Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been trying to create a liberal world order—and it’s been a bipartisan effort, says Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University. The problem is that pushing democracy onto other nations is a “delusional” pursuit that destabilizes states in already fractured circumstances. Walt uses the cases of Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan to demonstrate why the US needs an intervention on it’s constant military interventions. A better approach to US foreign policy? Walt suggests leading by example. The best way to spread democracy abroad might be to have a strong democracy at home. The Charles Koch Institute aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the institute is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit http://www.charleskochinstitute.org.
Transcript: Well, the United States really since the end of the Cold War has launched a project to try to spread what you might call a liberal world order in many parts of the world. We started the 1990s thinking that democracy, free markets, and lots of other good things were spreading almost automatically, but the Clinton administration decided to give it a shove with NATO expansion, with a number of other programs designed to spread democracy in various places, and then, of course, the Bush administration took it to the next level with the invasion of Iraq. But this didn’t stop under the Obama administration which, of course, tried to topple Muammar Gaddafi, as well.
So this is a bipartisan product of democratic liberal internationalists and republican neoconservatives, and the basic idea is to try to spread something like the American system in as many places around the world as we could. The problem is: this doesn’t work very well. It failed in Iraq, it’s failing in Afghanistan, it failed in Yemen, it failed in Libya, and it’s not looking particularly good in places like Hungary and Poland, which are starting to show certain illiberal signs. Moreover, the optimism people once had about Russia becoming a member of the democratic family of nations, I think, have been disappointed as well.
Now why has this failed? Well, the first problem, of course, is that spreading democracy into other countries inevitably means regime change. You’ve got to get rid of the existing government and replace it with something new. But of course when you take apart an existing order you can’t be sure what the new order is going to look like, and you’re going to create a lot of angry losers, people who are resentful at their loss of power and status. And in some places like Iraq or Libya they’re able to take up arms to resist this effort.
So simultaneously you create an incentive for resistance, an incentive for insurgency, and by destroying the existing order you also create an open space where terrorists and other extremists can flourish. So a big problem first is: you’re beginning by tearing apart a new order without knowing how to replace it. And that really is the second problem: we don’t know how to create viable democracies in other countries, and especially in countries that have never been democratic before, where there are deep ethnic divisions, where they’re not necessarily very prosperous. And we ought to remind ourselves that it took 200 years or more for democracy to emerge in the West, that was a violent and contentious process. And to believe, as we did in say 2003, that we could invade Iraq and create a shiny new pro-American democracy in five or ten years was positively delusional.
And I think you see this in one final way: when the United States ends up owning one of these countries it has to occupy it, it has to try to keep order, but it doesn’t know enough about the inner workings of that society: which people are reliable? Which people can be trusted to do the kind of social engineering that creating a new nation or creating a new system of government would entail?