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The Goal

Less than two months later, Vice President Cheney went to Lithuania to deliver the toughest U.S. indictment of Putin’s leadership. But the next day, Cheney flew to oil-rich Kazakhstan and embraced its autocratic leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, with not a word of criticism. The juxtaposition made the talk of democracy look phony and provided ammunition to the Kremlin. ~The Washington Post

Of course, it is unusually dense to denounce the decline of democracy in one country and then slap the back of another dictator in the same week, and I would agree that this betrays a certain cynicism at the heart of the democratist agenda.  However, as I tried to argue before, I would insist that the proper criticism is not that democratists are “phony” democrats, but that they are consistent hegemonists.  Washington is officially worried about the decline of Russian democracy because it coincides with the relative increase in Russian power in Asia and Europe and the strengthening of the Russian state.  Complaining about this declining democracy helps to undermine that growing power by attributing to it a certain political illegitimacy.  “Democracy” as such is neither here nor there.  In neocon theory, expanding democracy and expanding American power go hand in hand, but this does not often work out in practice.  More realistic democratists (and I think they do exist) understand that democratism exists as a vehicle for expanding American power at the expense of rival powers.  If it can be used as a club with which to bludgeon hostile or rival states, so much the better; if it can be used to undermine or overthrow their governments, that’s great in the democratist view.  Should there be a perfectly pro-American dictator somewhere, such as in Kazakhstan, let’s say, there is no reason to talk about democracy or anything of the kind, because the more important goal of expanding American influence and power is already being served.  Similarly, when perfectly democratic, elected governments come to power in Latin America espousing political views that Washington finds objectionable and threatening, the supposed love of democracy goes out the window because these populist governments are opposed to Washington’s policies in their part of the world. 

Viewed from the perspective of consistent, principled support for democratic politics, this approach appears inconsistent and two-faced, but that’s a result of judging these policies by some standard of principle.  Once we recognise that the ideology exists to facilitate power and will be adjusted as and when necessary for the sake of power, the “phoniness” and inconsistency of democratist support for democracy makes perfect sense.

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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