The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
This article is adapted from a paper presented to the American Philosophical Society in April 1975. The author is grateful to the Society both for the occasion and for permission to publish this version.
Vienna in the prewar years produced a number of stories centered on a fictitious Count Bobby, normally portrayed as a dilettante bachelor getting into carefree scrapes. In one, however, he is married, and the Countess has gone to the hospital for the accouchement. Finally, as he paces the waiting room, a nurse emerges holding a large bassinet with not one but three infants, and tells him that the mother is doing well. At which Count Bobby screws up his monocle, inspects the bassinet, and replies (as told in English): "Ah, please present the Countess with my compliments and tell her that I take thees one."
From the earliest times the American Republic has had, I think, three basic objectives in its relations to the rest of the world. First, its sheer physical security against attack, within the boundaries that developed over time. Second, an international environment in which the United States can survive and prosper. And third-the vaguest of the three but still inescapable-that the United States should, by example, or action, or both, exert influence toward the spread of more representative and responsive governments in the world; as Archibald MacLeish reminded us in Boston last April, America (not just Boston) has always been "the City on the Hill," from which should radiate a new conception of how men could live together and govern themselves.
These, then, have been the triplets to which our Founding Fathers gave birth-the third unique, at least in degree, to the United States. How have we fared in history, how do we fare today, in keeping the needs of all three in some sort of proper balance?
In the practical actions of the Founding Fathers, the third of these objectives can be said to have been, surprisingly perhaps, the runt of the litter. In the War of Independence--for survival really--no one caviled when Benjamin Franklin managed to get decisive foreign help from a France ruled by an absolute monarch. True, Jefferson and others were delighted when France entered her Revolution-and rightly ascribed some of that Revolution to the American example. Divisions of opinion centered on the French Revolution helped to create the Federalist-Republican split, but in the end the policy effect of the division largely dissolved in the farce of Citizen Genêt and the outcry over the XYZ attempt at bribery-for Americans, then as now, could become almost as outraged over corruption abroad as they could over lack of democracy or human rights. The advent of Napoleon-prototype of the modern dictator-aroused no strong indignation among Americans, and in the wars that bear his name America finally threw her modest weight into the conflict effectively on the side of a military ruler seeking to dominate the whole of Europe.
One should not criticize. We were smaller then, and for new and struggling nations first things come first. It is a point we have not always appreciated in recent times.
With the Monroe Doctrine, the choice was simpler. Protecting the international environment of the Western Hemisphere coincided with a modest urge to confound the absolutist rulers of the Concert of Europe, and most basically with strong sympathy for the liberation movements that were taking hold in Latin America. Yet, I venture, it was still security that came first: when liberated countries fell under the control of absolute rulers-or what would today be called military juntas-we felt no urge to act or even to remonstrate. And in one such case, in Mexico, we took advantage of just such flaws to justify a fairly naked war for territorial expansion.
So right to the end of the nineteenth century, though the idea of America-as-example burned bright-never has it been more notably expressed than by Lincoln-in the practical world of foreign policy American Presidents dealt with other nations as they came, buying land happily from absolute rulers (Louisiana and Alaska), tending to quarrel most with the most democratic nation of the time, Britain. Again, perfectly natural behavior for a nation in the stage of consolidation, for years preoccupied with the problems surrounding the Civil War.
Finally, at the turn of the century, America felt herself ready for the world stage, and between 1898 and 1920 established herself progressively as a great world power.
In this period the key figures were Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, two men so profoundly different in style-and so hostile to each other in the arena of politics-that it has long been fashionable to speak of Rooseveltian and Wilsonian schools of thought and action in foreign policy. In fact, from the perspective of recent years, the two men appear much more alike than different-alike certainly in their sense of American mission or (as a hostile critic might see it) their need to rationalize American action by large principles. At any rate, Roosevelt instigated, McKinley ordered, and Wilson (from his Princeton professorship) supported a war against Spanish colonialism and autocracy and the assumption by America of her own "mission civilisatrice" in the Philippines. And Wilson, prodded by an often-contemptuous Roosevelt, took America finally into the First World War, proclaiming as he did so that "the world must be made safe for democracy."
By 1919, of course, Wilson had taken the country further than it was ready to go, and in the end was rejected by the Senate and the people. But in the process he had created not one but two of the most ambitious and ambiguous slogans that have bedeviled any nation's foreign policy. To make the world "safe for democracy," is it necessary only that other nations not be able to threaten those that choose the democratic way-that there be, in Dean Acheson's later paraphrase, "an environment in which free societies may [my emphasis] survive and flourish"-or is it essential also that the nations of the world progressively adopt democracy and thus, as Wilson assumed, progressively become more peaceful in their behavior?
A like ambiguity surrounds "self-determination," Wilson's other seminal contribution. Does this mean only that nations of the world should be free of imperial, colonial, or other external control-the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example-or does it mean that the popular will should express itself in their continuing governance? To put it bluntly, are nations worth saving if they fall under dictators?
As America withdrew from the world (outside the Western Hemisphere) between the wars, she put off facing these ambiguities for a generation. Partly from the injustices of an un-Wilsonian settlement and partly from the sheer dislocation of the war, there emerged two new twentieth-century forms of absolutism-each secular and total-the Nazi and Fascist version hypernationalist, Soviet communism pretending to be universal. The crusade to make the world safe for democracy lay in the dust, and for a time an isolationist America did in fact "choose thees one"-that is, did take the view that only a direct and physical threat to the United States required American action, that neither the shape of the world nor the democratic character of nations was America's concern.
In the end, the European powers-and a passive America-stood aside as two of the democracies that had arisen from the war, Czechoslovakia and Austria, were sacrificed to the Nazi juggernaut, and only in 1939 did Britain's commitment (to the support, ironically, of a semi-Fascist government in Poland) stop the retreat before Hitler and bring on a Second World War. And in the end the combination of not one but three big powers, Germany, Japan, and Italy-all dictatorships, all militarist, all expansionist, and one into the bargain racist in the most abhorrent way-led America again into war. Even before Pearl Harbor, our purposes had been defined in the Four Freedoms, from fear and want, of speech and religion-close to democracy, at any rate antithetical to dictatorship.
In short, World War II made opposition at least to totalitarian and expansionist dictatorship a cornerstone of American policy. If at the same time America found herself fighting alongside another totalitarian dictator, Stalin, as well as a military ruler, Chiang Kai-shek, his totalitarian tendencies curbed only by his limited power and effectiveness, there was the justification that both the Russian and Chinese peoples, however little voice they had, were plainly in agreement with the war policy of their governments.
So the war seemed indeed a victory for freedom, and in its wake the prestige of the United States and of the democratic process stood for more than a decade higher in the world as a whole than ever before-or since. It seemed at the time only natural that the occupations of Germany and Japan, security-motivated at first, should turn into massive laboratories in the reeducation of whole peoples. It was an effort in which our military proconsuls had the help of many of the most liberal elements in American society-where else could Roger Baldwin and Douglas MacArthur have seen eye to eye? And the transformation of these two great societies, covering only a part of Germany, perhaps not yet fully tested by the advent of the opposition to power in Japan, must nonetheless rank as extraordinary acts of American foreign policy, geared directly to the theme of undoing dictatorship.
Moreover, both by example and by influence the United States did deeply affect other nations of the world. Aiding Greece to survive, we helped to turn her into a path of democracy that she followed, albeit shakily, at least until 1967. And the inspiration of the American Founding Fathers contributed to the professed ideals, if not to the performance, of men as varied as Sukarno and even Ho Chi Minh. Ambassador Moynihan has recently quoted what Edward Shils wrote in 1964 concerning the wave of new nations that came into being in the 15 years after the Second World War:
There are no new states in Asia or Africa, whether monarchies or republics, in which the elites who demanded independence did not, at the moment just prior to their success, believe that self-government and democratic government were identical . . . . Something like liberal democracy was generally thought to be prerequisite for the new order of things.
Very soon after the war, however, the United States was caught up in another great struggle, against a Soviet dictatorship always seen to be totalitarian and now appearing expansionist as well. Stalin's failure even to respect the forms of popular choice in Eastern Europe-however much he might in practice have dictated their result-was a major cause of the quarrels that brought on the cold war. It was not in the American instinct to be as "realist" about accepting a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe as leading Europeans, including Churchill himself, were prepared to be-and the difference was an important one to the depth of the final cold-war division. It was, after all, a reasonable approximation of democracy that was extinguished again in Czechoslovakia in 1948, while the United States was almost equally aroused by what appeared in France and Italy to be the subversion of the democratic process by massive external political support of local communist parties. Indeed, it was this latter case that led the United States into the fateful habit of injecting its own forms of political support, through the infant CIA, to local political elements faced with such communist action. In these first cases, there is little reason to doubt that the outcome reflected the genuine underlying views of the French and Italian peoples. Alas, similar American political interventions may later have been less clearly justified either in principle or in practice.
Then aggression in Korea made the confrontation worldwide, with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China seen alike as expansionist and totalitarian dictatorships. And, in its worldwide effort to organize the so-called free world to hold a line against communist expansion, the United States found itself in the 1950s drawn into the full depth of the ambiguities implicit in the old Wilsonian formulations. The rounding out of NATO appeared to call for the admission of a Portugal ruled by Salazar, while an effective nuclear deterrent seemed to dictate the need for military bases in Spain, and hence substantial assistance to General Franco's government. In Iran and Guatemala, the real or fancied threat of communist political action led to decisive covert interventions in support of regimes not distinguished by truly democratic practices. And, in the new structure of worldwide alliances brought to its fullest peak by John Foster Dulles, one after another of our "free world" allies came under governments of an increasingly repressive and dictatorial character-Syngman Rhee in Korea, Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, General Ayub in Pakistan, Marshal Thanom in Thailand, and of course, our old friend Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan.
In the 1950s these ambiguities hardly troubled an America engrossed in what she saw as a major job of preserving the national independence of new nations and protecting them from being taken over not only by an external power but by totalitarian methods of government against which there could be no later domestic recourse. Indeed, to the extent that the problem bothered thoughtful Americans at all, there grew up lines of thought that tended to excuse or justify the maintenance of non-democratic regimes by so many of the nations with whom we were associated. After all, it was argued, almost none of these nations had any historical experience of democracy. Their various cultures and traditions had usually been authoritarian, and the practical problems of economic progress and effective organization were a peculiarly difficult test of embryonic democratic structures. These justifications were not without some weight. They were readily accepted by conservative American opinion, and even in liberal quarters they often seemed persuasive. Witness only what John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in 1961 when he was urging President Kennedy to make things difficult for Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam: that the successors would almost surely be a military government, but that this was a natural and expectable event and one we should be ready to support.
Nonetheless, President Kennedy did show a greater sensitivity to the problem than his predecessors. In 1963, for example, in an action never publicized, he told General Park Chung Hee in Korea--who had come to power by a military coup but subsequently promised democratic elections--that if he failed to go through with those elections the United States would seriously consider cutting off all its support for Korea; it was the only case I know where this ultimate threat was used to the full, and in a situation happily free of massive publicity (which would surely otherwise have engaged Park's "face") the threat worked, the elections were carried out, and for nearly a decade Korea did enjoy an essentially democratic system.
More generally, the Kennedy Administration was much more positive in its friendship for existing democracies, notably India, regardless of their cold-war policies. The Kennedy formulation of the Alliance for Progress definitely envisaged that countries adhering to democracy would obtain greater American help than those that did not. Unfortunately, a little on the Wilsonian model, the goals for the Alliance were too ambitious. By seeming to promise more than could be delivered, they may have made their own small contribution to the lapse into widespread dictatorship experienced by Latin America in the past decade.
In short, the Kennedy Administration showed itself genuinely sensitive to the issue, but at the same time unable to avoid many of the persistent ambiguities of the American posture.
Over the last decade, we have seen both a misguided apogee of the cold war-in Indochina-and its rapid decline through the process of détente with Soviet Russia and the easing of relations with China. Along the way, President Johnson (and Ambassador Cabot Lodge) tried to bring democratic ways even to a Vietnam at war; predictably, I think, the effort failed, and the dictatorship of Thieu became another of the negatives of that ghastly national experience. More typically, when the colonels took over in Greece, Johnson made the choice that preserving the national independence of Greece--as well as its strategic position in relation to American support of the rest of NATO and of Israel--warranted some continued assistance even to a dictatorship whose behavior tarnished one of the early American postwar successes. The sense of unhappiness over compromises on the issue of dictatorship became one of the contributing factors in a growing feeling that America had become overextended.
But it was the Administration of Richard Nixon that most changed, or seemed to change, the American posture toward democracies and dictatorships. Almost by definition, democracies are hard and wearying, sometimes even exasperating, to deal with; dictatorships, on the other hand, can deliver what they promise in personal conversation-unless, of course, they happen to be deceiving massively. Nonetheless, the process by which, in his five and a half years of power, Nixon managed to get on strained terms with almost every democratic government in the world, while condoning and cultivating dictatorial regimes both in great and lesser powers, set, I think, new records in making a vice out of necessity.
That part of this was necessity cannot be doubted. The moves toward Russia and China were right, and in the case of China there was a chorus of early visitors who carried a sense of guilt for the past to the point of ignoring some rather basic features of the Chinese regime--in Patrick Moynihan's words, it became "the convention of those returning from China to speak of the absence of flies there, and not of the absence of liberty." And, in the case of Russia, the prospect of greatly increased trade seemed to blind another group of Americans to the realities of the Soviet regime and its policies. If it was right for us all to get away from the atmosphere of ideology that had pervaded the cold war, we could still have kept a more realistic view than we have done.
Similarly, for friends and allies, I do not think we could have dumped Greece-or Marcos when he made himself effectively the dictator of the democratic Philippines we had done so much to nurture. But we need not have condoned Marcos as we have done, and the degree to which Messrs. Nixon and Agnew embraced the colonels in Greece was quite unnecessary-and has borne bitter fruit in the past year in terms of foreign policy alone. And in Chile, most tragically of all, we compounded the tactical error of using the CIA by embracing the present military regime, which is repulsive by any normal American standard.
So it has been a matter both of policy and posture. I think it has registered abroad now that the United States no longer cares much about how nations are governed, that it might be guided (as in Chile) by the most dubious generalizations of the cold-war era, while at the same time shedding the ideals that by and large did have a substantial effect on American conduct even at the height of that embattled period.
It is at home, however, that the effects have been most serious. The revolt in Congress during the past year on foreign policy issues has had many obvious proximate causes. But surely at its very root--in the Jackson Amendment and the rejection of military aid to Turkey particularly--has been a deep and widespread feeling, reflected in the Congress, that the Realpolitik of President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger was neglecting something fairly basic to historic American foreign policy and to our sense of our own aspirations and standards.
Where does this historical survey bring us out?
First, I think to the self-evident conclusion that over the years American policy on the question of dictatorships abroad has often been confusing and contradictory. Conservatives and liberals alike have been readily subject to delusions about particular regimes abroad. We have a strong tendency to set up our own white and black hats: if the Greek colonels were brutal, it must follow, apparently, that Communist Party leaders there resemble Yves Montand in the movie "Z," and talk like Eugene McCarthy. Grays do not interest us, so that we are often harder on authoritarian regimes where there is still a measure of freedom, but its sins are visible, than we are on regimes which extinguished freedom totally long ago and so have no visible sins. And, because of our national craving for efficiency as an end in itself, we have been at times unsympathetic to democracies that floundered-the France that fell, the India that still wallows, and of course has now left the fold.
So one conclusion-as we enter an era not free of ideological conflict but at least less burdened by it-would be a simple appeal for objectivity. In assessing undemocratic regimes, let us judge those of the Right and those of the Left on the same scales, and let us recognize that there are important differences of degree: it matters whether a regime can in practice be replaced, even if only by coup techniques, or whether it has total control of its people; it matters whether there is some freedom of speech and some respect for human rights, or none of either; it matters whether something real is being done for the lot of the people, even if paternalistically; it matters whether there is religious freedom, and the freedom of subgroups to express their cultures. Yes, even on the issue of corruption we should be wary-and today a little humble-about applying rigidly the standards of our particular culture.
A second conclusion should be that, as we seek to judge more objectively, we must recognize that our power to influence resides-now in the 1970s-overwhelmingly in our example. The brief era when we could seek to transform Germany and Japan, and where all over the world American Ambassadors were watched for their approval or disapproval, is definitely over. Today the nations of the Third World appear to be rejecting equally democracy and totalitarianism, including communism. In essence they are groping to find national styles of governance, in an era when the aroused perceptions and expectations of people make the task of governing extraordinarily hard under any system. If it all seems discouraging, it is surely not nearly so much so as the 1930s. Perhaps, if there is a long-term democratic tide to history-a faith I myself cling to-there are bound to be ebbs and flows, as there surely were in the years from 1215 to 1867-from Magna Carta to the Second Reform Bill-in the Anglo-Saxon history that is our heritage. But this tide, at least, cannot be forced.
And, for all our worries about failures here at home, let us not underrate the continued impact of our society on the world. At a time when India's foreign policy is closely parallel to that of the Soviet Union, it should say something to us that there are tens of thousands of Indian students in this country and a mere handful in the Soviet Union.
Thirdly, as we conform our security policy to a national consensus for reduced commitments arising only partly from the Vietnam debacle, we shall find-are already finding-some of the ambiguities of the cold war likewise at least reduced. With the possible and troubling exception of Portugal, the members of our core security alliances in Western Europe and with Japan are truly like-minded democratic nations, as is the Israel to which we have such a strong moral commitment. These are the nations to which we are most deeply bound, and we should make no bones about democracy being a part of the bond.
Yet even the defense and preservation of these core areas, on a realistic basis, will still involve some problems-what might be called a balancing of equilibrium and non-equilibrium considerations. The defense of Japan, and the avoidance of serious great-power conflict in Northeast Asia, still require in my judgment our strong support of Korea despite the deplorable excesses of General Park. In this case we know what his opposition thinks: they want us to stay, for they continue to fear Kim Il-Sung more than Park. And they believe that, as happened to Rhee in 1960, they can in the end deal with Park without the complications of American intervention. To rely on the underlying will of the people-when we can be reasonably sure of it-may be the best guide of all.
Moreover, if one accepts the new degree of American involvement in the Middle East as inevitable-both for the sake of Israel and for the sake of our oil supply-one must accept the ambiguities that go with it. The Shah and King Khalid are facts of life, and one might add, products of their respective cultures. We have to deal with them for a host of reasons, and all we can seek is that our behavior should not alienate us from those who, there too, may in time succeed them.
And, of course, finally and most crucially, we have to deal with the Soviet Union and China, to avoid nuclear war and to hope for a less threatening world atmosphere.
So in the end we simply cannot choose as neatly as Count Bobby tried to do. All three of our national objectives do have to be nurtured together, and at times some will have a greater priority than others.
All this said, I would still conclude on a note that is both critical and positive. Our concern for democracy, and our distaste for dictatorship, should have much clearer weight in our total policies than they have had for some years past; among other things it matters that we say frequently what we stand for. More of our policy, and much more of our public posture toward other nations, can tilt in the direction of democracy and against dictatorships of any stripe. The men who met in Philadelphia two hundred years ago understood the dilemma. I think they would have wished of us at least this much.