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.


The United States's non-democratic but reliable-because-dependent friends have included Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Tito's Yugoslavia, Salazar's Portugal, Franco's Spain, Turkey under military rule, and much of Latin America before the democratic trend. Autocratic governments may at times be less stable, but that does not mean the United States can easily dispense with them as allies. Nor does it mean that democracy will make them more reliable. The Philippines, South Africa, and Taiwan may be happier as democracies, but will they be more reliable partners for the United States? The new Eastern European democracies will prove reliable only if they receive American protection. By the way, if democracy is such a vital factor in state behavior, is it worth jeopardizing the democratic transition in Russia by extending NATO to the east?

Japan, Germany, and Italy have respected, and to a degree emulated, the United States, but they became reliable partners because the United States defeated them, helped rebuild them, and protected them from an outside threat. Two of the world's most important democracies have been rather less reliable: India and France. One reason, certainly, is that as relatively secure, nuclear-armed states, they have felt less dependent on the United States. Shared democratic norms and institutions link Britain and the United States, but shared language, ethnicity, and Britain's strategic dependence on the United States are more important. Britain was a liberal democracy before World War II but not a reliable partner -- nor was the United States for Britain. Britain became a reliable partner when it ceased to be a rival and grew dependent on the United States for its survival after 1939.

Let us examine another Clinton administration proposition at the heart of the democratic peace hypothesis. Talbott writes, "The larger and more close-knit the community of nations that choose democratic forms of government, the safer and more prosperous Americans will be, since democracies are demonstrably more likely to maintain their international commitments, less likely to engage in terrorism or wreak environmental damage, and less likely to make war on each other." This statement would seem to confuse American history with a liberal fairy tale. As they waged the Revolutionary War against the most liberal of the great powers, aided by one of the more despotic, the 13 original American states adopted the most democratic constitutions ever seen. The Clinton administration view implies that after the war, in the absence of a strong central authority, the 13 democracies would have lived in peace. We will never know, but it is doubtful whether the democratic peace hypothesis would have passed this intriguing test. The most acute contemporary observers saw ample reason for future conflict among the American states -- commercial rivalries, apportionment of the national debt, attachments to rival European powers, and above all, control of what was then the west.

The United States declared a war of dubious necessity, promoted by liberal democratic forces, against Britain in 1812. Britain was engaged in a struggle with Napoleonic France, not the least democratic of the powers but the greatest threat to peace.

Only 50 years later, and whatever else it may have been, the Civil War was a struggle for power in North America between two democratic states. Had he been alive, Jefferson, the symbol of liberal democracy, may well have backed Virginia and the South. During the Civil War the North came dangerously close to war with Britain when, in 1861, a Northern captain halted the British steamer Trent and imprisoned two Confederate officials on board.

While the creation of an overseas empire came at the expense of undemocratic Spain, America's imperial career does little to support the view that the United States, by virtue of its democratic norms and institutions, is inclined to solve international disputes pacifically and to promote democracy abroad.

Perhaps the First World War lends credence to the Clinton administration's case. After all, the United States fought alongside the more or less democratic Allies against the semi-autocratic Central Powers. But Woodrow Wilson and many liberals perceived the democracies to be nearly as predatory as the Germans. Their favored solution to the war was "peace without victory" for either side. When German actions forced him to make common cause with Britain, France, Italy, and Russia, Wilson insisted that the United States was their "associate" rather than their "ally." Pro-Allied interventionists like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge felt a cultural kinship with Britain, but they were driven by geopolitical, not ideological, concerns. A majority of Americans probably did not identify strongly with either Wilson or Roosevelt. But they knew a threat when they saw one: in early 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare to stop the United States from selling supplies to the Allies. The United States fought World War II to stop a far more pernicious set of international outlaws, and it did so with the help of one of the world's least democratic states.


Finally, Talbott argues, "The American people have never accepted traditional geopolitics or pure balance-of-power calculations as sufficient reason to expend national treasure or to dispatch American soldiers to foreign lands. Throughout this century the U.S. government has explained its decisions to send troops 'over there' with some invocation of democracy and its defense . . . The American people want their country's foreign policy rooted in idealpolitik as well as realpolitik." But this would seem to confuse the desires of the majority of the American people with those of an elite. There is little evidence for the proposition that majorities have supported military intervention because they wished to defend democracy or that they would have failed to do so in the absence of a Wilsonian appeal. A majority supported intervention in 1917 because of the German threat on the high seas. A majority supported intervention in 1941 because of the Japanese attack. A majority supported intervention, up to a point, during the Cold War because of anticommunism, which it was cynical -- or sensible -- enough not to confuse with defending democracy in places like Vietnam.

A majority, too, will support military action after the Cold War for similar reasons: when it feels threatened or aggrieved, and when the human cost is low. The basic weakness of Wilsonianism today is exactly what it was 75 years ago: lack of broad support at home. At various times political leaders have appealed successfully to the public's enlightened self-interest, patriotism, fear, anger, cupidity, or parochial loyalties, but never to its alleged attachment to "idealpolitik." When the Truman administration launched the Marshall Plan, Dean Acheson, as he later recalled in his memoirs, knew that the American people could not be persuaded to pay for that important enterprise "by as Platonic a purpose as combating 'hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos'" -- nor, he certainly would have added, promoting democracy abroad. Despite the Truman administration's rhetorical overkill, it probably had a better sense of the American public's temper in its day than the Clinton State Department does in its own.


A sound foreign policy has to be based on a more accurate notion of what accounts for reliability than the Clinton view. The one indispensable factor in forming reliable partnerships is not democracy or the lack of it, but self-interest, and there is not the slightest reason to think that will change. A sound policy should also be based on a clear notion of how the rest of the world actually sees the United States. Many of the countries that look to the United States for help and protection do not want to adopt the essentials of the American political and economic system and would not be in a position to do so even if they did. One of the more convincing "defenders" of the democratic peace acknowledges that it operates, if at all, only when an American liberal elite believes that a particular country meets its democratic standards, although emotions and misperceptions may affect the elite's judgment, and that same liberal ideology may prod the United States toward war with those who fail the test. It is little wonder that not only ideological rivals but fellow democracies have seen American idealpolitik, the attempt to universalize liberal ideology, as the "will to power cloaked . . . in idealism" -- in other words, imperialpolitik.

A sound policy, finally, has to be based on a historically informed notion of what kind of people Americans really are. The history of the twentieth century clearly indicates that they are neither the fodder for demagogues that realists sometimes suggest nor the aspiring missionaries of liberal dreams. The truth is that, like most people everywhere, Americans simply cannot afford not to put their selfish interests first, and they have generally had a fair idea of where those interests lie. "The truth," as Mencken once said, "would quickly cease to become stranger than fiction, once we got used to what it is."

John L. Harper is Professor of U.S. Foreign Policy and European Studies at the Bologna Center of The Johns Hopkins University.

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