CIAO DATE: 9/00
Wilsonianism Resurgent? The Clinton Administration and American Democracy Promotion in the late 20th Century
Michael CoxInternational Studies Association
Each time at the end of the two great wars that did so much to shape the course of the twentieth century, the United States attempted to define the outlines of a new world order? one that would not only make all the sacrifice seem worthwhile but over time lay the foundation for a more open and ultimately more democratic international system. 1 Just how seriously American policymakers took their own rhetoric in 1919 and 1945 has, of course, been the subject of a good deal of anguished comment; and while supporters feel that US efforts to make the world a better place should be taken at face value, others have dismissed such visions as so much rhetorical hot air either designed to mask its larger hegemonic ambitions or likely to lead to a dangerous American over-commitment.
It was George Kennan who, perhaps more than anybody else, articulated the most persuasive critique of what he termed this diplomacy of dilettantism; and in a powerful broadside written in 1951 he lambasted the tendency of substituting moral and legal formulae for careful calculations about national interest. 2 Written when the US was engaged in a bitter ideological crusade against communism, his beautifully crafted polemic, delivered in the intellectual home of realism at the University of Chicago, was interpreted as much as an attack upon the excesses of the cold war as an attack upon the ambitious plans of Wilson and Roosevelt. His more general point, however? that America had always been inclined to substitute hard thinking about the balance of power with dubious idealistic statements about how the world ought to be rather than how it was? was one that strongly influenced the way many Americans tended to think about their past. It was also repeated regularly thereafter: by other realists like the influential Hans J. Morgenthau, who originally encouraged Kennan to set down his thoughts on paper; by more centrist opponents of the Vietnam War like George Ball; by those attempting to sell superpower détente to an increasingly sceptical American public in the 1970s; and finally by all those opposed to Ronald Reagans tough stance against the evil empire better known as the USSR. It is remarkable, in fact, how frequently those opposed to what they saw as the less acceptable face of American foreign policy after 1950 often turned to Kennan and what they believed was his sound advice to the United States to behave more like a normal country and less like a political crusade. Reading later attacks on realists, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that they had been apologists for the excesses of the cold war rather than some of its more effective intellectual opponents. 3
With the end of the cold war, one might have predicted that this persistent and somewhat overheated debate would have died. But this was not to be. Indeed, the apparent urge in some quarters to build a new world order and in others to find a new post-cold war mission for the United States led to renewed speculation that America was once again succumbing to the old temptation of wanting to refashion the international system in its own liberal democratic image. Even George Bush was not immune to the disease? or so it was suggested? but at least he had sufficient experience not to be seduced by the siren calls of political idealism. 4 The same, it seemed, could not be said of the less experienced Clinton. Guided by his own liberal instincts, buoyed up by electoral victory over the republicans in 1992, and keen to develop a doctrine of his own in a world without a clear point of ideological opposition, Clinton, it was argued, soon gave in to those calling for a new foreign policy based on principle rather than considerations of power. For this he was severely assailed and soon came under fire from a battery of opponents who pointed out that, while the idea of promoting freedom was all very well in theory, in practice it provided policymakers with little or no guide as to how to deal with a host of pressing problems on an everyday basis. It also ignored the obvious lesson of history, which taught that a policy based on the virtues of democracy was bound to fail. One only had to look at what had happened after Word War I to see this. From this perspective, it was thus most unfortunate that the Clinton administration had fallen for the old Wilsonian fallacy of trying to make other countries assume a form of government for which they were probably not suited and almost certainly unwilling to adopt. As one of Clintons many critics pointed out, while Wilsonianism embodied a legitimate, enduring and uniquely American approach to foreign policy, as a tradition it had proven to be less than useful when it came to dealing with the real world of autocratic enemies and friends, powerful economic competitors, and limited American resources. 5
This chapter seeks neither to defend Clinton nor to endorse his critics. Instead, it tries to explore the many facets of democracy promotion as a grand strategy after 1992. It begins, however, not with a general statement of principle but by examining the fairly concrete reasons why the Clinton administration opted for the strategy of democratic enlargement in the first place. Let me be clear. There is little doubt that there was far more continuity in this particular policy area than either Clinton or Bush cared to admit. 6 It is also clear that Clinton rather effectively used the issue of democracy to put clear blue water between himself and Bush during the presidential campaign. 7 Furthermore, having raised the issue in 1992, Clinton then had to spend a good deal of his time sorting out the mess his earlier promises had created. To this extent, Clinton was hoist with his own electoral petard, and this is one of the reasons? amongst others? why American foreign policy appeared to be in such disarray and confusion after he assumed office. 8 But none of this really helps us understand why Clinton played the democratic card in the process of constructing his foreign policy. 9 Nor would it explain why, in spite of the various attacks made upon the policy, his administration continued to emphasize its attachment to democracy promotion? a point that was affirmed in a major statement outlining national security objectives in February 1996, 10 and restated in no uncertain terms a few months later in an important article authored by the Deputy Secretary of State and published in Foreign Affairs. 11
This in turn raises a second question: to what extent was the Clinton administration ever as idealistically committed to the promotion of democracy as its critics suggested and its own rhetoric sometimes seemed to imply? Certainly, to read some commentators, one could easily conclude that Clinton and his team were the most naive of foreign policy practitioners, carelessly intervening here and there to promote the cause of political freedom around the world. Abandoning the truths of realism and jumping on the liberal bandwagon, the new Democratic leadership, it was argued, was leading America into very dangerous waters indeed. As I shall try to show, this attack against the purported idealism of the Clinton administration probably tells us much less about Clinton than it does about his various critics. Obviously, he and his administration saw definite advantages in supporting the cause of democracy. However, Clinton was hardly a liberal Rambo in search of new frontiers to conquer. Pragmatic in outlook and keen to assuage key domestic constituencies, ultimately he always viewed democracy promotion as a policy instrument to advance American power rather than as a moral duty. Thus, if he supported the cause of democracy, he did not do so for classically liberal reasons, but because he felt this supported US national security and Americas economic goals in the wider international system.
This logically brings us to a third issue: the complex relationship between democracy promotion and Clintons stated goal of aggressively pursuing Americas foreign economic objectives. This is an especially important area given that his administration not only saw the need to pursue both goals, but, unlike many of its more vocal opponents, saw no necessary contradiction between the two. In fact, what is so striking about the Clinton administration is the extent to which it seemed to see no real difference at all between politics and economics. Certainly, in its own mind it saw them as being intimately connected rather than mutually opposed. The market, it was believed, provided the only suitable material foundation for democracy democracy being the most obvious superstructural accompaniment to the market. 12 The question this leads to, inevitably, is why Clinton administration viewed the relationship between the two spheres in this way, and why it thought and acted as if democracy and markets were mutually compatible.
The issue of Clintons apparent naivety and attachment to the ideals of Wilsonianism necessarily raises a fourth, more historical, question about how we, or more precisely the practitioners of foreign policy, construct or read the past. This is not just of academic importance. As Ernest May has pointed out in his classic study of the cold war, it was precisely the manner in which US foreign policymakers understood the past, and in particular the history of the 1930s and the nature of Hitlers Germany, that helped shape the international history of the 1950s and US views of the Soviet Union. 13 In the same way, I would want to suggest that a large part of the current debate about democracy promotion has been very much determined not just by an agreed set of facts about the past, but by a particular and in many ways none too accurate reading of what happened after World War I under Woodrow Wilson, possibly the most misunderstood and difficult to understand foreign policy president of the twentieth century. Seen by the foreign policy community today as the quintessential symbol of American utopianism, his role in history was altogether more complicated. And significantly, whereas contemporary pundits have a very clear picture of what Wilsons purpose was, historians of the Wilson presidency are deeply divided about his role. 14 It might therefore be useful to explore this issue? partly to set the record straight, partly to see who it was exactly that Clinton purportedly was trying to emulate, and partly to deconstruct what seems to have become one of the most overused and misleading terms of the modern period: Wilsonianism.
Finally, and very briefly, I want to take up an issue raised in the critically important volume by Michael Hunt on the relationship between ideology and US foreign policy. In a major reinterpretation of American diplomatic history, Hunt suggests that the outlook of policymakers has been shaped less by a desire to advance democracy than by other, rather less idealistic, notions. Indeed, according to Hunt, it was not political freedom in general that has inspired the United States from the late nineteenth century onwards, but a fear of instability combined? until the late 1960s? with a belief in the natural hierarchy of races. Hunt may or may not be right, but his challenging argument forces us to confront the age-old issue of the extent to which America has ever had a singular mission to promote democracy. 15 It also raises the equally important problem of what America exports to the rest of the world. Democracy may indeed be part of the overall package, but as all presidents, including Clinton, have discovered, the United States is bound to promote more than just its highest political ideals. Given its tempestuous past, the complexity of its social system, the diversity of its people, the dynamism of its economy and its sheer weight within the international system, it could not be otherwise.
However, before turning to this issue, let us go back to the beginning and the rather surprising election of Bill Clinton? a man with enormous political skills but without any real experience in foreign policy.
Clinton and the Politics of Promoting Democracy
Bill Clinton was both the first elected post-cold war president and the first new Democrat to occupy the White House. More concerned with domestic issues than with international affairs, his most pressing task, as he perceived it, was to build upon and extend his base of support at home. The most obvious means of achieving this, he felt, was by doing nothing rash abroad while focusing like the metaphorical laser beam on the one issue which almost certainly won him power in 1992: the belief that he could more effectively manage the American economy than George Bush. 16 The fact that Bush had not been helped in his bid for a second term by what the electors saw as his preoccupation with global issues only convinced the new Clinton team that it had to approach foreign policy with very great care. Above all, it had to avoid any unnecessary commitments and, in particular, ensure that there would be no military casualties in conflicts in faraway places whose names ordinary Americans would not recognize and whose importance to their lives appeared to be entirely marginal. Always sensitive to public opinion, and determined not to sacrifice his presidency on the altar of foreign wars, Clintons foreign policy inclinations were from the outset extraordinarily cautious, even minimalist. 17
This not illogical response by the administration to the world as it was did not, of course, mean it had no foreign policy at all. Nor is to imply that Clinton himself was uninterested in the world at large. He had after all made some effort to articulate a vision for the world in his campaign to become president, notably in his Georgetown speech of December 1991. Nonetheless, his concentrated focus on the home front did leave him open to the charge of being indifferent to international affairs and unwilling to forge an over-arching vision to guide the United States through the uncharted waters created by the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It was this, in part, that led to what Brinkley has rather tellingly referred to as the Kennan sweepstakes - a bureaucratically driven exercise organized in late 1993 to come up with a notion or phrase that would most accurately encapsulate the foreign policy design of the Clinton presidency. Fearful of rhetorical overkill, but concerned to show a degree of serious thinking about Americas role in the world, the term ultimately decided upon was democratic enlargement. The phrase appeared to have many political advantages. It was conceptually simple; it pointed to the self-evident fact that with the end of the cold war the possibilities of expanding the zone of political freedom had grown enormously; and, unlike all the self-proclaimed competitors like clash of civilizations, it had a positive rather than a negative sound to it. It also had an end goal in mind, though one so distant that it would be almost impossible to know whether the policy was really succeeding. For an administration keen to keep negative foreign policy news off the airwaves and the front pages of the major newspapers, this was not an unimportant consideration. 18
The point at which the notion of enlargement became official policy is not entirely clear. The consensus would seem to be, however, that after some period of discussion? though much less than one would have expected? it was finally adopted in the autumn of 1993. It was certainly alluded to by the apparently less than enthusiastic Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, in a speech he made at Columbia University on 20 September 1993. It was then made the centrepiece of a far more important address made at the School of Advanced International Studies by Anthony Lake, Clintons National Security adviser. Two days later, Madeleine Albright referred to it in a speech at the Naval War College. And finally, in a keynote statement to the United Nations on 27 September, the president himself talked quite openly about Americas overriding purpose to expand and strengthen the worlds community of market-based democracies. Presumably having had three of his most important foreign policy advisers float the idea to largely academic gatherings, Clinton decided it was time to give the idea of enlargement the official seal of approval. The fact that he chose to do so before a mainly international audience, and not an American one, was perhaps a measure of the importance to which he now attached to the notion. 19
The launch of any big foreign policy idea is of necessity a potentially problematic exercise. Other more pressing issues, like the cost of housing and interest rates, are likely to be of greater concern to the average American. Moreover, unless the idea in question can capture the public imagination or play upon popular fears, it is likely to be greeted with indifference rather than enthusiasm? particularly so in a country whose people are not known for their interest in the outside world. No doubt for all these reasons? and more? enlargement turned out to be what one observer has called a public relations dud, with few, it seems, taking more than a passing interest in the possibility, as Lake put it, of strengthening and extending the community of core major market democracies. 20 Even those who did take the trouble to decode its meaning could not detect anything especially original. Republicans in particular? though apparently not Newt Gingrich? viewed the whole idea as little more than window dressing designed to hide the fact that the emperor was conceptually naked when it came to foreign policy. Certainly, the general consensus seemed to be that a great opportunity had been lost, and that, instead of permitting the US to make the necessary transition from containment to something more appropriate for the post-cold war world, the whole exercise had led only to confusion. 21 Clinton and his foreign policy team may have done a lot of hard thinking but there was very little, it seemed, to show for it all. Lake in particular came in for some especially tough comment, and the conclusion seemed to be that, although he was a decent human being, he was no Henry Kissinger or even a Zbigniew Brzezinski. Concepts, it seemed, did not become him. He was, to use the title of a slashing review of the man who had set out to win the Kennan stakes, Lake Inferior. 22
Promoting Democracy Promotion
If the idea of democracy promotion did not fire the imagination of the American people, it did not do a great deal to quieten Clintons political enemies. Even more moderate figures within the foreign policy establishment had their doubts. This was perhaps to be expected. For a generation hand-reared on the truths of realism and the doctrine of power politics, the idea that a change in the form of other countries governments would enhance US security must have sounded a little odd, especially coming from someone so inexperienced in the ways of the world as Bill Clinton. 23 The response by the White House to these various criticisms, however, was not to sound the retreat but to mount a fairly muscular defence of the policy. Refusing to see the world in simple binary terms in which there were fine moral principles on one side and the real world on the other, and convinced in its own mind that democracy promotion was not just some idealistic add-on but something that would actually enhance world order, the administration thus decided to soldier on? partly because it would have been politically damaging to have abandoned the policy, but more obviously because it felt there were good reasons to sustain it. The question is: why?
One small part of the answer lies in the American experience and the widely shared belief that the United States was not just a successful democracy but a shining example for others to follow. 24 Clinton, in fact, was quite adamant that the character of a nations foreign policy had to reflect its core values; and there was nothing more important in the American value system, he believed, than the principle of democracy. This, in the words of the title of a famous study by the historian Daniel Boorstin, was an essential part of the American genius. 25 But this was not all. While theorists of a more realist persuasion might try to build neat conceptual walls between the international system and domestic politics, Clinton refused to. In his view there was a close, almost intimate, connection between the two spheres. They were, as he pointed out, two sides of the same coin. As he made clear in an early speech defining US strategy in the post-cold war era, in the new world where so much had changed it was absolutely vital to tear down the wall in our thinking between domestic and foreign policy. This was necessary if America wanted to compete economically, and it was essential too if it wished to promote a more stable international system. 26
This outlook was allied with another, equally important idea: the notion that democracy had become the political gold standard of the late twentieth century. Talbott put the case particularly forcefully to a largely British audience in speech delivered at Oxford University in October 1994. The world had altered beyond recognition over the past 25 years, he noted, with dictatorships from Latin America to the old Soviet bloc finally succumbing to the attractive pull of democracy. This had not only changed the lives of millions of people but had forced those who once believed otherwise to accept the self-evident truth that democracy was the best form of political organization. 27 The facts? for once? spoke for themselves. As official US figures showed, in 1972 there had been 44 democracies in the world: 21 years later there were 107, 28 leaving very few outside the democratic fold. 29 Moreover, those that remained would never be regarded as wholly legitimate in a world where, according to Huntington, democracy had become the norm. 30 Hence, why oppose the inevitable? 31 Why stand against the tide of history? Indeed, why not ride the liberal wave and give it a nudge in the right direction? This not only made intellectual sense. From an American perspective it made foreign policy sense as well.
The assumption that democracy represented the wave of the future also became connected in the administrations mind with a theorem made popular by political theorists like Michael Doyle and Bruce Russett: namely, that for a variety of structural and cultural reasons, democracies in general tended not to go to war with each other. 32 Possibly no other idea emanating from the academic community exercised as much influence as this one on the White House. To be sure, the more general relationship between war and political forms was, as Warren Christopher conceded, a complex one; and he agreed that it would be far too simple to conclude that democracies were incapable of aggression or that war was always caused by dictatorship. 33 Nevertheless, there was very strong evidence to support the more specific argument that democracies behaved peacefully toward each other. Clinton certainly seemed to believe so, and as early as December 1991 noted that it should matter to the United States how others govern themselves; for, as he pointed out, using words once confined to the classroom, democracies dont go to war with each other. 34 Talbott later went even further. In his view, the proposition was not just a self-evident truth or a bromide, but represented a fundamental law of politics. Indeed, in his opinion, it was as close as were ever likely to get in political science to an empirical truth. 35
Finally, the administration backed the idea of enlargement because it was convinced that democracy more generally contributed to global stability and security, especially in those countries that were in transition from communism to capitalism. 36 Here, it argued, democracy was absolutely essential if nations like Ukraine and Russia were to become normal members of the international community. 37 The same political rule also applied to the old Third World where democracy, it was felt, might even help alleviate suffering and poverty. Talbott in fact believed there was a close relationship between democratic forms and food supply, and cited the famous economist Amartya Sen to the effect that famines did not occur where democracy flourished. 38 Clinton added a few more advantages to the ever-lengthening list, and noted, in a significant speech made before his election to the White House, that democracies did not sponsor terrorist acts; they were reliable trading partners; they protected the global environment; and they abided by international law. They were also likely to be more friendly towards the United States. Here he cited the examples of France and the United Kingdom. They had once been rivals of the US; and they possessed nuclear weapons. But precisely because they were members of the larger democratic club nobody seriously saw either as a threat. Hence, even though they had the capacity to destroy the United States, Americans did not fear annihilation at their hands, not because they did not possess the means, but because they shared the same political values. The existence of democracy in other countries, therefore, was not merely reassuring but of vital importance to American security. As Clinton noted, how others governed themselves was not a matter about which the United States could be indifferent. 39
Clinton: The Pragmatic Crusader
The administrations strong defence of democracy promotion as a policy objective was certainly consistent. Yet at the same time, Clinton and his various aides were extremely careful not to oversell the policy? a point often overlooked by critics. Clinton, however, was adamant. His administration would attempt to situate US grand strategy within the larger American democratic tradition, all the time implying that Bush had failed to do so. But it would not engage in what he more than once referred to as reckless crusades to expand the realm of international freedom; 40 and Clinton made it abundantly clear that he would not be doing so in an important, but rarely cited, speech he made on the campaign trail in 1992. Speaking to an enthusiastic student audience in the University of Wisconsin, Clinton was at his rhetorical best as he denounced Bushs poor record on democracy promotion. Bush, he claimed, was too much of a realist and as a result tended to coddle dictators rather than support liberal values abroad. But he then went on to stress that, if he were elected to the White House, he would not be upsetting established US relations with important autocratic allies either. China in particular had nothing to fear from a Clinton administration. I will say again, I do not want isolate China, he emphasized. Nor, it seems, did he want to alienate other countries of equally dubious political probity. America, he accepted, had a special destiny. But this did not mean it could, or would, force its ideals on other people. Our actions abroad, he agreed, had always to be tempered with prudence and common-sense. After all, he continued, there were some countries and some cultures that were many steps away from democratic institutions and it would be foolish to think they could adopt democratic forms overnight. Moreover, though the United States under his leadership would do more than its predecessor to support the cause of democracy with tax dollars? for instance, by establishing a democracy corps and reinforcing the work of the bipartisan National Endowment for Democracy? it would not act rashly or without due consideration to Americas other obligations. As he pointed out, there would be times when other security needs or economic interests would compromise Americas commitment to democracy and human rights. Democracy promotion, he thus suggested, was not a moral duty that would override all other goals, but one objective amongst a host of others that would help guarantee Americas place in a complex international system. 41
Lake was equally clear on this point, and again, in a little noted part of a much-cited speech, was insistent that the strategy of enlargement was bound to be hedged in by what he defined as a host of caveats. We have to be patient, he warned; our strategy must be pragmatic, he went on. Our interests in democracy and markets do not stand alone . . . other American interests at times will require us to befriend and even defend non-democratic states for mutually beneficial reasons. 42 Talbott made much the same argument. In a powerful defence of the administrations policy of democracy promotion, he attacked the critics? isolationists and realists alike? for failing to understand why it was in Americas interest to support democracy in certain countries. But he was equally careful to distinguish between a policy driven by ideals alone and one? Clintons? guided by enlightened self-interest. He was equally keen to point out that for the United States, the attractions and advantages of supporting democracy abroad must be balanced against other strategic interests; and, he added significantly, against the difficulty of sponsoring transitions that will inevitably entail a degree of disruption, if not instability. Support for democracy, he concluded, was not an absolute imperative. 43
These indications of a clear willingness to compromise did not go entirely unnoticed, especially by those in the corporate sector who perhaps had most to lose if the United States attempted to sacrifice its economic relations with influential authoritarian regimes on the altar of democratic principle. But the more business leaders heard from Clinton about the supreme importance of Americas role in an increasingly globalized economy, the less they tended to worry about his unalloyed commitment to democracy promotion. His many speeches on the importance of American economic power in the world, his repeated references to the need to compete and win in the global marketplace, and his upgrading of economics at all levels of the foreign policy bureaucracy could only have reassured them that there was little to fear from this most pro-business of Democratic administrations. Clinton himself certainly did not give the impression of someone willing to exchange US economic influence for some distant prospect of democratization in countries such as China or Saudi Arabia. As he stressed in one of his most important interventions outlining US foreign policy, under his leadership the main aim would be to promote American economic power and make trade a priority element of American security. Naturally enough, he would support democracy and human rights where it was feasible to, but never? it was implied? to the same degree or with the same seriousness as he would back American business efforts in the international economy. 44
Clintons stress on the importance of economics in US foreign policy was married to an equally strong attachment to the tools of traditional statecraft. Indeed, in spite of appearances, Clinton was in many ways a most orthodox president when it came to defining American interests, and time and again he reiterated the simple but important point that what had worked before and brought the United States victory in two world wars and the cold war? namely, strong alliances and an even stronger military? would not be abandoned in his time. Anthony Lake made much the same point in two key speeches made in 1994. Designed in large part to reassure the realists that the Clinton administration was not about to unlearn the lessons of the past, Lake went out of his way to stress the centrality of military force in world politics in general and American diplomacy in particular. He also made it clear that while it was in Americas interest to enlarge the community of democracies, democracy promotion could not be made to bear all, or even most of, the weight of US national security. The world was simply too ruthless a place to abandon the traditional tools of international diplomacy. Democracy promotion was obviously important, he conceded; and a democratic world was more likely to be prosperous and peaceful than one which was not. But in the last analysis, he noted with Achesonian gravitas, there was no substitute for power. Power without diplomacy, he accepted, was dangerous. However, diplomacy disconnected from power usually fails. America would continue to negotiate from a position of strength. 45
But perhaps the most significant indication of the administrations pragmatic approach was the manner in which it assessed the role of previous American presidents? including Woodrow Wilson, the personification of the idealistic strain in American foreign policy in the twentieth century. Wilson, it was readily accepted, was a great Democratic president. But there were others too, and while Clinton himself paid homage to Wilson, he seemed to have more time for more traditional occupants of the White House like Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, leaders whose policies were as hard-headed as they were sometimes ruthless and whose commitment to democracy promotion never overrode their more general desire to balance the power of the Soviet Union. Moreover, though Wilson had much to recommend him, he also had his weaknesses. Hence, it would be foolish to slavishly follow his example. Lake made this argument in a key statement which revealed the administrations attitude towards democracy promotion as much as, if not more than, its attitude toward Wilson himself. Wilson, he agreed, had it right when he argued that principles matter and that power unhinged from principle will leave us rudderless and adrift. Wilson was also correct to insist that what happened within nations was fundamental to what happened among them. In this sense, he was an especially important president whose core beliefs about the value of spreading democracy to other nations remained more relevant than ever. But he was not without his faults. The most obvious was a tendency to employ lofty rhetoric which suggested the US would be engaged on a mission impossible to make the world safe for democracy. The consequence of this, unfortunately, was to create the impression that the nation would be playing too global a role, something that frightened the American people back into the very isolationism Wilson was seeking to combat. Equally misguided was his reliance on and ill-founded confidence in the power of morality to reshape the international order after 1919. Though commendable at one level, this approach left America and the world without the means to deter aggression and safeguard the peace. The results were catastrophic; and while it would be unfair to blame Wilson for what happened thereafter, his vain attempt to build a new world order on idealism alone contributed, albeit indirectly, to the several crises that followed. And it was only when the US had learned the lessons of its past mistakes that it could play a meaningful international role.
The implications of Lakes foray into history were obvious. The Clinton administration would be building upon the legacy of Wilson, but it would be drawing its real inspiration from those who were present at creation after 1945, and who in Lakes opinion constructed a stable world that was neither naively liberal in the Wilsonian sense nor relentlessly realist in the conservative sense. As Lake observed, Today it is the spirit of the post-World War II generation that we need to recapture in forging a coalition of the centre. This would draw upon Wilson, albeit selectively, but it would also draw upon realism as well. Only in this way could the US forge a foreign policy for a rapidly changing world without overcommitting American resources or raising false expectations. 46
Towards a Political Economy of Democracy Promotion
The Clinton administrations careful efforts to plot a course in foreign policy that it quite consciously regarded, and referred to as being, neither rigidly Wilsonian nor classically realist 47 in character was often lost on opponents from both left and right: the former because they could see no difference between Clintons grand strategy and those of his various predecessors, the latter because, apparently, they could see too many. But what critics also seemed to pass over in silence was the administrations rather interesting attempt to relate the politics of democracy promotion to the economics of the global market. Yet Talbott made a very direct connection between the two. In an increasingly interdependent world, he noted in the context of a more general effort to spell out the national interest reasons for promoting democracy, Americans had a growing stake in how other countries govern or misgovern themselves. This had not always been true, but a combination of factors technological, commercial as well as political were shortening distances, opening borders, and connecting far-flung cultures and economies. This had its upside, but it also posed new dangers as narcotics, criminals, terrorists, even viruses, moved more quickly across borders. To control this required cooperation; this in turn presupposed democracy; and the larger and more close-knit the community of nations that choose democratic forms of government the less risk there was from these various threats. Moreover, in a world where the market was now the only serious economic option in the international system, the US had greater reason than ever for strengthening democracy in other countries: the two went hand in hand. Supporting political pluralism, therefore, was not just the right thing to do? though Talbott cautioned there would be circumstances where the US would not be able to get its way? but, more importantly, the economically smart thing to do as well. 48
The belief that there was a symbiotic and positive relationship between market forms and political democracy was not, of course, shared by all commentators. The influential French critic Jacques Attali, for example, saw little relationship at all, and took the American administration to task for its lack of historical perspective and myopic belief that the market and democracy were logically or even empirically related. Contrary to popular belief, he argued the market economy and democracy? the twin pillars of Western civilization? are more likely to undermine than support one another. 49 A similar point was made by the conservative American scholar, Irwin Stezler. The relationship, he believed, was ambiguous. However, democracy, he concluded, was no guarantor of prosperity, nor its absence a guarantor of poverty. The linkages between economic and political structures were in fact immensely complex, and simply to assume that the market and democracy were necessary partners was quite naive. 50 A number of realists took the same line. The market, they argued, could quite easily function in the absence of political freedom? note the case of China. Democratic reform, on the other hand, need not lead to a flourishing capitalist economy? witness the example of post-communist Russia. 51
Yet in spite of what many saw as irrefutable evidence to the contrary, the Clinton administration persisted in believing that there was a positive, rather than an ambiguous or even non-existent, connection between capitalism and democracy. In many ways, the idea seemed to run like a thread through its thinking, influencing its rhetoric and helping define its attitude towards the outside world? to such a degree that the strategy of enlargement came to be viewed not just as a stand-alone political objective but as an integrated part of the administrations larger effort to help the United States compete more effectively in the global economy. This is why Clinton found the idea so appealing. As has been pointed out, what Clinton liked best about Lakes enlargement policy was the way it was inextricably linked to economic renewal with its emphasis on making sure the United States remained the number one exporter. Vice-President Al Gore was equally enthusiastic. A firm advocate of the classical liberal view that the expansion of trade and the spread of political freedom were the twin foundations of world order, Gore, it seems, felt that commerce, democracy and peace formed part of a single whole. 52
But it was more than just market access that interested Clinton and his foreign policy advisers. In some larger sense they really did think that over time democracy could not function without the market, or the market without democracy. Competition at the ballot box and in the marketplace were in this sense twins, with democracy being the necessary political accompaniment of free enterprise, and free enterprise the only secure foundation upon which to construct and sustain democracy. It was no accident that Clinton and his advisers persistently coupled the two words together and employed the term market democracy to more fully describe the policy of enlargement. They simply could not conceive of one without the other, or the strategy succeeding where either was absent. The question is: why? There are several parts to the answer.
To some degree it reflected the administrations rather heroic interpretation of the American experience. Here, democratic forms and market economics had always existed together, and the assumption was that if the two had coexisted happily in the US, there was no reason to believe they would not do so elsewhere, especially if the United States itself intervened to support and sustain nascent market democracies in other countries. This viewpoint was in turn bolstered by the administrations understanding of the end of the cold war. There were, it was true, many causes of 1989, but the most critical, it was argued, was not the Reagan military build-up? a line championed by the republicans? or simply that the Soviet economy was inefficient, but the attractiveness of Western institutions overall. But, as Talbott pointed out, the West did not win the cold war because of the market alone, but because of the market and democracy together. 53 Lake agreed, adding that that those who wanted to build a better world could not do so without introducing both forms. Democracy was essential if you wanted justice, and capitalism if you wished to generate the wealth and material goods necessary for individuals to thrive. And while the two may have performed entirely different functions without which civilized societies were bound to perish, neither could really exist without the other. 54
The connection also seemed to make a good deal of sense for another, more practical, reason relating to the issue of economic restructuring in those countries where previously there had been forms of planning and social protection. How were these often painful changes to be introduced without generating deep resentment and political upheaval? The answer, it was suggested, was through the ballot box. It had, after all, worked in Poland after 1989. Here, the people voted for a government prepared to take the tough market measures that would have provoked political opposition under the old system, and there was no reason to expect that the same strategy would not work elsewhere. As Warren Christopher conceded, democracy had many advantages over the alternatives, but one was that it permitted countries to take harsh economic decisions. He noted, in nations undergoing economic transformation, market reformers who enjoy popular legitimacy are more likely to win popular support for tough economic measures than those who do not. 55 Another official made much the same point. Democracy, he noted, helped new reforming elites in many ways, but in particular it allowed them to modernize their economies, ameliorate social conditions and integrate with the outside world by legitimizing painful but necessary economic choices. 56 Moreover, once these market democracies had undergone reform and been more fully integrated into the world economy, they were also more likely to be reliable trading partners. 57
Finally, the Clinton administration saw a more general relationship between democracy and the market. Warren Christopher put it thus. The market, he argued, was not a self-regulating economic system but one that required a framework within which to operate? and the most appropriate framework, he believed, was a democratic one in which the rule of law operated. This was not because of any moral imperative; rather it was because mature market economies demanded stability, order and certainty? and democracy was more likely to provide these than any other system. The market also needed well-defined regulations that could govern contract, protect property and facilitate competition; and again, the best guarantee of all these things was a democratic polity with clearly defined rules. From this perspective, the rule of law under democracy was essential not only to protect political rights but also the essential elements of free market economies. 58 Moreover, as markets evolved they generated changes that were bound to threaten the integrity of even the most carefully constructed authoritarian regime. Again, this was not because the market was moral, but rather because it was dynamic and, in its own way, revolutionary too. Thus, as it developed, it spawned new social groups, including a more active middle class who placed increased demands upon the political system. It also generated a need for a much higher level of information; this also was likely to promote change in a progressive direction. Even more corrosive of traditional political forms was the very dynamics of globalization, which impelled all countries to operate by the same standards; and if the dominant standards being set were those defined by the West, then this was bound to lead, over time, to liberalization. Naturally, the pace of change would vary from country to country. Moreover, there was no guaranteeing that the film of history would always run in the same pluralist direction, as the events of Tiananmen Square proved only too graphically. However, according to the Clinton team there was no escaping the longer-term logic of the market. In the end, even the most repressive regime would have to become more open as its economy adapted and became more integrated into the world market.
Will the Real Woodrow Wilson Please Stand Up?
The concept of enlargement, therefore, was not rooted just in a larger political theory about the world at large, but in a developed political economy about the relationship between democracy and democracy promotion on the one hand, and the market and global capitalism on the other. However, sitting like Banquo at this particular feast was the ever-present historical figure of Woodrow Wilson, someone who according to critic and admirer alike? not to mention the Clinton administration? was the quintessential moral president in foreign affairs. Indeed, in the great contemporary debate about Americas democratic mission, the name of Woodrow Wilson figures very prominently, and for good reason. More than anyone else, he remains the president most readily associated with the idea of democracy and democracy promotion. And while realists and liberals might disagree about nearly everything else, both seem to accept at face value the claim that Wilson was a true enlightenment figure whose ultimate goal was to make the world a more democratic place. The only difference is that, whereas realists such as Kennan and Kissinger criticize him for having such a vision, liberals do not.
This of necessity leads to the obvious question: to what extent is this portrait an accurate one? Certainly, the view of Wilson as a rather simple-minded liberal idealist is not shared by all historians of the period. In fact, whereas most contemporary commentators see Wilson as someone slightly out of touch with international realities, his biographer actually views him as being driven by a higher realism. This view has been upheld by more recent scholarship, which portrays Wilson as a rather astute war-time leader who managed to maximize US negotiating leverage at the post-war conference table. 59 Levin paints an equally complicated, less soft-focused picture of a Wilson motivated not so much by idealism but by a more fundamental desire to make the word safe for capitalism in the immediate aftermath of World War I ? a view also endorsed by Lloyd Gardner. 60 Link even argues that he was inspired less by political idealism than by Christianity. 61 Nor do all historians subscribe to the view that Wilson underestimated the role of power. According to one historian of the Wilson presidency, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, no other American president before or since used force more than Woodrow Wilson. As Calhoun has observed, within four years, from 1914 to 1918, Wilson resorted to force twice in Mexico, in Haiti, in the Dominican Republic, in World War I, northern Russia and Siberia. 62 This hardly conveys the impression of a staunch moral idealist and consistent advocate of the peaceful resolution of international disputes.
The search for the real Woodrow Wilson should also take account of his hierarchical world-view. 63 Wilson may well have been a democrat in the formal sense, but there was always something distinctly elitist about his political vision. At heart a Burkean who worried more about threats to the established order than about representation, Wilson had little faith in the people or even, it seems, in elections. According to one commentator, Wilson greatly downplayed the role of elections as the proper touchstone of democracy. In Wilsons view democracy was not an electoral process as much as a meritocracy in which the best and the brightest would rule on behalf of the ignorant masses. 64 This fear of vox populi partly reflected a fairly profound hostility to all things French, including Rousseau and the French Revolution; but it was also shaped by his own attitude towards the Founding Fathers. Though sometimes referred to as a Jeffersonian democrat, Wilson had far more in common with the patrician views of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison? neither of whom could remotely be regarded as genuine democrats? than he did with the populist Jefferson. This did not bother Wilson, however. Good government, he believed, was always preferable to majoritarian democracy, and the form of government which worked best, in his view, was one composed of what Wilson regarded as those of highest and steadiest political habits. 65
If Wilson had a restricted concept of democracy? he once argued that American democracy had nothing in common with radical thought and a restless spirit? he had forthright views about race. A Virginian by birth who was not entirely unsympathetic to the plight of the South and southern whites? he once objected to black suffrage on the grounds that the negro mind was dark, ignorant, uneducated and incompetent to form an enlightened opinion? he always tended to look at the world through the prism of colour. He certainly saw nations in terms of a racial hierarchy and in 1917 informed his Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, that white civilization and its dominion over the world rested largely on our ability to keep this country intact. This is one of the reasons, amongst others, that he later opposed Japans efforts at the Paris peace talks to have a clause about racial equality attached to the Covenant of the League of Nations. Wilsons motives in opposing the Japanese move were far from straightforward. In part it demonstrated his determination to maintain Anglo-American control of the international agenda. But it also reflected his own racial prejudice. As Ambrosius has pointed out, sharing rather than challenging the racial attitude of white supremacy, the president chose to alienate the Japanese by rejecting their amendment. 66
Wilson was also less than enthusiastic about the idea of self-determination. As Lynch has noted, there is no reference to the idea in any of his writings or speeches before 1914; and when he did advocate it later, he did so with the greatest of reservations. It is true that he opposed certain forms of imperial control in Europe, and was in the end forced to accept the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire. 67 But earlier he had actually argued for the union of the Austro-Hungarian peoples; 68 moreover, when the United States did enter the war, there is no evidence it did so in order to stimulate the dissolution Austria-Hungary. We should also not forget that Wilson did nothing for the Irish or the Chinese at Versailles; that 20 years earlier he had endorsed the brutal American takeover of the Philippines; and that he was not in favour of independence for all peoples, especially if they were brown or black. Furthermore, in spite of his suspicions of the British, he was something of an admirer of the British Empire and the British constitutional system: strange things to admire, one would have thought, for someone inspired and animated by democratic idealism. He even uttered more than a passing word of praise for pre-World War I Germany with its efficient and orderly bureaucracy. As Oren has shown, Wilson admired rather than attacked Germany under the Kaiser on the grounds that it embodied the highest form of administrative rationality. The fact that there was a limited franchise and that left-wing parties were effectively excluded from government was not something that seemed to bother him overly. The German system, he felt, was a shining model that American reformers would be well advised to emulate. 69
Finally, though Wilson may well have employed certain grand phrases like self-determination and democracy, he did so not out of some mystical faith in reason but because he thought these broad objectives would help advance American power at a time when the world was threatened by hunger, chaos and a new ideology in the shape of Bolshevism. A new form of politics was thus essential, in his view, to build what he hoped would one day become a more viable international order. This was no simple-minded crusade for its own sake. Nor was it mere idealism. Rather, it was a recognition that the old order had collapsed and that unless the United States put itself at the vanguard of building a new one, then a great opportunity would be lost. It was also the only way in which Wilson could ever hope to mobilize a reluctant American public after the war. Dry talk of a clearly defined American national interest was all very fine in theory, but unless the notion of interest could be married to the ideal of democracy there was little chance of building a foreign policy consensus and breaking the political back of isolationism. Wilson, at least, seemed to understand this, even if his later realist critics did not.
Now, to make these various observations is not to criticize Wilson, so much as those who would either misrepresent or idealize his role. Wilson was neither a fool nor a saint, and to portray him as if he was one or the other only serves to distort his place in history. In fact, the more one examines Wilsons ideas over time, the more one is drawn to the conclusion that there never was something so clear and unambiguous as Wilsonianism. As one writer has noted, Wilsons connection with the doctrines ascribed to his name remains tenuous at best. 70 Indeed, it was only after his death that the term acquired meaning. Unfortunately, the meaning it acquired? either as inspiration to those who hoped the League of Nations would save the world from war or as synonym for foreign policy utopianism? inevitably tended to simplify the record. The best example of this, of course, is Carrs highly influential work on the inter-war crisis. 71 Carr does not spare what he sees as the hapless Wilson, the most perfect modern example of the intellectual in politics. 72 However, in his rush to judgement, Carr ignores the real Wilson and paints instead a caricature of some faintly risible figure rooted in the nineteenth century with no understanding of the ways of the world. The fact that Wilson might have been less naive than Carr believed, or more aware of power realities, was ignored in the English historians scorching but highly effective attack.
Conclusion: But What to Promote?
This brings us to our last question: not whether the United States should or should not engage in democracy promotion, but rather what it is exactly that America promotes. Thus far, the debate around this issue has been unnecessarily polarized between two positions rather well defined by one of the doyens of American realism, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger summed up the dilemma for Americans in the following way. The United States had a choice: either to promote its political values or simply to act as an example for others to follow. He noted,
. . . the singularities that America has ascribed to itself throughout its history have produced two contradictory attitudes towards foreign policy. The first is that America serves its values best by perfecting democracy at home, thereby acting as a beacon for the rest of mankind; the second, that Americas values impose on it an obligation to crusade for them around the world. 73
Kissinger himself was in no doubt which of those two options he preferred, and concluded by observing that in the real world of competing states it was simply bad politics? and even worse diplomacy? to try and export liberal ideas to countries that did not want them and were only likely to be alienated from the United States if it tried to do so.
Kissinger poses the problem clearly and starkly, though the flaws in his argument are all too evident. Like the good realist he is, he first tries to erect what are, in effect, false barriers between domestic politics and foreign policy. He then goes on to constructs a straw man in the shape of democratic crusades that no liberal president, including Clinton, has ever sought to wage. That said, he does draw our attention to a fundamental truth: that America is always exporting or projecting a story about itself, even when it is not consciously trying to do so. That is its fate or privilege given its position of influence within the wider international system. Simply being America with a dynamic economy, diverse culture and vibrant political system makes a massive impact on the rest of the world. It could not be otherwise. This leads us to the important conclusion that the success of US efforts to promote democracy may in the end depend less upon the amounts of money invested in the policy, and more on the ability of America as a nation to fulfil its promise. If it can continue to do so, then its efforts abroad are likely to be successful; if it cannot, then democracy promotion as a grand strategy will be unable to live up to the claims made for it by its supporters, namely, that it makes the world a safer and more peaceful place. 74
Note 1: See Torbjorn L. Knutsen, The Rise and Fall of World Orders (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999). The issue is explored for the post-cold war era in John C. Hulsman, A Paradigm for a New World Order (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1997). Back.
Note 4: The best discussion on the Bush foreign policy is by the British scholar, Steven Hurst. See his The Foreign Policy of the Bush Administration: In Search of a New World Order (London: Pinter, 1999). Back.
Note 7: In his first major foreign policy speech at Georgetown on 12 December 1991, Clinton argued that Bush had not only coddled China but more generally seemed to favor stability and his personal relations with foreign leaders over a coherent policy of promoting freedom and economic growth. In his next address to the Foreign Policy Association on 1 April 1992 he continued his attack, adding that, aside from appeasing China, Bush had also poured cold water on Baltic and Ukrainian aspirations for independence and had failed to recognize Croatia and Slovenia. In the summer issue of the Harvard International Review, Clinton was in even more expansive form. President Bush, he opined, too often has hesitated when democratic forces needed our support in challenging the status quo. I believe that President Bush erred when he secretly rushed envoys to resume cordial relations with China barely a month after the massacre in Tiananmen Square; when he spurned Yeltsin before the Moscow coup; when he poured cold water on Baltic, Ukrainian, Croatian and Slovenian aspirations for independence; and when he initially refused to help the Kurds. On 13 August in a speech given to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, he again assailed Bush, not just for being indifferent to democracy and the democratic revolution but in daring to criticize Israel - Americas only democratic ally in the Middle East. Finally, in an address delivered at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee on 1 October 1992, Clinton more or less accused Bush of being un-American and of not appearing to be at home in the mainstream pro-democracy tradition of American foreign policy. Cited in Clinton on Foreign Policy Issues (London: United States Information Service, n.d.). Back.
Note 9: For a very small sample of the attacks made upon Clintons Wilsonian or neo-Wilsonian views see, inter alia, Fareed Zakaria, Is Realism Finished, National Interest, (1992-3), pp. 21-32; Robert W. Tucker, Realism and the New Consensus, National Interest,(1992-3), pp. 33-6; Christopher Layne, Kant or Cant: the Myth of the Democratic Peace, International Security, 19/2 (1994), especially pp. 47-9; John Mearsheimer, The False Promise of International Institutions, International Security, 19/3 (1994-5), especially p. 5; Godfrey Hodgson, American Ideals: Global Realities, World Policy Journal, 10/ 4 (1993-4), pp. 1-6; and Richard Haass, Paradigm Lost, Foreign Affairs, 74/1 (1995), pp. 43-58. Back.
Note 12: For a critique from the left that disputes the connection between markets and democracy, see Ellen M. Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Recovering Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Back.
Note 14: For a classic example of the way Wilson has been portrayed in the modern foreign policy debate, see Robert W. Tucker, The Triumph of Wilsonianism, World Policy Journal, 10/4 (1993-4), pp. 83-99. Back.
Note 18: For a critique of Clintons fear of foreign policy engagement, see Jim Hoagland, Signs of Global Decline in Americas Ability to Command Respect, The International Herald Tribune (21 April 1995). Back.
Note 23: For a useful summary of the arguments for and against democracy promotion, see Christopher Layne and Sean M. Lynn-Jones (eds), Should America Promote Democracy? (Boston: MIT Press, 1998). Back.
Note 32: See Michael Doylem, Liberalism and World Politics, American Political Science Review, 80/4 (1986), pp. 1151-69, and Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). Back.
Note 59: See Arthur S. Link, The Higher Realism of Woodrow Wilson and Other Essays (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1971); David F. Trask, The United States in the Supreme War Council: American War Aims and Inter-Allied Strategy, 1917-1978 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), and David F. Trask, The AEF and Coalition Warmaking, 1917-1918 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993). Back.
Note 60: See N. Gordon Levin, Woodrow Wilson and World Politics (New York: 1968) and Lloyd Gardner, Safe for Democracy: The Anglo-American Response to Revolution, 1913-1923 (New York, Oxford University Press, 1984). Back.
Note 63: A question raised in the important intervention in the democratic peace debate by Ido Oren, The Subjectivity of the "Democratic Peace": Changing U.S. Perceptions of Imperial Germany, International Security, 20/2 (1995), pp. 147-84. Back.