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Hegemony and Democracy

I guess we should all be thankful that President Bush’s “freedom agenda” failed, right? This is Turkey – a NATO ally and prospective (although increasingly less likely) candidate for EU membership. Now imagine democracy taking root in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iran and elsewhere – would it surprise anyone if the regional atmosphere got a lot less friendly toward the U.S. and Israel?

As I said earlier, it’s very difficult to be an honest proponent of Middle East democracy and an advocate for perpetual American hegemony in the region. The emergence of true democracies is likely to reorient the geopolitics of the region in a manner that the staunchest hegemonists would sharply disapprove of. I wonder which aspiration they’ll jettison first. ~Greg Scoblete

Greg was responding to the same Continetti post I discussed yesterday. He is certainly right that hegemonists are inconsistent in their enthusiasm for democracy promotion, as I’ve mentioned many times before. In this view, Venezuelan and Bolivian democracies are blights on the earth, but Georgian democracy is wonderful and vitally important. They used to like Ukrainian democracy until the Ukrainians elected the wrong candidate, and now they’re not so sure it’s a good idea. It’s not hard to see that these reactions match up closely with the attitudes of the respective governments to U.S. influence in their parts of the world. Many democratists also work under the very misleading assumption that democratization necessarily fosters greater international stability. Many of them also believe democracies will not clash with one another because they have shared “values” and the democratic nature of their governments will reduce the chances of conflict. As far as I can tell, none of these things is true, or at least none of them can be taken for granted.

What gets lost in a lot of commentary on Turkey and the AKP is how illiberal and undemocratic the Kemalists in the army had to be for decades to keep Islamist governments from enduring for any length of time until the AKP’s “soft” or “reformed” Islamism made it difficult for the military to intervene against them. Washington’s ability to rely on Turkish support was artificially enhanced for a long time through the end of the Cold War by the unrepresentative nature of the Turkish government and the relatively limited U.S. presence in the region. All of this began changing in the ’90s as the U.S. became much more involved in Near Eastern affairs, and then in the last decade Islamists in Turkey have adapted to avoid provoking the military into defending Turkish secularism.

Let’s remember that less than ten years ago Erdogan was convicted of a crime for publicly reciting a somewhat militant poem by the CUP ideologue Ziya Gokalp, and a short time after that he had reinvented himself as a pro-European, pro-market reformer, and Erdogan then took the old Welfare coalition that had been forced out in the late ’90s on account of its Islamism and made it into the dominant ruling AKP. During the same time, the U.S. has become even more involved in the region in ways that almost all Turks find alarming and dangerous. There might have been a time in the past when a popular backlash in Turkey against U.S. policies wouldn’t have influenced whether its government cooperated with America, but it just so happened that Turkey experienced its first full taste of representative democracy at the moment when most of its people were strongly opposed to U.S. actions in the region. This popular backlash extended to Israeli policies, too, especially after 2006.

What bothers some hegemonists about Turkey is that they tend to assume that American interests, American power and American “values” as they define them all advance and retreat together, and if you define American interests as they do an independent-minded Turkey pursuing “zero problems” with Iran and Syria is a huge setback. Hegemonists seem to think that if other countries are becoming more democratic they ought to become more “like us” in their “values,” and therefore their governments should be more willing to align themselves with the U.S. As we are seeing all over the world, the more democratic other nations become the more their governments begin to pursue interests that diverge from American interests, especially as these are defined by hegemonists. A more modest, limited, rational definition of American interests would considerably reduce the number of clashes with other governments, and an administration following such a definition would actually welcome the regional leadership and gestures towards burden-sharing that some of our allies have started to offer.

It is not a question of whether we in the U.S. find this process desirable or not. It is not something that we would be able to reverse even if we thought it necessary (and I hope we don’t). Despite the failures of Hatoyama’s government, the DPJ in Japan is not going to recede back into permanent minority status, and it represents a shift in Japanese politics towards a competitive party system that will make it increasingly difficult to dictate the terms of the alliance to Tokyo in the future. Our bases in Japan are going to have to go sooner or later, so it should probably be sooner on amicable terms rather than later. Brazilian assertiveness on the world stage may wane once Lula leaves office, but the ambition to represent non-aligned and developing nations will remain, and that is inevitably going to put Brazil at odds with the U.S. from time to time, but there would likely be fewer clashes if Washington did not presume to make everything its business. Turkey may be the most dramatic case of an increasingly assertive allied democratic government challenging the American line on certain regional issues, and up to a point Turkey has been succeeding in its challenges.

All of this has happened because the governments of these countries have become significantly more democratic and representative than they had been previously. What many hegemonists find frustrating about these developments is that they have all happened without direct U.S. efforts. Hegemonists have supported democratization in the past when promoting democracy was a U.S.-led or U.S.-backed project, but when democratic politics flourishes on its own in other countries there is not much interest in it. This happens because democratic governance is itself just a frame that is filled by the political, cultural and religious values of the people who are enfranchised. Modernization and globalization result in a considerable amount of homogenization across nations, but they also facilitate the rise of new powers that have modernized and integrated themselves into the global economy in order to empower their nations. These new powers often have very different ideas concerning a host of international issues that put them at odds with the traditional major powers. Globalization also provokes religious and nationalist reactions that can make cultural and religious differences far more relevant to international politics, and democratic governments around the world are going to reflect those differences in how they relate to the rest of the world.

One way to begin adapting to this changing landscape is to acknowledge that our democratic allies and other rising powers have legitimate interests in shaping the response to a number of international issues, and then to react rationally when their governments and ours take different positions. Instead of complaining that the U.S. is “losing” this or that country, stop making our allies choose between their own national interests and support for unwise U.S. initiatives. Instead of berating independent-minded allies and democracies as traitors or sell-outs when they do things our political class doesn’t like, look on their newfound credibility with other nations as something that could be used to benefit the U.S. as well. Their interests will not always coincide with ours, but we will be pleasantly surprised how few conflicts of interest we will have with them when we understand that our national interests do not encompass the entire globe.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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