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Freedom’s Untidy: Democracy Promotion and Its Discontents


G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Tony Smith, The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.



The scale of the catastrophe in Iraq—hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead along with more than 4,200 Americans; unknown numbers of wounded and traumatized; several million Iraqis uprooted and exiled; untold numbers of maimed, malnourished, and unemployed; massive damage to the physical country; not to mention the damage done to American diplomacy overall—not only invites a long, hard stare at the wreckage but ignites the question of what to conclude. Almost everyone can agree that “mistakes were made,” but which, by whom, and why? Richard Nixon wrote a book called No More Vietnams, after all. Arguments against repeating the past are perilous, so much so that it might be said that all policy errors are the products of wrong lessons extracted by misplaced analogy—Munich a faulty deduction from 1914, Vietnam a false extrapolation from Munich, and so on. Among the questions that arise now: was the Bush invasion a case of standard-issue American foreign policy at work, or is Iraq what happens when neoconservatives run amok? Was Iraq the wrong war on behalf of what were, nevertheless, the right (Wilsonian) principles? Or was the Iraq war a liberal-minded war with a neoconservative face, and does it therefore discredit the whole liberal internationalist project? This slender volume of sharply argued essays sets out to resolve the debate, and while not ending it, does advance it.

The argument that runs through the book is simply stated. “Was George Bush the heir of Woodrow Wilson?” the Princeton political scientist G. John Ikenberry asks. “Heir” is a cunning usage, for the contributors are debating not simply whether Bush was channeling Wilson but whether he spent down a worthy legacy to the vanishing point. Did Bush apply Wilson’s approach to the world, dragging liberal hawks in tow because they saw a chance to spread democracy and thereby resume the idealist project they carried so close to their hearts? Or did Bush only caricature Wilson in order to co-opt his epigones while, in fact, overthrowing him? Does the disaster in Iraq therefore discredit Wilson once and for all, or invite a return to Wilsonianism as it was meant to be? Is Barack Obama called upon now to purify Wilsonianism or reject it once and for all? Since one of the Crisis of American Foreign Policy authors, Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, has just become Director of Policy Planning for the State Department, the question is not strictly academic.

Slaughter, an international lawyer and political analyst, wants to save Wilsonianism from its evil neoconservative twin. Wilson for her is not only an institutional namesake and a foundational saint of multilateralism but a guide to foreign policy in a world that ought not stand idly by when genocidal governments forfeit their “responsibility to protect” citizens and subjects. She believes that, after Bush, we “face a genuinely Wilsonian moment. Much like after World War I, the world today needs an America committed to working with other nations to build an international order that preserves peace and prosperity through institutions and law.” It’s the last four words that, for her, live and replenish Wilson’s legacy.

To Slaughter, the question of what Woodrow Wilson meant almost a century ago is a good deal more than an invitation to a historical nitpicking festival; the deep question is whether there is anything salvageable not only in the history of American foreign policy but in the recent decades of human rights movements that have sometimes countered it and sometimes furthered it. For polemical purposes, at least, she tends to downplay the ways in which the world Wilson faced is a vanished world. For example, it would seem to this reviewer, who holds no diploma in diplomatic matters, that Slaughter is technically right when she maintains that “Wilson sought not democracy but self-determination.” In Wilson’s Fourteen Points, she writes, “democracy is never mentioned. Not once. What Wilson refers to over and over again is the right of peoples to autonomous development and the sovereign right of nations to political and economic independence and territorial integrity.” Ergo Bush could not have been a Wilsonian. QED.

Slaughter is dead on that self-determination in the age of European empires meant the national rights of minorities. What self- determination was counterposed to, in principle, was obvious. But almost a century on, the notion of self-determination is technically less than coherent. What exactly is the self that is supposed to determine itself? By no stretch of the imagination could any outcome in Iraq have earned the label of self-determination in any meaningful sense. The choice Bush posed for Iraq was between the continuation of Saddam’s tyranny—a tyranny that had, moreover, come to power by illicit means—and an American occupation that only a fantasist (there were many) could see as an advertisement for the good intentions of shock-and-awe specialists. It was the choice between two possible denials of self-determination. In any event, a history of genocides has outrun the sanctity of self-determination. Absolute sovereignty in Bosnia was a sick joke under the guns of Slobodan Milosevic. Rwanda and Darfur ought to shake the confidence of those who absolutely reject humanitarian intervention—as thoroughly as Iraq ought to shake the confidence of those who lightly toss off proposals to “take out” this or that dictator.

Slaughter holds that the sophisticated Wilson “could never have thought democracy could be externally imposed, or that it could be established by the simple expedient of holding elections,” for Wilson understood rather more than George W. Bush how hard democracy is to make—especially from outside. Her colleague-collaborator Ikenberry notes that Wilson did indeed start out quite the “liberal imperialist,” with armed interventions in Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua. “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men,” he proclaimed on July 4, 1914. (It is hard to overlook the sinister prefiguration of Kissinger’s 1970 interpretation in the case of Chile: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”) The historian Thomas J. Knock would seem to have it right, in his contribution to this volume, when he maintains that Wilson came to multilateralism the hard way—by trying unilateralism and discovering what a botch it led to. “In the end,” Knock writes, “partly because of his own interventions, Wilson came to believe that, except in the case of unprovoked attack, there were probably no circumstances that could justify unilateral military action on the part of the United States (or of any other great power).” This is a Wilsonian conclusion that remains compelling almost a
century later.



The claim that “the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 [was] a Wilsonian undertaking” falls to the political scientist Tony Smith, who locates Wilsonianism in the president’s war message of April 2, 1917: “A steadfast concern for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations.” It’s a straight shot, Smith believes, from this declaration to Bush’s National Security Strategy of 2002 (“the duty of protecting [freedom, democracy, and free enterprise] . . . against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe….”) and his Second Inaugural of 2005:

The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands . . . So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

Smith argues further that, while the military side of the Bush doctrine—preventive war (he calls it “preemption”), unilateralism, and preponderant military power—is of neoconservative authorship, the “basic terms” of the Bush Doctrine were actually “conceived by those who might be called the ‘neoliberals,’ intellectuals mostly to the left of the Republican Party.” Democratic peace theory was of liberal provenance by way of Kant. No less a liberal philosopher than John Rawls embraced this “realistic utopia.” The post-1989 giddiness of human rights zealots flourished along with an international legal movement that embraced the “‘duty to intervene’ if a state’s ‘responsibility to protect’ were not honored.” The 1990s became the decade of “progressive imperialism.” The way was clear for the Bush Doctrine, “a cross-fertilization by first cousins, the neoconservatives and the neoliberals.” Even NSS 2002, Smith writes, “repeatedly saluted the virtues of multilateralism.” He might have added that Bush, foiled in the UN Security Council, summoned a “coalition of the willing,” from 45,000 Britons at the start all the way down to 545 Danes, 240 Albanians, 230 (pre-Ortega) Nicaraguans, 51 Filipinos, 40 Estonians, 29 Kazakhstanis, and 24 Moldovans, among others.

Accordingly, Smith views liberals’ multilateralism as different from Bush’s unilateralism only trivially, differing only “in means rather than ends.” There is, he insists, a neoliberal-neoconservative, Republican-Democratic consensus on “progressive imperialism.” A Princeton Project on National Security manifesto produced in 2006 under the directorship of Ikenberry and Slaughter, advocating a more representative Security Council, a “Concert of Democracies,” and the spread of liberalizing legal reforms, is to Smith “no more than a reformulation of the Bush Doctrine achieved through multilateralizing its terms.” The very vigor with which they assert “the need for collective action,” Smith insists, “gives rise to the suspicion that for Slaughter, as for most liberal internationalists still today, multilateralism is a code word for a form of American leadership indistinguishable from a hegemonic project . . . a disguised formula for what in practice may amount to unilateralism . . . a code word for American hegemony.” In Smith’s consulting room, the louder you insist that you love your father, the more desperately you are trying to conceal that you really want to kill him.



The easy way out of the conundrum of what is usable in Wilsonianism today would be to say that Wilson cannot be held responsible for Bush in the slightest because Bush’s Wilsonian arguments for the invasion were his fallback position; he didn’t trundle them out until his opening arguments proved threadbare. The claim that this was a war to make Iraq safe for democracy came late in the game. Only the most unregenerate of Kool-Aid drinkers can forget that the Bush administration initially maintained that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction; that he had not only declared but demonstrated his willingness to use them; that he had also been in cahoots with al-Qaeda; and therefore the war was a war of defense—a preventive war that was actually more like a pre-emptive war because, in the memorable words of then national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” As Ikenberry put it in a comment entitled “A Wilsonian Family Quarrel?” on Talking Points Memo in 2005, “The Iraq war itself was not really a case of failed humanitarian intervention—so it can’t really be used to discredit the whole enterprise. Bush rationalized the war on other grounds.”

There is technical accuracy in the protestation that Bush refrained from making Wilsonian arguments in his first pass at a justification of war, but to let this be the end of the matter would be decidedly naive. For to ask what exactly Bush’s motives were is to assume that Bush had coherent motives—a position for which evidence is not lavish. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were disposed to attack Saddam Hussein before September 11, 2001. This does not mean that the al-Qaeda attacks were a “pretext”—it was a heavy weight on their scales. But I know of no evidence that they weighed their judicious way through the pluses and minuses. There is far more evidence that the Bush group knew what they wanted and sorted through reasons to justify it. When consulting among themselves—their favorite consultants—they moved some reasons up the list and others down for the sake of bureaucratic management and public relations. At the end of the day, as Paul Wolfowitz told Sam Tanenhaus (then of Vanity Fair) in May 2003: “The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason, but . . . there have always been three fundamental concerns. One is weapons of mass destruction, the second is support for terrorism, the third is the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people. Actually I guess you could say there’s a fourth overriding one which is the connection between the first two.” Neither Bush, Cheney, nor Rumsfeld, who of course ranked above Wolfowitz, has ever offered a more cogent explanation—not that this one is exactly coherent. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Bush was in the grip of an impulse wrapped in an instinct in pursuit of a policy. Say what you will about Wilson, but it is hard to say that his foreign policy was so foggy and bewitched.



To the impossible project of “spreading democracy,” in Bush’s sense of jump-starting an unending war against evildoers, Slaughter counterposes the liberal internationalism of “supporting liberal democratic parties and institutions in countries determining their own political future.” The way she wants to “stand for democracy around the world” is through “patient support for the building of the political, economic, and social institutions necessary to support liberal democracy on a country by country basis.” When she says patient, she means patient: Wilson, in her reading, meant “not months or years, but decades.” Slaughter is mindful that liberal internationalism is not a bean bag. One way or the other, risk is unavoidable. If the absence of intervention may be measured in blood, so may the consequences of miscalculation. And no algorithm can compute them. Yet Slaughter is unwilling to abandon hope that some such computation is feasible. The magnitude of her hope leads her to overestimate the possibility of “calculation in terms of the impact [of intervention] on the social and economic microfoundations of a society.” Can we speak of “calculation” in the face of the incalculable? Slaughter would say that we have no choice but to try. But in a properly chastened post-Iraq mood, she seems to realize that the burden of proof is on those who want to err on the side of intervention, however legitimate, however multilateral. The default position tilts against armed intervention. “The necessity of calculating the impact of forcible intervention on the ability of a society to reconstruct itself adds another bulwark against the reckless use of the responsibility to protect to license such intervention.” The purpose of this sentence is to erect a barrier against cavalier missions impossible.

Unlike Bush, Slaughter does nuance. Nuance is, indeed, the necessary condition of diplomacy. But the proof of a general policy is in the pudding, and in this case the pudding is awfully messy. “Defending democracy means fighting the enemies of democracy,” she writes, “which is a very different proposition from being a champion of democracy and seeking to spread it to other nations.” The difficult question is, fighting the enemies of democracy how? Which enemies? What if fighting some enemies entails allying with other enemies? If a tyrannical regime defines even the most nonviolent aid to civil society NGOs as a violation of sovereignty, what is a multinational coalition, even one composed of saints, to do? When are indigenous democrats strengthened with foreign help, and when are they tainted? Much more needs to be said. In a more extended treatment it would be good to hear which kind of outside support democracy activists think helps them, and which harms them, and which is infuriatingly indeterminate. There are lessons to be drawn from Eastern and Central Europe before 1989, from the so-called color revolutions, and from many other places. It would be useful to inventory them and see if general conclusions are possible.

At least Slaughter upholds a presumption against both the use of force and the promulgation of millenarian ambitions. She recognizes that declaring the enemy to be “‘evil’ is far too subjective and emotive a determination to serve as a foundation for decisions that can themselves loose the death and destruction that will accompany any use of force.” In extreme cases, the “responsibility to protect” may enjoin multilateral intervention, but “even the most expansive interpretation of the responsibility to protect would not have authorized the invasion of Iraq in 2003.” (Whether the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was justified on human rights grounds, or is justified now, is a question that none of the contributors grapples with.) She wants a permissive line drawn in the spirit of Wilson, and insists that Wilsonian standards would have permitted the interventions in East Timor, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Darfur—not to mention the successful preventive deployment in Macedonia. In a comment of her own on Talking Points Memo in 2005, she reminded her readers that “the British intervened in Sierra Leone to stop some of the most horrific atrocities the world has ever witnessed (lopping off limbs of anyone who dared oppose the rebels) and succeeded in a way that suggests to me that a similar intervention in Rwanda could in fact have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and stopped a conflict that continues today in Eastern Congo.” Even a roster of such “exceptional cases,” she insists now, “would not lower the threshold enough to sanction the neocon war in Iraq.”

The global financial meltdown undermines the prospects for even the most morally plausible collective interventions in the near term. The Iraq debacle will bolster the presumption against external force for some time to come—and rightly so. This is another of George W. Bush’s accomplishments. He has made the world safe, in the foreseeable future, for tyranny and impunity.

Todd Gitlin is professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.

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