Courtesy Reuters

The Dream of Democratic Peace: Americans Are Not Asleep

In defending the Clinton administration's policy of promoting democracy abroad, Strobe Talbott cites H. L. Mencken's remark, "The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy" ("Democracy and the National Interest," November/December 1996). Mencken's reaction to finding himself quoted to support basing U.S. foreign policy on the notion of the "democratic peace" -- if printable -- might be, "The most common of follies is to believe passionately in the palpably untrue." He would be the first to point out that the Achilles' heel of this passionately held argument is that it has palpably little to do with the experience of the country that presumably ought to confirm it: the United States.

The democratic peace is essentially a historical hypothesis, a set of propositions based on past experience. In Talbott's version, "Countries whose citizens choose their leaders . . . are more likely than those with other forms of government to be reliable partners in trade and diplomacy, and less likely to threaten the peace." American experience suggests another view: a country may feel solidarity toward other countries with similar political values and institutions, but countries become reliable partners only when their interests require it.

When this is the case, the nature of their respective systems does not seem to count for much. American security has been seriously threatened at four points: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. On the first and third occasions, indispensable help came from tyrannical sources: Louis XVI's France and Stalin's Soviet Union. During the Civil War, the North's best European friend was czarist Russia. And calling our most reliable partners in the Cold War democratic would seem to be confusing democracy with dependence on the United States. But the democratic peace hypothesis does more than misrepresent the way the world actually works: it is a dangerous and misleading recipe that, if followed, will cause America's leaders to neglect the country's true security needs.

A FRIEND IN NEED . . .

The United States's

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