David Rieff has a long essay in the National Interest excoriating democracy promotion, which he deems a relic, a religion, and at this point in history “unwise.” But his essay is constructed around Russia and China, with the occasional nod to sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In his nearly 4,500 words, here are a few words and terms that do not appear a single time: “Middle East”; “Egypt”; “Tunisia”; “Libya”; “Syria”; and, bizarrely, “Arab Spring.”

To speak of the spread (or lack thereof) of democracy in 2012 while ignoring the Middle East seems woefully outdated. Rieff writes:

During the Cold War, the utility of democracy promotion was clear: it was a weapon in that conflict. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, it was possible to believe a new world order curated by the United States might actually come into being. Then, pursuing democracy promotion was an entirely rational decision for policy makers, for it would have strengthened that world order. But now, when the new world order has turned out to be a chimera, why continue to pursue a policy configured for other times and other conditions? It is true that, historically, the United States has had a revolutionary conception of its role in the world. But particularly given its straitened circumstances, is it wise for the United States to pursue the missionary agenda it has pushed at particular times in the past? Again, consider the Russian Federation. In some parts of the world, U.S. and Russian interests are at odds; in other parts of the world, they have interests in common. Under these circumstances, what is the national-interest rationale for supporting the internal opposition to the Putin regime and insisting that whatever happens, this support will continue?

As a side note, who is “insisting that whatever happens, this support will continue?” This seems to be a straw man. The American government has indeed shaped its approach to helping opposition movements based on a number of factors, which is why the American response to Iran’s opposition has differed from the response to Libya’s, or to Syria’s, or to Jordan’s, etc.

But as to Rieff’s larger point, he remains bogged down in the Cold War paradigm of global ideological struggle, though he admits democracy promotion was a useful tool in winning that war. The implication of Rieff’s article is that democracy promotion is useful as a weapon against an enemy, but cannot plausibly be converted to peacetime use. Our relationship with Russia has changed. It is now more complicated, but far more peaceful and constructive, both for our two countries and for the world on the whole. Which is why it makes for a terrible test case for American democracy promotion in the modern world.

What is the use of democracy promotion now? Well, the much-loved “stability” of despotic Arab regimes (and other non-Arab Muslim regimes, but to a lesser degree) turned out to be a mirage. Ignoring the role of democracy promotion ensured an American foreign policy based mostly on a delusion. And once the regime of Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt, the lack of serious democracy promotion there guaranteed that democrats weren’t waiting in the wings to replace him either.

“Leading from behind” in Libya has turned out to be something close to an unqualified disaster, especially when you consider its effect on the wider region. Does that mean intervention was a mistake? Or does it mean that there should have been more on-the-ground follow through and efforts help set up and shape civil society programs there?

In Syria, the rebels have expressed a level of frustration with the West’s inaction that indicates that if Bashar al-Assad falls, we may not be well positioned to influence events thereafter. If Assad goes, something will have to replace him. Would it be preferable that a democratic and pro-Western government replace Assad? If so, democracy promotion would be at the center of those efforts.

None of this is to suggest that democracy promotion is a silver bullet or magic wand. But if you turn away from Russia or the far east and pay attention to the region still shaping events, the Middle East, it’s fairly easy to spot the utility of democracy promotion as one tool available to the West whose neglect in favor of “realism” and spheres of influence has proven to be, to use Rieff’s term, “unwise.”

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