Does the world look “to America as the indispensable nation … because America stands for universal values and aspirations,” as Hillary Clinton claimed yesterday evening?
Clinton made the comment during a ceremony at the State Department to celebrate the completion of the U.S. Diplomacy Center pavilion, which I had the pleasure of attending. The event featured short speeches by four current and former secretaries of state: Clinton, John Kerry, Colin Powell, and Madeleine Albright. The center aims to showcase the history, practices, and challenges of U.S. diplomacy and will open in 2018.
It is particularly important to remember the value of diplomacy today, as the public discussion on foreign policy and national security is often dominated by the defense and intelligence agencies. However, these various corners of the foreign-policy community all share a certain premise of America’s role in the world. I heard this premise expressed by all four secretaries, as well as by President Barack Obama later last night in his farewell address.
The gist of this vision is that American values and security can be preserved only so long as the United States promotes democracy and liberalism throughout the world; otherwise, “authoritarianism and illiberalism” will spread, according to Clinton, who worried that “democracy, freedom, and the rule of law are under attack around the world.” Clinton argued that the “mission” of the United States is to “lead the world with strength, smarts, and confidence in our values.”
President Obama, in his own speech later last night, said “we cannot withdraw from big global fights to expand democracy and human rights,” which would of course set the United States up, in some way or another, for a state of perpetual interventionism throughout the globe, regardless of where American interests truly lie. Obama further argued that this is “part of defending America. … If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.”
The problem with this worldview is that nation-building is a difficult task, and using it as an opportunity to promote a specific set of American values and institutions often makes states (such as Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Iraq) even more unstable and open to threats from other states or from terrorists and militants. Dysfunctional states, not authoritarianism, are the biggest threat to peace.
Stability is built on historic roots specific to individual cultures and political orders, and the institutions and practices that eventually allow for freedom and liberalism take a while to grow, if they grow at all. As President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan argued in a co-authored book, Fixing Failed States, peace—the absence of endemic violence—is the first prerequisite for any state to function. This often requires the triumph of a strongman or a group that can impose peace; it does not spontaneously emerge from democratic decisions in most societies. From peace comes law and eventually institutions, and only then can democratic or liberal practices emerge.
It is folly to try to achieve this process backwards: from democracy, to institutions, to peace. That more often than not leads to conflict. The United States needs to appreciate this in order to remain secure.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat. Follow @akhipill