The battle between “idealism” and “Realpolitik” in the making of foreign policy is vividly on display now with regard to Egypt: “Idealists” (aka “neocons”) generally favor cutting off aid to the military regime which is slaughtering its own people in the streets; “Realpolitikers” generally advocate holding our noses and backing the generals as a better alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood. My purpose here is not to engage in the debate about Egypt per se (I will do that separately), but simply to point out that, although the U.S. cannot afford to stick to its ideals in each and every foreign-policy crisis (compromises do sometimes have to be made in the real world), when we deviate too far from our principles we lose what is arguably the most powerful weapon in our arsenal.
Evidence of this proposition comes, in a back-handed tribute, from none other than the reigning Communist emperor of China, Xi Jinping. His minions have just issued a memo, known in proper Orwellian fashion as Document No. 9, that warns Communist apparatchiks about the biggest threat to their rule. No, it does not come from the US 7th Fleet, from the American nuclear arsenal, or any other manifestation of American hard power in which Realpolitikers typically repose all of their faith.
Rather the peril that Xi warns about comes from seven subversive ideas starting with “Western constitutional democracy.” The others on the list include “promoting ‘universal values’ of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market ‘neo-liberalism,’ and ‘nihilist’ criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.”
The New York Times reporter Chris Buckley, who obtained a copy of the document, writes that it warns cadres, “Western forces hostile to China and dissidents within the country are still constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere.” One Communist propagandist, implementing the document’s advice, told mining officials that “promotion of Western constitutional democracy is an attempt to negate the party’s leadership.”
The Communists are right—the Western ideals embodied, above all, in the Declaration of Independence are a big threat to the rule of anti-American dictators, whether in China or in other countries. Which is the best argument I have ever heard for why the U.S. should be doing more to promote those very ideals. Promoting democracy can be messy in the short-run and isn’t always possible in every circumstance but, in general, it is the best long-term bet for promoting American interests. In the case of China in particular, the U.S. should not be focusing simply on narrow economic or security concerns; instead it should be doing more to spread behind the Bamboo Curtain the subversive ideas which the Communist bosses fear so much.