Marion Smith at Heritage’s Foundry blog has written a long post on South Sudan and refers to two of my posts. It seems pretty clear that he didn’t read this post very carefully. That post mentioned South Sudan in passing. It was mainly a response to Parag Khanna’s article arguing for a new wave of self-determination all over the world. This was what I was describing as folly.

A newly-independent South Sudan will have the problems of a failed state right away, which means that it will be heavily dependent on neighboring countries, the U.S. and other major powers for some time. This aspect of South Sudanese independence is notably missing from Smith’s post. I do question the wisdom of a policy that leads to the creation of an “independent” country that will not function very well without substantial outside support. That said, South Sudan will become a formally independent state and the U.S. has committed to support it, and I wouldn’t say that Washington should give up on it now. The time to determine whether it was in the interests of the U.S. or regional stability to facilitate the partition of Sudan was years ago.

Smith typically mistakes 19th-century American sympathy with liberal revolutions and wars of independence in Europe and Latin America for evidence that the U.S. government has a “long-held tradition of providing moral and diplomatic support to a people seeking independence and self-government.” Apart from the Monroe Doctrine, which declared that restoration attempts to overthrow republican governments in Latin America would be seen as a threat to U.S. interests, American diplomacy had nothing to do with “providing moral and diplomatic support” for independence movements until WWI and after. The most significant U.S. policy reaction to an independence movement in the 19th century was the effort to strangle the Haitian revolution in its crib. Agree with that policy or not, that is how the early republic responded to a people seeking independence and self-government. Even the Monroe Doctrine was a statement Monroe made after the independence of Latin American republics had already been secured. There was no question of officially lending aid to Latin American rebellions while they were still going on.

As it was, the U.S. could not have enforced the Monroe Doctrine had the occasion presented itself. The one time that the U.S. did seriously intervene in a dispute between a European power and a Latin American republic in the Venezuelan border controversy, it proved to be a quarrel over nothing that nonetheless brought the U.S. dangerously close to conflict with Britain when America had nothing at stake. Sympathy for Spanish, Italian and Greek liberals never translated into any formal policy of support, and the same held true for the 1848 revolutions. There was enormous public sympathy for the Afrikaner republics in their fight against British aggression, but the U.S. government was simply not involved, and it would have been strange if it had been.

When I was remarking on the general irrelevance of American advocacy for democracy, I was discussing the example of the Tunisian uprising and the Post’s criticism of the administration’s supposedly lacking democracy promotion efforts. Tunisians have toppled a dictator that Washington and Paris backed and provided with substantial aid while largely overlooking or minimizing the extent of Ben Ali’s repressiveness. Many of our politicians praised Ben Ali for his commitment to the same values that we had, which they had to know was nonsense, and U.S. advocacy for political reform elsewhere never really applied to Tunisia. Nonetheless, it was in Tunisia where the people overthrew their dictator, and it is Tunisia that has the best chance in that part of the world to establish a more representative and less repressive government. If American public opinion and diplomatic support have such “profound consequences for the cause of liberty everywhere,” why is it that the one place where Arabs have overthrown their dictator on their own is the one place that Americans embraced the dictator and largely ignored the political grievances of the people?

It would be healthy if we could acknowledge that what our government officials say and do regarding these issues doesn’t matter nearly as much as we like to think it does. The Green movement failed because of the Iranian regime’s repression and the movement’s own limitations. American officials could not have changed that outcome. When our support could be harmful to the cause of protesters, we should be willing to hold our peace and stay out of other nations’ affairs. The Tunisian uprising may produce a functioning representative government, or it may give way to military rule and renewed authoritarianism, but it is arrogance on our part to believe that what our government does or does not do will have decisive or “profound” effects on the outcome. If our government did have a decisive impact on the outcome, it would probably not be to the benefit of the people of Tunisia. It would be refreshing if we could acknowledge that political protests and revolutions in other countries will usually succeed or fail no matter what we in the U.S. want to happen.

Despite our earlier disagreement about whether or not the U.S. should side with the Tunisian protesters, Claire Berlinski makes a good point here:

Are the Tunisian people really so mindless and childlike that absent a sign that the West is interested in promoting democracy in Tunisia, they’ll just lose their enthusiasm for democracy and hand their country to the Islamists? If so, I doubt democracy has much of a chance in the first place.

Likewise, independence movements that have much chance of enduring success don’t need endorsement by Americans. To pretend otherwise exaggerates the importance of our involvement and underestimates the capabilities of the people struggling for their independence.