This is an interesting claim – that totalitarianism “inevitably” threatens American security. Looking at Freedom House’s own rankings in map-form here it sure doesn’t look like that. There’s unfree Africa, not posing much of a threat. And parts of Southeast Asia, not free and not particularly threatening. There’s the unfree Middle East, populated mostly with U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan. All not free. There’s unfree China, which isn’t exactly an ally of the U.S., but it’s not an overt threat either. There’s unfree Russia, which is contesting American influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but is pale shadow of the Cold War threat to American interests it once was.

Indeed, scan the list of unfree countries and quite a few of them pose no threat whatsoever to the United States. Far from being an inevitable threat, the existence of political repression appears to be just what it always was, an unfortunate expression of man’s inhumanity to man. ~Greg Scoblete

Scoblete has this right, which is why Kirchick’s claim about the inevitable threat from totalitarianism isn’t very interesting at all. This is a less developed version of the standard democratist claim that the nature of foreign regimes determines their foreign policy: unfree and authoritarian governments, which Kagan always insists on dubbing autocracies, should be expected to oppose democratic governments in international affairs because they are authoritarian. It is not enough for them to acknowledge that all states have divergent interests, and they seem not to realize that other major powers would resist U.S.-led policies regardless of their regime type. Democratists feel compelled to make the ideologically-loaded and false claim on top of this that unfree governments necessarily threaten free governments. This ultimately makes the other states’ liberalization and democratization into national security imperatives. Even though it is democratists who insist on aggressively subverting other governments, while the authoritarian states have opted to hide behind state sovereignty and preserving relative global stability, democratists seem to think that “we” have to undermine “their” system before “they” can undermine “ours.” It is an echo of the fear of Soviet-led global revolution, but, as Scoblete shows us, it no longer has even the slightest basis in reality.

Having wrongly assumed that unfree states “inevitably” threaten the U.S., democratists then make another completely baseless assumption. Democratists believe that if these states had liberal democratic governments, they would not be as “threatening.” In fact, there is good reason to think that as other states transition from authoritarian to democratic government the more difficult it becomes for Washington to reconcile divergent state interests. Obviously, I don’t think it is a problem that Turkey, Japan and Brazil, for example, have started pursuing more independent and even assertive foreign policies, nor do I view this new independence as a threat, but from a hegemonist perspective the empowerment of the majorities in these nations and the political weakening of “reliable” elites has been distressing at best. We have also seen more dramatic examples of democratization working against U.S. influence in Venezuela, Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, Ecuador. Democratization can make satellites rebellious or even hostile, and it makes once-“reliable” allies harder to bring into line. Democratization makes it much more difficult for regional allies to ignore that U.S. policies in their respective regions do not actually seem to serve the interests of many allies. When real democratization occurs and other nations elect governments that represent their interests, it does not result in the installation of reliable “pro-Western” lackeys, but quite often leads to the rise of politicians who are ready and willing to resist and criticize U.S. and European policies when these run counter to their national interests.

Most of the unfree states around the world have largely limited themselves to an authoritarian model. Some are populist authoritarian regimes led by nationalist strongmen and/or demagogues, others are organized around a central party and military leadership, and still others are built around personal dictatorship headed by a member of a particular family. Some of the latter in Arab countries have been our allies for many decades, and during the Cold War Washington frequently allied with anticommunist authoritarian governments. A number of anticommunist authoritarian regimes transitioned to democratic government, occasionally because Washington brought pressure to bear. These states had not been threats to American security earlier when they had illiberal and dictatorial regimes and then suddenly ceased posing a threat to American security when they had become democratic. On the contrary, they were bulwarks of American security policy in their regions. In some cases, they were reliable anticommunist allies because they were unfree regimes that served the interests of a minority of the population.

North Korea is probably the last state that can be correctly described as totalitarian. China, Cuba et al. are police states and undoubtedly repressive, but even these cannot be classed as totalitarian. North Korea is potentially dangerous to its neighbors because of its large standing army, but in terms of threatening American security it is pathetically weak. This is an important point. Totalitarian states wield considerable power, but this power is largely directed inwards at the control of their own populations. The development of any other institutions becomes a threat to the ability to concentrate all power in a relative few hands and endangers the regime’s control of society. Repression of all other institutions makes totalitarian states progressively weaker, both economically and politically, which also makes them much less threatening.

I have never quite understood why so many national security hawks and hegemonists like to wrap themselves in the mantle of democracy promotion. Of course, it is easy to imagine that it is just empty rhetoric or an attempt to make their aggressive and provocative policies appear as if they had some redeeming quality, but they keep coming back to the idea so frequently that it is difficult to dismiss as mere cynical posturing. Part of the explanation may be that they so completely misunderstand the effects of democratization that they genuinely believe it is a boon for U.S. hegemony, but support for democracy promotion remains strong despite all the evidence that it increasingly creates stronger opposition to U.S. policies.

One part of their problem must be that they seem to be always and forever analyzing every international conflict and crisis through the lens of the 1930s and ’40s, and they understand the dynamics of world politics according to their rather distorted, simplified memory of what happened before and during WWII. According to this memory, the interwar period was marked by the decline of democratic powers relative to authoritarian and totalitarian powers, the latter were unremittingly hostile to the former, and the inability of the democratic powers to counter and resist the rise of these other powers led to war. Even if this described that period of time correctly, these hawks seem to think this dynamic is the way things always work. They are weighed down by the constant comparisons they have frequently made between our present predicament and the great struggles of WWII and the Cold War, which gives them an inflated idea of how much power United States needs to project around the world, and many of them remain in thrall to a distorted memory of the end of the Cold War, according to which American containment somehow triggered the revolutions of 1989. Indeed, this distorted memory was strong that it shaped their misguided thinking of what would happen in Iraq after the invasion.

There is a tendency among these hawks and hegemonists to grossly overestimate the strength of other states and foreign threats. As real threats from other major powers have receded in the last twenty years, the need to emphasize inevitable conflict between ideologies has become that much greater. The hawks and hegemonists have the odd profile of paranoid triumphalists: they are certain that their ideology and vision will prevail, but they are also desperately frightened of anything that might possibly threaten a victory that they otherwise claim is inevitable. Hawks and hegemonists also tend to embrace a simplified progressive nationalist narrative of American history in which the forces of freedom and good prevail over unfreedom and evil, and according to the story these forces prevailed because Americans were willing to take up arms. It may be this last item that is most significant in explaining the weird preoccupation with democracy promotion. According to their selective interpretation of American history, projecting American power and promoting democracy and freedom have always gone together, and so apparently they must always go together. This ideological commitment seems unwavering, despite every indication that promoting democracy and maintaining U.S. hegemony conflict with one another more and more.

P.S. It’s also worth drawing attention to Kirchick’s weak attack against the so-called “neo-isolationism” that is supposed to be on the rise in the U.S. That misleading Pew result has been very useful to many different arguments. In this case, Kirchick is dusting off the tedious use of “isolationism” as a bogey to scare Americans into supporting an even more activist and ambitious foreign policy overseas. As I have said several times now, a large majority of the respondents to that survey didn’t really believe in “minding our own business,” and two-thirds of them were ready to attack Iran. The chimera of latent American “isolationism” is almost as useful to hawks and hegemonists as whipping up the public into a frenzy over small or non-existent threats.