Democratic Values and Foreign Policy Interests
To What Extent Does the Promotion of Democratic Values Define American National Interest?
I was listening to Senator McCain on Sunday morning (CNN’s State of the Union), and he frequently repeated a phrase that struck me as intriguing “our values are our interests.” For context, he was referencing his recent trip to Egypt and making an argument for a suspension of US aid to the country. Presumably the Senator means by this the the promotion of democratic values should be considered America’s primary national interest when setting foreign policy. I generally find McCain to be a pragmatist, thus, I do not believe he would really argue for this as a general principle as it would require democratic value promotion to trump security and economic concerns worldwide. Nonetheless, one hears statements like this often enough that it seems worthwhile to investigate the full implications of such a policy.
In International Relations, a basic supposition is that the world is made of states who are primarily concerned with achieving their own national interests which are often simplified as self preservation (security), economic prosperity, and influence over other states [in that order]. From this we can expect that the United States will prioritize its domestic security: this includes threats from potential state actors — Iran and North Korea, as well as, non-state actors — Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. The next objective will be to preserve and increase economic prosperity. Beyond entering into trading agreements and other forms of economic diplomacy, actions undertaken by the U.S. government could include the preservation of global transportation and distribution — by protecting the freedom of the seas. Finally, the United States will aspire to influence the decisions of other state governments either through its military strength, economic opportunities, or other forms of soft power (i.e. anything not related to military capabilities) such as the promotion of democratic and liberal values. It is significant that it took some time before I could work in the promotion of democratic values as a national interest.
Of course, the reality is that foreign policy goals and actions do not fit into neat analytical boxes. There is a fairly strong argument asserting that the promotion of democratic values advances U.S. security interests as democratic governments tend to be peaceful towards each other. In the long run, it is fairly easy to imagine how a liberal representative democracy government in Egypt could contribute to a more stable Middle East, potentially reducing terrorist threats and acting as a stabling presence toward more hostile countries like Iran. In the short term, however, democratizing countries can actually be less stable and more prone to violence especially if they are at the lower end of the GDP scale — as is Egypt.
Nor is it a simple matter to define what constitutes a democratic government. While free and fair elections are necessary, liberal institutions such as a free press and an independent judiciary are just as important. That is why Egypt’s elected government was so problematic for the United States and others hoping for democracy in Egypt. While the Muslim Brotherhood was fairly elected, they failed to show any ambition to establish democratic institutions. According to Freedomhouse.org, a widely respected independent organization devoted to political freedom, President Morsi’s government was indistinguishable in its oppression of Egyptians than the military backed governments since the fall of Mubarak (Pattern of Abuses Continues in Egypt Despite Leadership Changes 8/12/13). It does seem, however, that the violence in Egypt is getting progressively worse.
Thus its not precisely clear what people mean when they are argue American’s foreign policy interests are in supporting democratization. If one looks at Egypt specifically, the picture becomes even murkier. Egypt’s Mubark government was considered a “strategic partner” for one primary reason – they promised not to attack Israel. In return they have received billions in military aid from the United States. This aid accounts for the majority of their of military expenditures. We give Israel even more money, but I have yet to find a satisfying reason why. Unfortunately, whenever Mubark or any of the following governments decide to crack down on the Egyptian people they often do so with direct evidence of our “military aid.” As a result the US is perceived by Egyptians and the international community, as well as by many Americans as complicit in the oppression.
Before I arrive at my conclusion, I want to clarify what I am not arguing. I am not defending past or current foreign policy towards Egypt. I’m not a Middle Eastern specialist, thus I don’t have a complete understanding of the challenging situation in Egypt and the surrounding area. I have no idea if military aid is effective or not. On the other hand, when McCain and others argue that we should cut off aid because we have lost influence over the government, it is necessary to clarify the objectives of these military and cash transfers. The purpose of our aid has never been tied to democracy. We give Egypt military aid so they won’t attack Israel. Furthermore, Egypt also happens to control an area critical to our military operations – the Suez Canal.
“The Egyptian government allows the U.S. Navy to use the canal on an expedited basis. According to the Congressional Research Service, this access allows the Navy to ‘deploy carrier groups swiftly to the Persian Gulf region. Without passage through the Canal, the Navy would have to deploy ships around the Cape of Good Hope — adding significant time to deployment from Norfolk, Va., to the Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean.’” 8/15/2013 ‘Traditional cooperation’ between U.S. and Egypt based on geopolitics and money
Beyond the Suez canal,
“ Egypt expert Jason Brownlee at the University of Texas noted last month after President Mohammed Morsi was toppled that “unlike the American public, the Egyptian military knows that the U.S. gets far more out of the relationship than it puts in: over-flight rights, prepositioning at Cairo West Air Base, intelligence on al Qaida” (ibid).
These are fairly important short term interests to give up for long term democratic hopes. Again, I am not arguing that aid should or should not continue, but rather I am spelling out what the U.S. is buying for its money.
So is the United States being hypocritical when it talks about supporting democratic transitions around the world while at the same time providing aid to repressive governments like Egypt? Is McCain correct that democratic values should define America’s foreign policy interest? My conclusion is that it depends on whether one is talking about short term or long term goals. In the long term there are strong reasons to believe that stable liberal democracies in Egypt and elsewhere would provide positive benefits to the security and economic prosperity of the United States. In the short term, a permanent suspension of military aid to Egypt could have serious repercussions by threatening the security of Israel and forcing the U.S. to give up strategic military advantage by losing access to the Suez canal.
There is, however, an important counterpoint to all of this. Actions taken for reasons of stability can have very important security implications later on. For example, the 1953 CIA led coup of Iran’s freely elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. In a set of unforeseen circumstances this ultimately transformed a close alliance into bitter enmity. This does not change anything I have said above, but it is worthing noting.
Finally, my heart hurts for the Egyptians currently fighting and dying for the freedoms I take for granted everyday. Unfortunately, it does not look like the Egyptian people or U.S. foreign policy have any truly good options in the near term. Everyone loses by Egypt’s present course.