U.S. Foreign Policy

Question: Should America export democracy?

Peter Beinart: I think American presidents have always believed – again, going back certainly to Wilson – by and large that America would be better off if other nations were Democratic. The . . . it’s an old idea, this idea that . . . that democracy is likely to lead to greater peace between nations. I think that’s relatively uncontroversial. The difficult questions become how you promote democracy, and what happens when the desire for democracy conflicts with other national interests you have that are important to American prosperity and security. I think what we’ve seen in Iraq is that . . . is that military force is a . . . is by and large too blunt an instrument to in and of itself bring about democracy. That that is not to say that . . . that . . . that . . . that military force cannot be an instrument in bringing about democracy; but it is very unlikely that you can make the promotion of democracy the central justification for military action. If we go to war because our security is threatened as we did against Germany and Japan in World War II, you can make . . . or in the Korean War, you can make a good argument that if we had had to go to war anyway . . . and certainly if we end our . . . end up occupying other countries, we should make what efforts we can to promote liberalism and democracy in other societies. But I think that . . . that . . . that going . . . that democracy alone cannot be a sufficient justification for war, and that it’s important to distinguish wars that are meant to stop genocides and massive human rights abuses – as, for instance, in Bosnia and Kosovo – and wars against static autocratic states that are . . . that are . . . that are meant to promote democracy. The former . . . the latter is much harder to gain public support for, and I think much harder to fulfill. It’s also . . . I think what we’ve learned is that democracy . . . As some people like to say now, democracy is more than elections. Or put differently, liberalism is more than democracy, which is to say that America is not simply a democracy. We are a liberal democracy, which means . . . which means that 51 percent of the American population, if they elect somebody, can’t do whatever they want to the other 49 percent. We have . . . we have limits on governmental power. We have certain rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights which are virtually impossible to overturn through democratic means. And that those things in an independent judiciary – rights to a free press, rights to assembly, protection of minority rights, rights that rule against discrimination – are fundamentally important if we want democracies to be the kind of . . . of societies that we tend to, when we use the short hand democracy, imagine that they are.

Recorded on: 9/12/07






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