growing crisis of the Delta variant of Covid-19. Both speak to the increasing anxiety about domestic and foreign impotence of the richest and most powerful country in the world. Americans believe sincerely that they are a moral nation, a force for good in the world. Probably Turkey and Armenia and Russia and many other countries believe the same thing. But ordinary people and their leaders confuse what is good for them with what is good for others. Different peoples have different interests that arise from their different senses of who they are – their identities – and who the others are.

The United States can be proud of its liberal ideals of human rights, democracy, equality, and tolerance of difference that it inherited from the European Enlightenment. But when it attempts to export those ideals to other countries, particularly when it does so with bayonets, tanks, drones and missiles, its idealistic civilizing mission is bound to fail. In reality, its goal to make the world safe for democracy has meant making the world safe for capitalism and safe for the United States. During the Cold War decades, roughly 1945 to 1991, America was content to support repressive dictatorships in Latin America, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the Middle East and elsewhere, as long as they were dedicated to anti-Communism, opposed to socialism, and prepared to accept the USA’s global economic dominance. After the Cold War both liberals and conservatives in the United States adopted what has been called the “democracy agenda,” a program to emancipate chosen authoritarian countries – Iraq and Afghanistan, most notably – from their anti-American dictatorships. The result has been disastrous: retreat and defeat.

Empire and democracy do not coexist easily together. Empire imposes the interests of a dominant power on a subordinate people; democracy respects the interests and attitudes of those less powerful peoples. The humiliating American exit from Afghanistan that the world witnessed in August 2021, so reminiscent of helicopters lifting off from the US embassy in Saigon in 1975, marks a moment of serious reflection for the foreign policy elite in Washington and New York. Foreign policy expert Dmitri Simes suggests a policy of SENSIBLE RESTRAINT, which he says “is not tantamount to appeasement or surrender; quite the contrary, it must become a central element of U.S. global strategy if America hopes to continue to play a leading role in the world for years to come. A leading role does not require hegemony or an attitude of ‘our way or the highway,’ which offends the dignity of countless other nations, even ones that are perfectly democratic. Instead, it requires that the United States maintain its military superiority, strengthen its alliances, and avoid unnecessary disputes with allies—all while being ever mindful of the fact that alliances are instruments of U.S. foreign policy rather than ends in themselves.” Note that Simes believes that American hegemonic power is still necessary for maintaining stability in the international arena. He realizes that Washington will not give up that dominance. But he advocates restraint rather than the adventurism of the last twenty years.

The Trumpist view of “America First” has widespread appeal in the United States and causes anxiety abroad about Washington’s global role. The country’s allies in Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere have expressed doubts about American resolve and commitment to defending their interests. Joe Biden has been chastened by the catastrophe for American foreign policy. The new formulation emanating from the White House and Congress is that the present and future struggle is between democratic states led by the United States and authoritarian states – here read Russia, China, and Iran. The United States prefers to confront its international rivals with hostility and a posture of strength since it is always necessary for American leaders to appear tough before the public. Domestic politics is always a major concern in determining foreign policy.

Sitting here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, far from Washington, confrontation and antagonism seem bad choices. The enormous power of the United States is not only military and economic but moral and reputational as well. When the Americans appear to be less threatening, it makes it possible for rival powers to deal with Washington more flexibly; fear and hostility decline, and negotiation, compromise, and cooperation become more likely. Russia, China, and Iran are not interested in being subordinated to the great hegemon. They want to be respected, to have their interests considered, and in a globalized world confronted by climate change, pandemic, and the permanent presence of nuclear annihilation the grounds for working together may be greater than the artificial conflicts ginned up daily by the most hawkish of foreign policy advisors.

Here is one modest suggestion, Joe. Take aim on one small problem, let’s say, Guatemala, a corrupt state that the United States has both dominated and distressed since it sponsored a coup against its democratically elected leftist government in 1954. The CIA ended an experiment in social democratic reform, and after the coup Guatemala suffered from a thirty-year civil war followed by years of military dictatorship supported by the Americans. As historian Greg Grandin reminds us, “For its part, the United States promised to turn Guatemala into a ‘showcase for democracy’ but instead created a laboratory of repression. Practices institutionalized there—such as death squad killings conducted by professionalized intelligence agencies—spread throughout Latin America in the coming decades.”

Joe, commit your government more seriously to promoting a truly democratic reconstruction in that little country. Seriously commit to investigation of the corrupt elites ruling the country. You already sent the vice president, Kamala Harris, to Guatemala City to pressure the government to deal both with immigration and corruption. Such a commitment to fight corruption is in the interest of both the United States, which wants to stem the migration of poor Guatemalans to the United States, and the Guatemalan people, who desire a safe and secure life in their own country. Such a policy is not about empire. It is about promoting the ideals that made the United States a great power to be admired. No bayonets, no military intervention, just clarity about promoting democracy and fighting corruption, and consistency in creating an example of what can be achieved in this form of democracy promotion. Who knows? Maybe like the virus such an example will spread.