Is the Best Hope for Democracy Its Short-Term Suppression?

Is America's willingness to "sell out" longtime allies such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to push for immediate democracy in the Middle East a foolish strategy?

An article in the latest issue of the realist journal The National Interest argues that a significant shift is under way in America’s approach to the Middle East.  Nikolas Gvosdev and Ray Takeyh lament America’s alleged abandonment of realism and its embrace of idealism, a development they call the “Triumph of the New Wilsonism” (a reference to idealist U.S. President Woodrow Wilson).

As discussed previously in this blog, realism and idealism are perhaps the two dominant approaches to understanding world politics.  Realism emphasizes the pursuit of national interests (e.g., security and economic prosperity for one’s country) and is willing to subordinate moral principles to those interests.  Idealism, in contrast, allows foreign policy to be guided, at least in part, by moral considerations and believes that concerns such as democracy promotion and human rights should motivate states’ actions.

One key issue that separates realists from idealists today is democracy promotion in the Middle East.  Idealists believe we must support democracy enthusiastically (even if we don’t like the results, like the 2006 election of Hamas in the Palestinian elections) and stand with the masses against authoritarian regimes.  Realists contend that such an approach is foolhardy and undermines the national interests of America and other Western countries.  Gvosdev and Takeyh articulate the realist argument as follows:

“But when [Saudi Arabia’s] King Fahd visited Washington in 1985, he received no lectures about the urgent necessity to democratize his realm. Instead, Reagan took the view that the best way to promote democracy in the long run was to prevent countries from going communist or Islamist in the short run…America’s experience in East Asia and Latin America during the Reagan years buttressed this approach. Over time, in places such as Chile, South Korea and Taiwan, authoritarian presidents created the frameworks for gradual transitions to democracy without undermining their security relationships with the United States. Instead of siding with protestors calling for immediate democratic reform, Washington supported existing regimes in cracking down on the opposition, provided a long-term, gradualist program for change was being implemented.”

Realists today fear that the “Arab Spring”–which has swept away or threatened to topple regimes in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere–could be a disastrous development if Islamists take power and pursue anti-Western policies.

What do you think?  Are Gvosdev and Takeyh correct that supporting democracy in the short term is likely to destroy it in the long run?  Would it be better for America and other democratic countries to support the regimes that are suppressing radical democratic change, and simply press them for gradual reform?

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One response to “Is the Best Hope for Democracy Its Short-Term Suppression?

  1. Pingback: Is a Counter-Revolutionary “Concert of Arabia” Rising? | World Politics News Review

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