Is there a way to promote democracy abroad without promoting liberalism?
Is there a way to promote democracy abroad without promoting liberalism?
Engaging with realist critiques of the so-called liberal interventionists.
Published on: Jul 23, 2020  |  

I’ve recently been trying to engage the work of my ideological “opponents” on foreign policy, realists like John Mearsheimer for example. One of my goals is to better understand what exactly they’re critiquing. Mearsheimer’s book The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, which I just finished after taking copious notes, was a lot better than I expected, and I found myself nodding more than I’d like to admit.

As many of you will know, I’m an “interventionist” and a believer (I think that’s the right word) in robust American support for democracy abroad. I don’t just think values matter: I think that values should be at the core of the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. What, though, are my own “values,” and what are the values that Mearsheimer finds so objectionable? Are they the same, or are they different?

Mearsheimer spends much of his time critiquing the desire for liberal hegemony on the part of the blob. He writes, for example, that “liberalism’s stark individualism is what makes it a universal ideology, which profoundly affects how liberals think about international relations.” Also: “The importance liberalism accords individual rights inexorably leads to the belief that the best away to guard those rights is for every country to be a liberal democracy.”

As these quotes suggest, he sees liberal expansionism abroad as a natural extension of liberalism’s inherent universalist tendencies. Naturally, if liberals believe in liberalism (and if we acknowledge that liberalism is not neutral), then, like any ideological orientation, it will have trouble restricting its own application within a nation’s own borders. It will want more for itself.

Well, okay, I can work with this. As a liberal who’s critical of liberalism, I share many of the same concerns. What if there was a way to limit the excesses of liberal hegemony, while still retaining a pro-democracy posture abroad? This can be done, I’d argue, by more consciously and explicitly separating small-l liberalism from small-d democracy. Understandably, Mearsheimer often combines them together in his many references to Americans wanting other countries to be liberal democracies, since many Americans tend to liberalism and democratic, however divergent, as a package.

But what if we wished these other countries to be mere democracies, emphasizing democracy as a system and means of governing and rotating power with no prejudice to substantive ideological outcomes. This would do two things: it would allow us to respect other countries’ right to self-determination and self-government; It would limit our need to engage in social engineering in other countries that we don’t quite understand, one of Mearsheimer’s main criticisms of the liberal impulse. This would also help resolve our “democratic dilemma”—that we want democracy in theory but not necessarily its outcomes in practice, particularly when, as is often the case, electorates decide that they would rather not be liberal.

The Mearsheimer critique—and realist critiques more generally—seem to wince at the notion that other countries can (or should) become like us. But to promote democracy abroad—as opposed to promoting liberal democracy—does not require other countries to be like us, only to be like themselves.