What foreign policy should democracies have toward dictatorships? This problem is not a problem that has been solved, as far as I know. There is nothing in the Constitution that gives us any guidance. Libertarian and conservative political philosophies mostly concern themselves with internal affairs, so they have nothing to say. Meanwhile, leftist philosophy has often been dismissive of democracy (under the aegis of Marxism); as such, they don’t have a problem (though as Marxists, they would perhaps have a corresponding problem in dealing with non-Marxist regimes). As for those liberals and leftists who do support democracy, again I don’t know of anyone who has suggested a general solution. On all sides, there are plenty of solutions to particular situations, of course, but nothing general. Let me run through the possible solutions so far:
1. The realpolitik solution: This says we should support dictators if they help our interests and not if they don’t. One problem is that such a solution is repugnant to our sensibilities, which favor democracy, and of course it alienates those in the dictatorship who want democracy and who count on us to help them. Another problem, as we are seeing today, is that while any given dictator may serve our purposes for a while, sometimes they get into trouble. They can have big problems at home, as Mubarak is now having, which puts us in a difficult spot with respect to what to do (That is, do we continue to support them as the situation deteriorates? If we do, and a new regime is installed, it won’t like us, but if we don’t and the current dictator survives, he won’t like us, either). Another, rarer problem is that the dictator may go off in some unexpected direction. The dictators in Argentina did this when they invaded the Falklands, and Saddam Hussein did it when he invaded Kuwait.
2. The idealistic solution: This says we should never support any dictator anywhere. Such a solution has the advantage of not offending our sensibilities. It has a number of disadvantages, however.
A. People who complain about our support for dictators seldom act on it when they get into power. Obama, for example, could have withdrawn all support for Mubarak once he got into office, but he didn’t do so.
B. The lack of consistency bedevils those who want this solution. People in the West who are offended by Mubarak’s dictatorship tend to be supportive of Castro’s or some other dictatorship, for example.
C. We live in an interconnected world, and it is difficult to cut ourselves off from another country. It can mean huge sacrifices, and while elites at the top may like this sort of thing, they generally are rich enough so that the sacrifices don’t hurt too much. It is people at the bottom who will get hurt by such policies.
D. Any given democracy that cuts itself off from a dictatorship can find itself stymied because the other democracies may refuse to follow the same policy. The U.S. has cut itself off from Cuba for years, but the other democracies have not done so, so following the idealistic solution in this case, while feeling good, doesn’t do much to encourage Cuba to change.
E. How far does one go in cutting off a dictatorship? Do we cut off diplomatic relations? Do we cut off trade? Cultural exchanges? Travel? If the idea is that we don’t want to offend our sensibilities and that we want to live up to our ideals, then total cutoff would seem best. Why have trade or cultural exchanges? Why allow travel there? Once again, people in democracies can be inconsistent about this, with people on the right deploring travel to Cuba and North Korea and people on the left deploring travel to right-wing dictatorships. (I remember being bothered in the early 1970s when I heard that one of my aunts had traveled to Spain when Franco was still in power.)
3. Support the dictator, but urge him to push for democracy: This doesn’t work very well. Consider a conversation between Mubarak and our ambassador:
U.S. ambassador: “Can’t you have democracy here in Egypt?”
Mubarak: “You don’t know the Egyptians like I do. If I were to hold elections, then the Muslim Brotherhood would win and they would cancel all future elections and be harsher on Egyptians than I am. Plus, they would be your worst enemy. Better to have a friend like me than an enemy like them.”
The result is that when we push for reforms, we don’t get very far and any reforms made are likely to be weak and unsatisfying. They will be just enough to suggest that the dictator in question is trying but not enough to actually mean anything.
4. Invade and force democracy onto all dictatorships. Well, one can imagine the horrible clamor from our media and others if we were to try that. They already hated our presence in Iraq, so going after every dictatorship would be politically impossible. It would also be impossible in terms of the amount of manpower needed. We just aren’t strong enough.
But let’s say that somehow everyone in the West agreed that this was a good thing. It’s not at all clear that democracy is what people living in dictatorships want. The results of polls seem to suggest that most Egyptians want an Islamic state. How would our forcing democracy onto them work? Not very well, one suspects. And since an Islamic state is the likely scenario, we would have to be a permanent occupying force, which defeats the purpose. That is, if we invade to give them a democracy when most of them don’t want it, then we will basically become the dictator, and that is just as repugnant to our sensibilities, if not more so, than merely supporting one.
5. Do like Reagan did in the Philippines: Apparently, Reagan began distancing himself from Ferdinand Marcos a couple years before his eventual fall, which was good timing on his part. Also, it seems that people in the Philippines weren’t so anxious for a non-democratic solution, so things worked out well. However, the success of Reagan in deflecting anger at the U.S. seems to have been the result of particular circumstances that probably won’t be repeated.
These, then, are the solutions that have been tried and discussed, in one way or another.
Now let me suggest something. I expect someone to shoot it down in a day or two, but I do want to get people thinking about this problem.
First, let me imagine a reply by our ambassador to Egypt’s Mubarak in the conversation described above:
U.S. ambassador: “Well, you have a point. It seems that people in your country have a variety of extremist views that makes a democracy impossible to implement. But what if you were to have a campaign promising elections, if people were to choose moderation, if they were to choose the willingness to compromise, and if they were to renounce political violence and threats? Perhaps if you held out the hope for democracy if people showed themselves worthy of it, then if people showed themselves ready for elections, you could hold elections, and if not, if the people still seemed to want extreme solutions, you would be justified in refusing to hold elections or giving them other freedoms. This would put the burden on them to show that they could handle democracy and weren’t simply using it as a way to put a different dictatorship in place.”
Notice that this is different from pushing the leader to implement reforms. Instead, it pushes the leader to push the people to make changes, to show that they are worthy of handling democracy.
In other words, the problem in many parts of the world is that different parties have such wildly divergent goals that democracy is impossible. For example, in Syria the former president Hafez al-Assad killed about 20,000 people in a massacre in 1982 in the city of Hama. But one can’t really blame al-Assad for doing this, because those people (the Muslim Brotherhood) would have massacred him and his party if they had had the chance. Passions like these run wild throughout the Middle East, which is why the area is so difficult to deal with and why solutions that are tried never work.
The intransigency of the Palestinians on the existence of Israel is a good example of this. The Palestinian problem remains because the Palestinians aren’t interested in compromises, and they are supported in this by our clueless media. The Palestinians don’t want to settle for 50 percent, 75 percent, or even 95 percent of what they want. It has to be 100 percent, or they won’t agree to anything. But what will happen when they get their 100 percent? Will they be able to live peacefully? Of course not. They will be at each other’s throats in no time. In fact, one can see this already in the way that Hamas treated some members of al-Fatah (whom they executed ).
When people aren’t willing to make any compromises and when they are willing to resort to violence when their slightest desire is squelched, democracy hardly has a chance. If the rule is oppress or be oppressed, then there just isn’t much hope. There’s a football analogy that is useful here. It says that here in America, the squabbles between the parties basically take place between the two forty-yard lines. This is easily translated to soccer, namely that the squabbles take place in the midfield area. When a society’s political squabbles range over the entire field, then there isn’t much hope for democracy.
That is why a push for people to moderate their passions, to be willing to compromise, to renounce violence may have a chance. There are two possibilities. Either the people do become more moderate, and democracy can be installed. Or they don’t become more moderate, but the people will at least know that the problem isn’t our support for their dictator, but their own fellow countrymen, who simply can’t handle democracy. The blame would go to their neighbors and not to us.
So, let me consider some objections:
Objection 1: “What if the people become moderate but the dictator refuses to install democracy?”
Easy. Either we withdraw our support, or work behind the scenes to topple him.
Objection 2: “What if everyone becomes more moderate but one group? In Egypt, this might be the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Everyone would blame the Ikwan for their lack of democracy and not us for supporting a dictator.
Objection 3: “What if a group secretly detests moderation but pretends to be moderate, with the idea that the day democracy is installed will be the day they take over?”
Probably, the push to get people to become more moderate and more willing to compromise would take a number of years. (Mubarak has been in power for thirty years. Just think what might have been accomplished during this time if he had been urged to push the Egyptians to become more moderate.) During that time, it would take an awful lot of discipline to keep something like that secret. And as small reforms were made, everyone would get more used to the idea of living in a place where people were more moderate, so any such party would lose members over time or find it hard to recruit.
Objection 4: “You say that Mubarak says he is merely telling us what Egyptians are like, but what if he is instead a con man? He could be telling us that Egypt is a cauldron on the verge of boiling over unless he uses a strong hand to keep things under control, but maybe he is just saying that in order to keep power. He could be secretly funding the Ikhwan instead.”
Maybe, but think about what happened to his predecessor, who was assassinated. Look what happened in Iran, Gaza, and other places. In Algeria in 1991, it was widely assumed by lovers of democracy that there would be no point in having elections because they would be stolen by the reactionaries, who would then cancel all future elections.
Objection 5: “Instead of your football analogy, I prefer to use the ideas of Thomas Kuhn. Here in America we have a ‘paradigm’ – that is, a contract for governing – that we all agree on. It’s called the Constitution. Having a constitution that we all agree on is what keeps disputes between the forty-yard lines or in the midfield area. (It is like having all scientists in a given field agree on the fundamentals so they can proceed to work on other things, instead of constantly arguing over what the fundamentals are.) But in Egypt you have some people who would like Egypt to be like the West and other people who would like Egypt to be like Saudi Arabia. Maybe there are even a few people who want it to be like the old Soviet Union or the old Egypt under Nasser. Even if you get people to make compromises, it’s hard to see how you could have democracy there. What they need isn’t moderation of their demands, but a complete change in their demands.”
If in fact democracy is impossible under such conditions, then that is what the dictator could tell the people. However, I believe moderation would still be possible. Those who want Egypt to be like the West might settle for its being like, say, Turkey. And those who want it to be like Saudi Arabia might settle for its being like some more moderate Islamic regime (whichever Islamic regime is closest to being like Saudi Arabia). And those who want it to be like the Soviet Union might settle for its being like Sweden. And so on. So moderation of their demands would be possible, even if perhaps not likely.
Moreover, what might happen is that the dictator could reward those who were the first to become more moderate, which would give a big push in that direction. And for those who didn’t like the idea of becoming more moderate, they would have to watch as other people got rewards for having done so. Some of the less committed would decide to move to another, more flexible and moderate party, and young people would refrain from joining the extremists. There would be a slow process whereby the current dysfunctional politics would be replaced by something closer to democracy.
Let me add that it would be nice to have Western media on board with this solution. So long as our media talk as though there is always an excuse for terrorism, which is hardly an act of moderation or compromise, then there will be little incentive for terrorists to give up their methods. If our media were never to excuse them (see here), if they were to demand that would-be terrorists adopt the non-violent methods of Gandhi rather than the violence of Hitler, if they were to stop giving certain violent groups moral blank checks (see here), there might be some actual progress.
Objection 6: “What about regimes that are halfway democratic, but not fully democratic?”
The same approach would be used. There would be less urgency for doing so, however.
Objection 7: “What if it really is the leader who is the problem and not the people?”
See objection 1.
Objection 8: “We were able to force both Japan and West Germany to become democratic after WWII, even though there were people in both countries who wanted something extreme rather than something moderate.”
We had total control in that situation and the populations had been defeated and so were perhaps more pliable. These days it is politically impossible to get total control because our media would be screaming endlessly about one thing or another.
Let me conclude by pointing out that the problem often isn’t so much the leader as the people. When that is the case, then pushing the leader to make reforms doesn’t work very well. Cutting off all relations doesn’t work because different people in democracies will want to do this for different regimes, so a consistent policy is hard to craft. Invading can create its own problems. That is why pushing the leader to push his people to become more moderate might have a chance.