Skip to content

“Democratic Realism,” refuge of fabulism

December 13, 2011

I had managed to avoid reading this column before writing on the Russian elections, but all things come to an end. Via Daniel Larison. E.J. Dionne attempts to rejuvenate the grand strategic abomination of “democratic realism,” a doctrine not merely satisfied to rest its case on the moral virtues of promoting democracy, but one which feels compelled to justify them in utterly fantastical “realist” notions of geopolitical advantage.

It was gratifying to hear a despotic leader blame the United States for the rise of a democratic protest movement against his regime.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, wants his people to think that those who have taken to the streets to express their rage over rigged elections are nothing but tools of American foreign policy, put to work by none other than Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

So, naturally, what Dionne wants to do is to confirm the suspicions of people such as Vladimir Putin by throwing US support behind a movement it does not actually understand and has little control over, and one in which actual non-nationalist liberals, rolled together,  poll 4% against a United Russia, that, in all likelihood, probably only polled 40-45% instead of 49%, a Communist Party which polled 19%, and a Liberal Democratic Party (which one could describe either as extreme nationalists or perhaps mild fascists, take your pick) which polled 11.6%. Even the most palatable major Russian opposition party for Westerners, Just Russia, has never really broken with United Russia on issues of foreign policy, nationalism, immigration, or really even human rights. Just Russia has virtually always couched their opposition to the Kremlin on economic terms by seeking to create a moderate socialist alternative between United Russia and the Communist Party. As Larison concisely summarized it:

If there are liberals in the opposition, their significance is usually exaggerated, and they are taken to be much more representative of the country than they are. If there are illiberal populists, nationalists, or religious fundamentalists with a much larger following within the local opposition, their influence is usually downplayed or ignored entirely.

The banned National Bolsheviks probably have a better shot of running Russia after Putin than the liberals do, which is not saying much because it’s impossible to think a political persuasion which cannot poll in the double digits in a legislative election and virtually shut out of all major centers of power is going anywhere, even in a crisis (perhaps especially in a crisis). Yes, Russia had voting irregularities, but if United Russia was going to deflate the vote counts of any parties, it would be of the Communists, Just Russia, or the LDPR, not the piddling liberal parties which the Kremlin does not consider a real threat.

So what exactly is so great about him blaming the US? Clinton’s words do not resonate with Russian protesters, as Saunders noted, and they do not rattle Putin, even if the protests themselves might. Instead they give him a convenient distraction. Russian historical experience shows the Russian voters roundly reject US interference, and just because Putin decries it does not mean it is a credible threat to United Russia’s grip on power. It’s not clear from what Dionne has said that taking a stand on Russia has accomplished much of anything besides shaking the Russian press statement Magic 8-ball.

There’s more, though:

She also gave what will be seen as a historic speech to a United Nations group in Switzerland describing gays and lesbians as “the invisible minority.”

Who thought an American leader would ever say the following?

“It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished.”

Her words made me want to stand up and sing the refrain of that song they always play at Republican conventions: I’m proud to be an American.

 So, on the “realist” side of the “democratic realist” scorecard, and by realist I’m meaning not just actions in service of the American national interest but actions which actually change the real world, the only behavior Dionne acknowledges Clinton has changed is his own, by instilling within him pride in his country. Normally, I would have to do some political-psychological speculation about the self-affirming moralism of proponents of muscular democracy promotion, but I will let that last sentence in the excerpt stand on its own.

It’s all well and good that opinion writers are now willing to sing patriotic tunes (there must have been a line about this somewhere in the National Security Strategy), but it takes more than saying that violations of human rights is wrong to actually change things. I’m not seeing the “realism,” here, as making that statement has thus far changed no one’s behavior, nor has it advanced US interests.

Something important has happened to President Obama’s foreign policy. For some time after he took office, he only rarely spoke out for human rights or used the word “democracy.” In the wake of the George W. Bush years, he was focused on rebuilding alliances and moving toward both a more measured and prudent use of American power. It was an approach much closer to the old-fashioned realism practiced by the first President Bush.

Overall, it was a change for the better. But for a while, it seemed that the administration decided that because the second President Bush used democracy promotion as a rationale for a mistaken war in Iraq, too much democracy talk might be a bad thing. This was the wrong conclusion. Those who think of themselves as progressives should never avoid their obligations to democracy — even if there are both prudential and moral limits to America’s capacity to impose it on others.

I am aching to see the costs of that lack of “democracy talk” beyond pundit hand-wringing.  By my reckoning, despite not a lot of democracy-talking, the “Arab Spring” still happened – but maybe more “democracy talk” would have made it more liberal and less, well, democratic?
Ultimately, “democratic realism” is still just as much of a hollow concept as it was in 2004. It was then, and is today still, an attempt to re-brand the unwanted label of “neoconservative.” It supposes it is in America’s interest to support democracy everywhere and always, but asserts that it will only require blood and treasure when it is in America’s strategic interest. Well, what does that mean? Krauthammer could at least explain that through his construct of the “existential enemy,” even if it was an imaginary axis of countries which never particularly liked each other except when America painted them into the same corner. Besides, isn’t democracy always in America’s interest? Well, perhaps we’ll only do so when it’s “prudential,” but shouldn’t our strategic interests dictate what’s prudential? Ultimately you end up with the mishmash of circular reasoning that’s of no use for any kind of serious doctrinal debate, but a great post-hoc justification for opportunism.
Reviving democratic realism and its strategical “democracy talk” appears to have accomplished very little for US national interests aside from providing a consensus among Washington Post columnists. If “we want a constructive foreign policy debate,” then reviving democratic realism would only be useful to showing how limited and unsatisfying the acceptable range of foreign policy debate among the political classes really is, and dispel the myth that the Obama administration and its partisans were ever, as conservatives too often claim, a bunch of cold, heartless realists.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2011 12:33 am

    The blowback potential for backing foreign opposition groups you don’t understand can be summed up with two words: “sealed train”.


  1. Eunomia » The Uselessness of “Democracy Talk” and the Failures of Democracy Promotion
  2. the Progress Report « Point/CounterPoint

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: