The United States is the most revolutionary power in the history of the world, but after more than 200 years of a brilliant revolutionary career we are still not very good at understanding or responding to the revolutions our example, our ideas, our economy and our technology do so much to create.
The Arab spring is the latest example of the clash between America’s revolutionary world role and our pathetic cluelessness about the forces we do so much to promote. The Arab Spring is turning into a long, hot summer. Civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen and the sullen silence of the Shi’a in Bahrain have baptized Arab democracy in blood. More will flow — and American foreign policy is befuddled and bemused.
None of the experts look particularly smart at the moment. The ‘realists’ who counseled President Obama to forget George W. Bush’s support of Middle Eastern democracy and cultivate our relations with regional despots like Hosni Mubarak, the Iranian mullahs and the younger Assad have been sent back to the benches in disgrace. Their counsel is now seen as both morally dubious and pragmatically unwise; the ‘realists’ would have put the US on the wrong side of history in the service of unrealistic assumptions about the stability of despotic regimes.
But the idealists who seek to replace them already have egg on their faces. “Days, not weeks” is what they promised the President when he began to bomb for democracy in Libya. The democratic revolution in Egypt is looking less democratic by the day; it looks more and more as if the Army used public unrest to block the Mubarak family’s attempt to turn Egypt into a family possession. The Army has ruled Egypt since the overthrow of King Farouk, playing liberals and religious conservatives off against each other. It looks set to go on doing that for some time to come. In Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, the counsel of the idealists seems dark and confused. US policy overall seems to have found the ‘sour spot’ that is the particular curse of the Obama administration: too friendly to the revolt to earn the trust and gratitude of the despots, too cautious and compromising to win many friends on the street.
Overall I am more cautious than optimistic about where the Arab Spring is headed. There is little prospect for the kind of rapid economic growth that could improve the prospects for young unemployed and underemployed Arabs. Foreign investment and tourism have already been badly hit by the unrest of the last six months, and the Arab regimes are turning to aid donors and organizations like the IMF and the World Bank in increasing desperation.
Culturally, many of the necessary preconditions are not in place. The poor quality of most Arab universities, the limited access to serious political history and discourse among all but a handful of Arab intellectuals, the suppression of political life under past dictatorships, the weakness of Islamic political thought in recent centuries and the absence of a robust and deeply rooted tradition of Islamic democracy all work against the rapid widespread development of stable liberal democracy in the Arab world.
Putting the dark economic outlook together with the problematic cultural and political situation makes optimism a tough position to hold. Without in any way scanting or minimizing the idealism, dedication and vision of the democrats rising in the Arab world today, they still seem a long way from winning. They remind me still of the Marquis de Lafayette during the French Revolution: they believe in all the right ideas, but their countries aren’t ready for the vision they seek to promote. They can help make a revolution but others will, for a time at least, determine the flow of events.
If true, then both the realists and the idealists are wrong about the Arab Revolution. The realists are wrong that despotic regimes can provide long term stability in the region; the idealists are wrong that the fall of the old despots will lead to liberal democratic states.
Americans have been getting foreign revolutions wrong for more than 200 years. It began with the French Revolution. Enthusiasts like Thomas Jefferson initially thought they saw France following in America’s footsteps. Then came the Reign of Terror, Napoleon, and a generation of brutal war.
Many Americans responded with the same generous enthusiasm to the South American revolutions against colonial rule. Once again, those revolutions failed to establish anything like liberal democratic rule.
The cycles of revolution — 1830, 1848, 1917-20, 1946-1960 (decolonization), 1989-91, 2003-5 and now 2011 — catch Americans flatfooted over and over again. We are surprised when they occur, and we are surprised when they fail to follow the course we expect.
The realists are half right: most revolutions will not bring about stable democratic societies. But realists get the other half wrong; revolution is a basic fact of modern life and the kind of ‘stability’ that old fashioned diplomats long for is just a mirage. American foreign policy cannot proceed on the assumption that despotic, frozen regimes will last. They won’t. Sooner or later they will come crashing down — and as the pace of technological and social change around the world continues to accelerate, such revolutionary upheavals are likely to become more frequent.
There is another problem with realism. Like it or not, the United States is a revolutionary power. Whether our government is trying to overthrow foreign dictators is almost irrelevant; American society is the most revolutionary force on the planet. The Internet is more subversive than the CIA in its prime. The dynamism of American society is constantly creating new businesses, new technologies, new ideas and new social models. These innovations travel, and they make trouble when they do. Saudi conservatives know that whatever geopolitical arrangements the Saudi princes make with the American government, the American people are busily undermining the core principles of Saudi society. It’s not just our NGOs educating Saudi women and civil society activists; it’s not just the impact of American college life on the rising generation of the Saudi elite. We change the world even when we aren’t thinking anything about global revolution — when Hollywood and rap musicians are just trying to make a buck, they are stoking the fires of change around the world.
A revolutionary nation cannot make a conservative foreign policy work for long. In the 1820s and 1830s Washington tried to reassure the Mexican government that it had no hostile designs against Mexican territory. But the American people were moving into Texas and the US government couldn’t stop that movement or blunt the threat to Mexico if it tried. In the same way today, the economic and political activity of individual Americans and American companies is changing the world in ways that make life much harder for governments in countries like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. We can press all the reset buttons with Russia that we want, but the Russian government will still notice that both US society and sometimes the government are actively working to help foreign subversives overthrow repressive regimes.
If the desire of our realists to conduct foreign policy with foreign despots as if unprincipled cooperation with the bad guys could build a stable world is unrealistic, the idealism of our enthusiasts that every new foreign revolution will bring a millennium of democratic peace is absurd.
American foreign policy cannot expect that revolutions in foreign countries will rescue us from the painful dilemmas our foreign policy often confronts. Revolution is not the deus ex machina that will make the world peaceful; it is a tsunami that sweeps everything before it, and often leaves the world messier and more dangerous.
Modern history teaches two great lessons about revolution: that revolutions are inevitable, and that a large majority of revolutions either fail or go bad. Americans almost instinctively look at revolutions in terms of our own past: the 1688 Glorious Revolution that made Parliament more powerful than the King in England, and the American Revolution that led in relatively short order to the establishment of a stable and constitutional government.
Most revolutions don’t work like this at all. Many of them fail, with the old despots crushing dissent or making only cosmetic changes to the old system. (This happened in Austria in 1848 and something very like it may be happening in Egypt today.) Others move into radicalism, terror and mob rule before a new despot comes along to bring order — at least until the next futile and bloody revolutionary spasm. That was France’s history for almost 100 years after the storming of the Bastille. China, Russia and Iran all saw revolutions like this in the 20th century.
The revolutions that ‘work’ are the exceptions, not the rule. The peaceful revolutions in the Central European countries as Soviet power melted in 1989-1990 are a unique exception to the rule that most revolutions either turn nasty or fail. When many American idealists think about revolution today, they have Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in mind.
Few assumptions can lead you into as much trouble this quickly. Even in 1989-90, those countries were the exception and not the rule. Think Ukraine, Belarus, Yugoslavia, Romania, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and of course Russia itself. More people live in countries where the 1989-90 revolutionary wave failed to establish secure constitutional democracy than live in those where it succeeded.
More, the countries that had ‘velvet’ revolutions shared a number of important characteristics. They had or longed to have close political and cultural ties to the West. They wanted to join NATO and the EU, and had a reasonable confidence of doing so sooner rather than later. They could expect enormous amounts of aid and foreign direct investment if they continued along the path of democratic reform. They lay on the ‘western’ side of the ancient division of Europe between the Orthodox east and the Catholic/Protestant homeland of the modern liberal tradition.
No Arab country looks anything like this. Indeed, most seem closer to Yugoslavia and Belarus or, at best, Ukraine. We, and they, may get lucky, and the revolutions in the Arab world may lead to something that looks more like Central Europe than like Central Asia. That would be a nice surprise, but we should not be placing large bets that this will actually happen.
China, by the way, does not look very much like the Czech Republic. Revolution there is very unlikely to produce a US or European style democracy anytime soon.
If realists ignore the inevitability of revolution, idealists close their eyes to the problems of revolutionary upheavals in societies that have difficult histories, deep social divisions, and poor short term economic prospects. Unfortunately the countries most likely to experience revolutions are usually the countries that lack the preconditions for Anglo-American style relatively peaceful revolutions that end with the establishment of stable constitutional order. If things were going well in those countries, they would not be having revolutions.
Historically, revolutions in foreign countries are both necessary for their political development and inevitable. They often tend to make American foreign policy more difficult — and the world more dangerous. On the evidence so far, this is the pattern we are seeing in the Middle East today.
The difficulty American policymakers have in coming to grips with the recurring phenomenon of foreign revolutions is rooted in America’s paradoxical world role. We are not just the world’s leading revolutionary nation; we are also the chief custodian of the international status quo. We are upholding the existing balance of power and the international system of finance and trade with one hand, but the American agenda in the world ultimately aims to transform rather than to defend.
It is harder to be an effective revolutionary power than to be a conservative one — and it is harder still to combine the two roles.
A traditional conservative power knows what it wants. Revolutionary powers have a tougher job; building the future is harder work than holding on to the past. This is particularly true in the American case; the global transformation we seek is unparalleled for depth, complexity and scale.
We are not sure how this revolutionary transformation works. We know that it involves liberal political change: governments of law rather than of men and legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed as measured in regular and free elections. We also know that involves intellectual and social change: traditional religious ideas must make room for the equality of the sexes and the rights of religious minorities. Property rights must be rooted in law and protected by an independent judicial system. While governments have a role in the economy, the mechanisms of the market must ultimately be allowed to work their way.
We do not agree among ourselves about the proper sequence of these changes. We know that in the short run, democratic voting procedures may not produce liberal governments. We know that demagogues and aspiring despots can use the language and even the mechanisms of democracy to build personal dictatorships (Napoleon III and Hugo Chavez, for example). We know that popular opinion is sometimes more nationalistic than elite opinion and that gains for democracy do not always lead to more foreign policy cooperation. In most cases, progress toward stable and peaceful democratic government comes slowly if it comes at all; even if you believe in ‘democratic peace theory, hoping that the democratization of other countries will solve American foreign policy problems is a fool’s game.
Yet we also know — or at least we believe — that in the long run a more democratic world is a better if not always a safer world, and that it would be immoral as well as impractical to stand in the way of the changes that need to come.
If we add the conservative mission of the United States to the revolutionary agenda, the problems of American foreign policy become more complex still. We are trying to carry out a vast reordering of global society even as we preserve the stability of the international political order: we are trying to walk blindfolded on a tightrope across Niagara Falls — while changing our clothes.
The uncertainties and risks that surround us should not be underestimated. There has never been a worldwide revolution of this kind before; nobody knows for sure how best to speed the plow. Nobody has ever had to balance transformational and conservative roles on a global scale before.
From an American point of view, the Arab Spring is just another complication of this global task — a sudden thunderstorm with flashes of lightening, driving rain and unpredictable gusts of wind as we hop one-legged on the tightrope changing our pants. The Islamic world is entering new territory as it struggles to integrate religious and liberal political values; as the United States tries to juggle its geopolitical interests with its values at a volatile moment in world history, we are almost certain to get the balance wrong much of the time.
Here, however, history offers some hope. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the United States has been doing two things for more than 200 years: getting foreign revolutions wrong, but somehow still pushing its global revolution forward. America’s success as a conservative revolutionary power on a global scale depends less on the clever policies of our presidents and our secretaries of state, and more on the creativity and dynamism of American society as a whole.
It is power of a free people more than the brilliance of our intellectual and social establishment that has brought the United States this far; in that truth lies the secret of our revolution and of our success.