Friday, May 09, 2003

Mark Kleiman wrote a long piece about how interventionist foreign policy isn't necessarily "right-wing", as the people being overthrown are often brutal right-wing dictators. Why can't Democrats be for "taking out the bad guys"?

It's an idea I've heard before, and one that I mostly disagree with. There's actually a simple reason, (unknowingly) encapsulated by one of Kleiman's final paragraphs. I might write more on this later, but I'll look at this reason (and one other) now:

The overthrow of the Shah seemed like a good idea at the time, to those of us on the left who didn't know enough to guess what would replace him. Why shouldn't the overthrow of the Iranian theocrats and of the Saudi royal family be desired, on the left -- precisely on the left -- with equal fervency?
There's the rub, Mark... what will replace them? The Shah was a brutal dictator; more to the point, he was a brutal dictator that was installed at the behest of the United States, which probably didn't realize what they were getting into.

That's the problem... there are so many variables that revolutions that seem "like a good idea at the time" turns into something horrible later on. Democracies can easily turn into military dictatorships or militant theocracies, and both of these can turn into failed or collapsed states, which are worse by far. Sure, the Iranian revolution wasn't at the behest of the U.S., but many others have, with similarly poor results. Whether at the behest of conquering powers (as is the case in Iraq) or internal revolution (as was the case in Iran), revolution is a tricky and dangerous tool for change.

In fact, I'd argue that violent revolutions have a pretty poor historical record- just look at what the Russians went through. Instead, I believe that it is a process of political evolution from one system to another that is key to political progress. Look at the peaceful change that we've seen in countries like South Africa and a lot of South America: evolution in action. Heck, here on the North American continent we have an example of evolutionary political change: Canada is a former colony that gained independence without a shot fired, and is just as democratic as its neighbours to the south. There's a lesson from that, which is that American attempts to "export the revolution" (to use the Iranian phrase) isn't necessarily the best way to spread democracy.

Heck, has everybody forgotten that the Ba'athists came to power during a revolution against another autocrat?

There's one other problem with the left turning interventionist in the Bush mold. The left is, last I checked, committed to multilateralism and multilateral bodies. It needs to be. There's no way that left concerns like corporate malfeasance, environmental degradation, human rights problems and a laundry list of other issues can possibly be addressed except on a regional or global level. This cannot be done, however, without multilateral bodies, and there's no way that these bodies can function unless the states that comprise them are confident that these bodies won't attempt to rob them of their sovereignty.

(I don't agree with the "there is no such thing as international law" people, but sovereign states are still the principal actors and will remain so, by definition, for quite a while.)

America can, barely, get away with Bush's rhetoric partially becuase other countries (including other democracies) recognize that it's Bush, and not the political class as a whole. If the left follows in his footsteps, it will indicate that the United States no longer recognizes the concept of sovereignty except when convenient, and will be hard pressed to join or maintain effective membership in these sorts of multilateral bodies. While this may not hurt the U.S. in terms of "big issues", the millions if not billions of international rules, regulations, and agreements that comprise the American interaction with the international system will be severely threatened, if not quickly extinct. This will have a hugely damaging effect on the American economy and American security, one that no amount of military might can cope with. The only other solution would be American global empire, and I'm starting to wonder whether that's even possible.

(And I haven't even got into the other effects yet, like warfare becoming a de rigeur standard for third world countries and regional powers.)

Leftists, Liberals, and Democrats need to recognize this, and recognize (as Bush doesn't) the maxim that "Ought implies Can". Revolutions are dangerous as hell, and the multilateral side effects could be more harmful than any possible benefits to anybody. They need to first and formost promise to repair the damage that Bush has done to America's reputation and its relationship with multilateral institutions.

They also need to recognize that slow processes of political evolution are just as important as flashy (yet dangerous) revolutions, and pledge to spend both time and money (and not necessarily force of arms) supporting democratic movements and fledgling democracies around the globe.

Finally, they need to make their commitment to democracy a global issue, not just a middle eastern one... an America that supports the cause of democracy everywhere, not just where its economic and strategic interests are at stake, is one that will be immune from the vast majority of foreign and domestic critics. Indeed, they might even become supporters. A country that aids democracy where there is no economic or strategic interests is one that should be, and (I believe) will be, roundly supported.

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