National Security by Spreading Democracy?

Bush II had an explicit national security strategy of spreading democracy throughout the world. The 2006 National Security Strategy goes into this at great length.

Paul Wolfowitz was a close aide to Bush. He helped get the U.S. to invade Iraq. He was and is one of the foremost exponents of the policy of spreading democracy. This Wikipedia article, for example, is clear on Wolfowitz’s belief that spreading democracy is a key antidote to terrorism.

Spreading democracy can be done peacefully or via war or via methods that are in between peace and war. Bush believed in unilateral and preventive war as one method.

Now that Bush is gone, is this strategy also gone? It is not. President Obama has the same strategy. He is already applying it. He is only applying it in different ways and with different emphases.

Spreading democracy is a standard foreign policy of American empire that goes back to Woodrow Wilson. Obama is following this strategy in Afghanistan.

Wilson’s address to Congress on April 2, 1917 sought a war declaration against Germany. He said "The world must be made safe for democracy."

Germany was at war with Great Britain and had been at war for three years. It had announced that it would sink any vessels approaching the ports of Great Britain, Ireland, and other European ports. Wilson looked upon this as war against all nations, including the U.S. He said that the U.S. had a right to the sea lanes and a right to supply Great Britain. He said that armed neutrality is ineffective and worse. And so he asked for and got war.

In the latter portion of his speech, he went far beyond asking for war. He made this fateful declaration:

"Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people. We have seen the last of neutrality in such circumstances. We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states."

He declared that certain kinds of governments could not again be faced by a neutral America. He said that states had rights that should be observed by other states. He was declaring the existence of an international law among states. He implied that he knew or that it was widely known what these rights and law were, and that violations were to be met by armed force. He implied that he or America or some "partnership of democratic nations" (such as a League of Nations or a United Nations) would thereafter stand for securing the peace and would secure the peace. Autocratic governments, he said, could not be trusted. Wilson declared war on tyranny, just as Bush II did in his Second Inaugural Address, when he said

"So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

The notion of making America (and the entire world) secure by ending autocratic governments overseas is the opposite of George Washington’s policy of neutrality. It involves making alliances. It involves readiness and willingness to go to war at any time. It involves continual war for the goal of continual peace, virtually a contradiction in terms. It involves some states identifying others as tyrannies and seeking to change their forms of government. It involves the notion that the world can achieve a condition of perpetual peace through the judicious use of armed forces.

Spreading democracy involves the U.S. being policeman of the world. It involves building up and maintaining military forces throughout the world. It involves the U.S. entering wars in which it is not directly a combatant. It involves the U.S. choosing favorites and enemies among other nations. It involves the U.S. in choosing the domestic factions that it supports within foreign nations and making itself the enemy of others.

Under this driving umbrella strategy, the U.S. continually constructs threats where there need not be threats. If it decides to defend Taiwan, then mainland China becomes a threat to the U.S. and an enemy. If it decides that Iraq is in the wrong by invading Kuwait, then it makes war on Iraq. Under this policy, the U.S. for many years supplied arms and support to various dictators and/or autocrats such as Suharto of Indonesia, Marcos of the Philippines, Chun Du-Hwan of South Korea, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

The strategy is open to abuse. Under this strategy, U.S. foreign policies became shaped by domestic military, financial, agricultural, and other lobbies. States that are entering fights to spread democracy can enter them for reasons of self-interest and advantage to themselves. If two autocratic states like Iraq and Iran are warring, then the U.S. still finds a way to get involved.

The strategy faces operational problems. Who is to identify the instances when states violate rights? Who is to be the judge and jury of the suspected rights violations, the disputes, and the conflicts arising among states? What happens when two or more states both think they are in the right? Is any use of armed force by any state to be taken as evidence that it is in the wrong? Which disputes will be the occasion for American force to be used, and which will not?

Even more serious objections to the strategy are these:

  • democracy itself is not an ideal form of government
  • governments can have democratic forms and still be tyrannies
  • governments can have non-democratic forms and still be peaceful
  • democracies are not necessarily any more peaceful than other forms of government
  • democracies can inhibit other goals like economic well-being and progress
  • other forms of government can be consistent with economic progress
  • self-determination of peoples does not necessarily lead them to choose democracy

The bottom line is that the supposed link between the security of Americans and spreading democracy overseas (as well as domestically) is tenuous and remote. It does not really exist, as will be argued further below.

Bush was obliged by law to publish annually a National Security Strategy document, under the Goldwater-Nichols Act. It is supposed to be the outcome of a serious effort by our top officials to plan strategy and make it public. Bush did this in 2002 and 2006, but not in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2007.

Obama hasn’t yet come out with the 2008 document, even though he has already announced his Afghanistan strategy.

There is research by writers on this web site that is critical of the strategy of spreading democracy. For an outside expert source, Nicholas J. Armstrong of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism has come out with an article that is highly critical of the strategy of spreading democracy as Bush operated it. Some of what he says may sound familiar to LRC readers, although his perspective is very different. He says

"…the Bush administration’s recent strategy documents possess significant shortcomings that led to important policy failures. A problematic rationale for the preemptive use of force, weak justifications and inconsistencies in democracy promotion, and a lack of strategic priorities are just a few criticisms among others."

In other words, the Bush team didn’t think through their methods and operated haphazardly.

"The current strategic assessment of the external security environment suffers from two significant weaknesses: the unrealistic notion that democracy promotion must underpin the actions of the U.S. abroad, and the flawed presumption that democracy promotion is the solution to transnational terrorism. Undoubtedly, terrorism is a significant threat to U.S. national security, but the most recent NSS illogically assumes that terrorism demands global democratization."

This is a much broader criticism. It says two things. Spreading democracy is not a realistic foundation or center point for foreign policy; and the nation should not address terrorism by spreading democracy. He goes on:

"…the preemptive use of force — supported by an entangled justification of eliminating future threats while promoting democracy — creates an imbalance in retributive justice and thereby undermines the moral legitimacy of all U.S. democracy promotion efforts abroad, regardless of intent."

This says that the Bush Doctrine is morally flawed and its application works against the U.S.

Armstrong mentions several criticisms of others:

"…the use of aid packages, military force, or even public diplomacy can be costly with no guarantee of long-term success — as exemplified by the $10 billion per month cost of the improving, yet still uncertain democracy promotion efforts in Iraq. Critics…cite the interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo as examples that any success in promoting democracy is associated with high costs and lengthy time commitments. While the short-term missions in Somalia and Haiti netted little gain, Bosnia and Kosovo have shown signs of success roughly a decade later, but only after considerable time and fiscal investment. Even so, measuring success of democratization is troublesome due to the difficulties of quantifying democratic progress in a tangible form."

Before turning to the empirical side, let us think through some theory to analyze the question.

Why do people want security anyway? Security is desirable so that people may enhance their welfare. If free markets and property rights are suppressed by means of government measures enacted in democracies, then security is reduced and, by the same token, welfare may be reduced for many millions of persons that comprise substantial minorities or even for most of the entire society.

A relevant question is then whether or not democracy has a positive effect on economic growth. If it does not, then it means that democracy does not really enhance welfare. If democracy enhanced security, it should have a positive effect on economic growth and welfare. If democracy fails to enhance even domestic welfare, then the notion that spreading democracy to foreign lands will enhance domestic security and thus allow higher domestic welfare has to be seen as very far-fetched and very unlikely. In fact, if democracy lowers welfare, and there is evidence that it does, then by actively making foreign countries poorer, the U.S. is encouraging foreign people to rise up and resist America.

In those democracies in which government’s limits are expansible, voting occurs on more and more goods, such as health care, education, and energy use, that once belonged to private decision-making. Under these conditions, democracy brings increasing violation of rights and increasing democratic totalitarianism. It brings the increasing influence of lobbies for interest groups. This powerful process hampers economic growth. It is not easily reversed. Under these conditions, we will observe that political democracy and economic growth are negatively related.

On the other hand, in democracies that are replacing rapacious autocracies that have constricted the property rights and the economy, we may observe small and weak states and high economic growth if the democracy is associated with these conditions that free up the economy.

The key variables in economic growth are not democracy per se. They are such things as personal responsibility, respect for private property rights, private solutions to private problems, not collectivizing the economy and creating commons problems, low taxes, low barriers to entry, small government, and low regulation. If a state is weak and democratic, it may be conducive to economic growth. If it is strong and democratic, it may suppress growth.

A society does need security so that investment will be encouraged, including investment in human capital, but democracy is not a form of government that necessarily increases security.

So much for theory. What’s the evidence? In 1983, Erich Weede (in the journal Kyklos) examined the impact of democracy on economic growth. The time period studied was 1960—79. He examined data for 124 countries. He found

"There is a clearly significant (at the 2% level) negative effect of political democracy on economic growth, however measured."

Weede went on to look at those countries in which "government revenue as a percentage of GDP exceeds 20%." His findings are remarkable:

"For these nations, many of the control variables lose most of their importance, in particular for GDP growth rates. Truly staggering, however, are the results in the democracy row of Table 4. Here it is obvious that political democracy is a major barrier to economic growth in those countries where the state strongly interferes in the economy."

While democracy is not harmful in weak states or states that are small relative to the economy, it is clearly harmful in strong states or states that are large relative to the economy. (This includes the U.S.) Where democracy entails collectivization, it slows down economic growth. Where government is large, there is pooling of resources and control of them by government. This creates commons problems (see here and here). Economic growth slows.

In 1992, John F. Helliwell (in an NBER article) again looked at democracy and growth. His study covered 98 countries between 1960 and 1985. He uses several sophisticated methods. The first one leads him to write

"The above experiments suggest that the results showing a positive effect flowing from income to democracy are not due to a positive effect flowing from democracy to growth. Indeed, whatever feedback there is seems to be negative…"

Helliwell found that higher income tends to lead to more democracy, but that the higher democracy then leads to lower future income. Democracy’s effect on income growth is negative.

His second method led him to conclude

"When the equation is re-estimated…the effect turns fairly large and negative, but is still not significantly different from zero…The fact that the estimated effect turns negative…is, however, what would be expected if there were a positive effect of income on democracy and a negative reverse effect from democracy to subsequent economic growth."

Other studies of this question have mixed results. Some of them have known flaws and shortcomings. Those who believe that democracy helps economic growth can find some support for their hypothesis in earlier but less well-done studies. A 1990 review of a dozen or so studies by Larry Sirowy and Alex Inkeles (in the journal Studies in Comparative International Development) concludes there is no robust evidence, one way or the other. Unfortunately, this study does not conduct a meta-analysis, but it singles out Weede’s paper as one that more properly uses control variables. Given that and the Helliwell findings, a reasonable conclusion is that the empirical evidence does not support the hypothesis that democracy enhances economic growth, and there is some good evidence of the opposite.

Those who, like Paul Wolfowitz, think that spreading democracy overseas enhances American security and welfare should come forward and present their theory and evidence that it does.

Where is there evidence that America is even capable of accomplishing this goal, much less that the goal makes any sense? The American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 certainly did not help Haiti or the average American. American imperialism seems often enough to be the American goal.

The rhetoric of our leaders is not enough. They have had their way for 100 years, the latest instance being in Iraq. Not only is the theory of spreading democracy to promote American security subject to many severe criticisms to the point that it makes no sense, but in practice it runs afoul of many difficulties. Iraq provides a good illustration of this. Vietnam provides another.

A foreign policy of non-neutrality has several truly major inherent and severe problems.

  • inability to recognize politically dynamic forces as they are occurring
  • inability to forecast the path of politically dynamic forces
  • catalyzing new political forces by interfering in another nation
  • being held hostage to events initiated by political forces in another nation
  • having policy captured by domestic and foreign interest groups
  • being drawn into the fights of others
  • having to deal with the actions and reactions of neighbors who have interests in the country being interfered with

The leaders of a nation that is intent on interfering with other nations and supporting movements that it deems anti-autocratic face all these problems and more.

As an example, I point to Woodrow Wilson’s strong support of the Russian revolution in the spring of 1917. In his speech to Congress cited above, he said

"Does not every American feel that assurance has been added to our hope for the future peace of the world by the wonderful and heartening things that have been happening within the last few weeks in Russia? Russia was known by those who knew it best to have been always in fact democratic at heart, in all the vital habits of her thought, in all the intimate relationships of her people that spoke their natural instinct, their habitual attitude toward life. The autocracy that crowned the summit of her political structure, long as it had stood and terrible as was the reality of its power, was not in fact Russian in origin, character, or purpose; and now it has been shaken off and the great, generous Russian people have been added in all their naive majesty and might to the forces that are fighting for freedom in the world, for justice, and for peace. Here is a fit partner for a League of Honor."

In this incredible passage, Wilson managed to condemn the czarist form of government as un-Russian. He managed to affirm the Russian Revolution as democratic. He did not understand the forces and divisions within Russia at that time. He did not foresee the imminent overthrow of the provisional government by Lenin and the Bolsheviks a short six months later.

Are Obama’s strategic positions any better on Afghanistan and Pakistan than Bush’s on Iraq? Are they any less intent on spreading democracy? Not at all.

The White House calls for "realistic and achievable objectives." Their first objective is not unreasonable as these things go. It is to disrupt the terrorists in the region and stop them from conducting terrorist attacks. The next objective is Wilsonian. It is

"Promoting a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that serves the Afghan people and can eventually function, especially regarding internal security, with limited international support."

It is one thing to go after terrorists, as Jefferson went after pirates, although going after them on land has certain difficulties of territory and sovereignty that need to be ironed out. But putting those things aside, it is entirely another matter to get involved with building a government for Afghanistan. That continues the same old policy of spreading democracy that has no sound basis. It’s the Bush policy all over again. Mixing that up with hunting down terrorists is strategic confusion. It is in fact quite amazing to read the White House’s explicit intention to bolster the legitimacy of the Afghan government!

Obama is also aiming to strengthen "Afghan security forces." These forces do not necessarily represent the interests of various warlords in Afghanistan, which means that Obama aims to interfere in this way again in Afghanistan politics.

That is not all. Obama also aims at

"Assisting efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan and a vibrant economy that provides opportunity for the people of Pakistan."

This spells involvement in the domestic politics of a second large and turbulent country. Neighboring countries like Iran, India, and China have interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This means involvement with the reactions of these nations.

The American empire has had a consistent policy for 100 years: national security via spreading democracy. Obama is adhering to this policy. However, overseas democracy is neither necessary nor sufficient for security in America.

Theory suggests that democracy has a negative relation to economic welfare, especially as states get larger and infringe more greatly on property rights. Empirical studies over a hundred countries and several decades do not support the hypothesis that democracy enhances economic growth. If anything, they support a negative relation. To the extent that economic growth is a form of security and enhances security, domestic democracy reduces security.

If a foreign democracy has reduced economic growth, why would that enhance U.S. security? There is no good reason. One might expect that less prosperous nations might have a greater tendency and incentive to become trouble spots.

When the U.S. actually goes about the practical business of enhancing democracy in foreign lands, it runs into a host of problems that necessarily arise from the nature of interfering in the politics of others. The costs are high, often very high and long continued. They fall on the average American. Any benefits are showered upon specific interest groups, like Lockheed Martin, farmers, consultants, and Halliburton. It may also have appeal to those who mistakenly think they are doing God’s work through the State.

If there is no known general benefit to the average American from this strategy and high costs, the strategy of promoting national security through spreading democracy appears to be irrational from their point of view.

It is my guess that Obama has not thought through the meaning of the strategy any more than he has thought through his Keynesianism. I think that our elected government officials do some thinking and questioning and shaping of positions so that they can get elected, but that, by and large, they unthinkingly accept the main assumptions of American strategies. They tinker around the edges but they do not really alter anything. Even when their rhetoric suggests something more radical, their actions retreat to the status quo. A Kennedy will send more advisers to South Vietnam and attempt to control its government. Domestically, they go about their usual business of making the democracy more and more totalitarian. Occasionally a Nixon will go to China, but it won’t matter much because at home he and the American leadership will ignore the kinds of policies that might liberalize the economy and instead promote those that destabilize it and slow it down. And in foreign policy, they will stick to the same old Wilsonianism that should be thoroughly discredited and that has not served America well.