(Bloomberg View) -- Donald Trump doesn’t seem to have much interest in spreading American values abroad. His administration has publicly denigrated the importance of promoting human rights and democracy, and Trump himself has repeatedly shown greater personal affection for dictators than democrats. The Wilsonian tradition in American statecraft –- the practice, most closely associated with America’s 28th president, of using American power to disseminate U.S. ideals and institutions overseas – has been rudely shunted aside.
What is perhaps less appreciated is that this tradition was in deep trouble even before Trump took office. Unless it is reformulated, it will continue to be marginalized after he departs.
As Walter Russell Mead has written, Wilsonianism reaches back even further than the president for which it is named. U.S. policymakers have long believed that America, itself a democracy, will be safer and more influential in a more democratic world. They have therefore sought to prevent aggressive authoritarian powers from dominating the international system, and --albeit with lots of exceptions and decidedly imperfect consistency -- to encourage democratic openings and strengthen human rights in countries from East Asia to the Western Hemisphere.
More recently, however, democracy promotion has become associated with some of America’s greatest foreign policy failures of the 21st century, and it is increasingly seen as an unaffordable luxury in a dangerous world.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not start as Wilsonian undertakings -- they were intended to confront concrete security threats to the United States. Yet both quickly evolved into prolonged nation-building missions that sought to bring democratic governance to troubled societies in the greater Middle East, and both ultimately proved to be costly, unsatisfying, and even perhaps counter-productive. The intervention in Libya in 2011, by contrast, was a classically Wilsonian undertaking from the outset, meant to prevent a ruthless dictator from slaughtering his people and thereby create an opening for democratic reform. Yet by breaking the Libyan regime, the U.S. and its allies helped to create a failed state that become a magnet for jihadists and fostered instability across a wide swath of northern Africa.
The result is that democracy promotion has come to be associated in the public mind with quixotic or even self-defeating crusades. Meanwhile, the return of a more competitive geopolitical environment, rife with great-power conflict and rivalry involving China and Russia, has generated concerns that promoting American political ideals constitutes a sort of strategic profligacy that Washington must now avoid. This was evident in public opinion polling even during the Obama years. In 2001, 29 percent of Americans thought that promoting democracy should be a key policy priority; by 2013, only 18 percent did.
As I argue in my new book, Trump represents a particularly visceral -- and often vulgar -- rejection of this tradition. He has argued that the U.S. lacks the moral authority to promote its form of government abroad; he has seemed more at ease with authoritarians such as Saudi Arabia's Mohammad bin Salman and Russia's Vladimir Putin than with democratic allies such as Germany’s Angela Merkel. He has lauded backsliding democracies such as Turkey and the Philippines for transparently illiberal behavior, and he has argued, in concert with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, that human rights and democracy are distractions from the real business of conducting foreign policy. Yet if Trump has thus marginalized those issues to a degree not seen in decades, he is more the manifestation of democracy promotion’s travails than the cause.
Wilsonianism remains an important pillar of U.S. strategy today, if only because the democratic peace theory -- the idea that democracies do not fight each other -- is the closest thing to an iron law of social science. America’s role as a proponent of the ideal that people everywhere deserve to be free is also a powerful competitive advantage vis-à-vis authoritarian great powers that systematically repress their populations. Junking the promotion of democracy and human rights, as Trump seems inclined to do, would be a grave mistake. But the U.S. will nonetheless need an updated and more modest approach to these issues -- one based on three key principles.
First, promoting human rights and democracy need not entail armed nation-building. Those missions are the most visible, costly and unpopular manifestations of Wilsonianism; but in reality, they represent only the 10 percent of the democracy-promotion iceberg above the water’s surface. The other 90 percent involves support for election-monitoring missions, diplomatic engagement on issues such as human trafficking and other human rights abuses, economic and political support for civil society, and other seemingly mundane measures. These initiatives cost relatively little, but they have been vital in promoting and sustaining democratic breakthroughs in countries from Chile to South Korea to Ukraine over the years. They remain valuable tools today.
Second, as important as these measures are, U.S. policymakers must also selectively temper their Wilsonian urges in dealing with certain states on the frontlines of America’s geopolitical competitions.
To altogether abandon support for democracy and human rights would represent unilateral ideological disarmament in dealing with authoritarian powers -- namely Russia and China -- that are increasingly touting the virtues of their own illiberal systems. But because pushing these issues too strongly can cause severe near-term strains in dealing with some of America’s own allies, some degree of circumspection is essential.
Rodrigo Duterte’s government has committed grievous human-rights violations, but Washington cannot simply blow up its relationship with the Philippines at a critical moment in the struggle with China over control of the South China Sea. Poland has an increasingly illiberal government, but it is also a vital ally in checking Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe. Human rights and political issues cannot be ignored in these relationships -- and egregious abuses such as Duterte’s should never be lauded by an American president -- but neither can they be pursued so strenuously and confrontationally as make essential security cooperation impossible. America’s Wilsonianism has always been selective rather than universal, and the premium on selectivity only rises when strategic rivalry is intense.
Third, the best way of promoting liberal values over the long run is to sustain a broader international system in which democracies, rather than hostile autocracies, are geopolitically dominant -- even if that requires working with friendly authoritarians in the short run. When Woodrow Wilson spoke of making the world safe for democracy during World War I, he was not calling for a crusade to spread democracy across the globe. He was arguing that America must stop authoritarian regimes -- in that case, the Kaiser’s Germany -- from becoming geopolitically dominant in a way that would ultimately make it difficult for democracies anywhere to thrive.
Likewise, during the Cold War, the U.S. regularly cut deals with friendly dictators in China, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the service of containing communism, and thereby preserving an international system in which liberal values could survive and flourish.
Today, the single most important thing the U.S. can do to enhance the long-term prospects for the spread of democracy is to prevent Russia and China from overturning -- or even severely disrupting -- the stable and broadly liberal international system it has long worked to construct. To the extent that Washington can keep China from becoming the supreme power in East Asia, to the extent it can stop Moscow from restoring its lost sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it can create the ideological and geopolitical space for liberal values to flourish -- even if doing so requires cooperating with questionable regimes in Bangkok, Singapore and Warsaw along the way.
American statecraft fares best when it blends high-minded idealism with hard-headed realism. It's exactly the sort of approach that could make Wilsonianism great again.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."
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