Where should democracy and "liberal values" fit in US foreign policy? The question is urgent. On 6 January 2021, armed mobs stormed and sacked the Capitol for the first time since 1814, after incitement by a demagogic US president, Donald Trump. In 2020, Polity, a research scheme that categorises state authority characteristics, downgraded America from democracy to anocracy — a country with both democratic and autocratic features.
Reacting to today's turmoil, some (including writers in this exchange) call on Washington to return to a doctrine of democracy and liberalism — spreading it overseas to secure it at home. Likewise, campaigning to "restore America's soul", President Joe Biden vowed to make democracy central to American statecraft — from convening a summit for democracy, to leading a democratic coalition against authoritarian adversaries, including the likes of Moscow, Pyongyang, and Tehran to Beijing and Caracas. Democracy's spread, the logic goes, will increase peace, proving good for America and good for the world. In practice, this amounts to a liberal empire — seeking to change the interior of other states, to liberate them to do what America wants.
Yet, experience suggests that a missionary posture will lead to disarray, incoherence, and unnecessary embroilment abroad, fuelling further breakdown at home.
Foreign policy exists not for a universal mission. Rather, it is there to protect a nation's political order and way of life. In America's case, its statecraft should serve to secure its constitutional republic. This is difficult because we live in a tragic world of scarce resources, incomplete information, and conflicting interests — a world of plurality. The fact that some countries are ruled by autocrats or illiberal populists is a fact of life, and not necessarily threatening. It is a reality with which any sustainable diplomacy must work.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), America's instrument of hegemony in Europe, historically worked because it pragmatically grouped dissimilar regimes — friendly democracies and dictatorships — to check Soviet power, ranging from authoritarian regimes in Portugal and Greece, to a de factoalliance with Franco's Spain. To maintain the alliance now, it will be necessary to limit democratic evangelism towards Poland, Hungary, and Turkey.
Threats today derive not from "regime type" itself, but from hostile imbalances of power. China menaces US liberty not because it is despotic — that was the case when the two states cooperated. It threatens because of its size and imperial ambition, and its penetration of others' infrastructure and economies. China will struggle to conquer nations, buffered as they are by other great powers and by defensive military technology. However, China can suppress liberty and impose dominance through trading and tech coercion — a kind of techno-authoritarianism. To balance against this outcome, the United States should not over-ideologise the clash — a temptation that could lead to an escalation of hostilities. It will be hard to avoid working with tyrannical or illiberal states and prioritise common security threats over human rights, from Vietnam to India to Indonesia.
"Democracy promotion" sounds consensual and uncontroversial. But when geared to overthrowing governments, it forms part of an imperial repertoire that includes economic warfare ("sanctions"), fomenting revolution, and regime change, not to mention enlarging alliances. Beyond modest measures — providing advice on request, or setting an example — its hazards should be clear, especially after decades of experimentation in the greater Middle East. It overstates the power and foreknowledge of the external party. It potentially harms indigenous reform movements by wrapping them in the American flag. It underestimates the power of nationalism. By taking dead aim at regimes, it attracts resistance, making it harder to achieve progress on other fronts. Regimes are less likely to disarm, or curb emissions, or help regional stability if the superpower is also trying to destroy them. And successful regime change creates winners and losers, incentivising conflict and instability, and moving neighbouring states to balance against the new order. Whether or not democracies are less prone to fight each other, the process of becoming a democracy is typically belligerent. Resulting crises, or even wars, end up wasting the time, resources, and energy of the United States, when recent events demonstrate the need to do more at home. Indeed, continuous armed conflict has contributed to America's present troubles, consuming resources, coarsening politics, and fuelling insurrection.
Washington would be better advised to steer clear of grandiose doctrines and schemes to domesticate the world to its values. Instead, it should be ecumenical, pursuing a tolerable balance of power so that, with enough external equilibrium, the republic can breathe and rebuild.
Ultimately, the attempt once again to make democracy the defining idea of foreign policy may aggravate rather than ease threats to domestic liberty, containing in itself the seeds of authoritarian reaction. After all, we are dealing with the legacy of a president who promised to put "America First", peddled racial bigotry, suppressed dissent, scorned constitutional checks on his authority, and waged campaigns for regime change. The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, showing the closeness of missionary idealism and authoritarianism, continues to cast its shadow.
Professor Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham; Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London; and Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump.