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Kennan and Democracy Promotion

Thomas Graham makes a statement in his article on U.S. Russia policy that deserves further discussion. He writes:

At the same time, he [the strategist] is not indifferent to American values. He not only understands that any American foreign policy must have a normative dimension. He welcomes it. Promotion of our democratic values lies at the core of our national identity; it lies among our strategic interests. The only issue—one debated since the founding of our republic—is how best to spread those values. For his part, the strategist is guided by an ethics of responsibility and consequences, not by one of declarations and moral outrage. For that reason, when it comes to supporting democratic reform abroad, he approaches other countries with humility. George Kennan’s words written sixty years ago still resonate: “The ways by which peoples advance toward dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign interference can do less good.” This is particularly true of Russia, which is too big and complex for foreigners to reform successfully. America’s concerted, hands-on but ultimately misguided and failed effort to promote democracy in Russia in the 1990s stands as an unintended monument to Kennan’s wisdom.

I don’t think it’s true that how to spread our political values is the “only issue” here. Promoting political values is not something that the U.S. did actively for a large part of our history, and we should always be wary of elevating any current practice by saying that it is the “core of our national identity.” However, I will agree wholeheartedly with Graham that moral preening and hectoring do nothing to advance these values and make it easier for them to be subverted in countries where they are still quite weak. This is especially true when the government engaging in the hectoring is not trusted by a large part of the population or regarded as a potential threat to the security of the country in question.

Of course, Kennan was firmly opposed to democracy promotion as it was being practiced in the post-Cold War world, and if he had lived to see the last eight years I am certain he would have been horrified by the results of the so-called “freedom agenda.” Kennan assumed that foreign interference in this area couldn’t do much good, but he was also wary of the arrogance and self-righteousness behind it. Kennan’s understanding of humility went beyond recognizing that interference in other nations’ affairs normally wouldn’t yield good results. As he said of democracy promotion efforts, the “tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable.” The problem with U.S.-led democracy promotion isn’t just that it fails and backfires in other countries, but also that it reflects the dangerous presumption that we have the right to interfere and “shape” the politics of other nations.

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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