The essential question in judging our current foreign policy is whether or not democracy is better suited to the world than the myriad other systems that have evolved there over time. Most governing systems in the world, both secular and religious, evolved in response to societies’ needs for order. These systems evolved from diverse cultural bases and even today, reflect the diverse realities that exist in the world regions involved.

Our system here in America is an amalgam of the governing systems existing in the regions that sent us our early populations, heavily influenced by both the creative thinking of our leadership and the repressive nature of the British government at the time.

We think it’s a pretty good system. We count our blessings that our “democracy” has played such a large and positive role in our evolution. Significantly, despite occasional aberrations, most Americans think it is the best system in the world, a system that virtually any other country would profit to install.

That may well be true, but when it comes to our relations with the rest of the world, is there something about our system that is absolutely better than all others? Is it better for the world’s diverse populations than what those populations have evolved for themselves on their own?

This raises the difficult philosophical issue of whether our values are universal. Is our basic attitude on the treatment of women equally valid for the conduct of life in, say, an African tribe? Should we support or even intervene on behalf of “democratic” movements in those countries simply because we think “democracy” works so well in America? Is Christianity objectively superior to Islam or Judaism? These are difficult questions, but they need to be asked.

Conflicts of all sizes have always existed between nation states and certainly always will. We Americans, probably based on our belief in the primacy of our “democracy” and particularly since World War II, have tended to wish to intervene, often covertly, in those cases where a foreign country has evolved in a way hostile to us. Give them our democracy and all will be well.

What is the history of those interventions? They are almost always in countries where their political evolution has brought them an undemocratic leader who governs through repression. In those cases where a change to a “democratic” system has succeeded, the population, with little to no experience with such a system of governance, has not always adapted easily to the resulting changes. In many such cases, the countries in question have ultimately slid back toward the old, more familiar and repressive form of government. If you look at Afghanistan or consider Wikipedia’s “Coverage of United States involvement in regime change in Latin America,” you will see the transition from repressive to “democratic” often fades fairly rapidly back toward the repressive, undemocratic form of government that preceded their “democratic” experiment.

What is the message our experience in this arena brings us? First of all, it tells us our “democratic” system, however wonderful we think it is for America, is not always something countries with relatively repressive systems can easily accept and then make function. The message there is quite clearly that attempts by any country, however noble the motivation, to bring the benefits of “democracy” to the undemocratic world, will not necessarily be successful.

Is there then a potentially positive and successful way for us democrats to deal with the world’s non-democrats? Given the ongoing hostile and miserable state of our own internal political differences, it is difficult to believe anything rational might somehow inject itself into this aspect of our foreign policy.

Nevertheless, there are many approaches that have the potential to moderate the positions of hostile regimes and do not bring with them the immediate possibility of conflict. First, we must strengthen our own “democracy” and make it more fair, attractive and desirable. Second, we must strengthen our foreign alliances. Solid, united alliances of democratic countries can, and do, bring immense pressure on nation states. Trade, diplomacy, foreign aid, global environmental policy, containment, the international monetary structure, economic aid and collective security with our allies are all areas wherein pressure can be brought to bear on non-compliant states.

If the going gets really tough, we have sanctions at our disposal.

Any or all of these measures would appear to be preferable to the largely unsuccessful overt or covert “democratization” of undemocratic governments opposed to us and our positions.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA operations officer who served abroad in East and West Europe and the Middle East during the Cold War, working on the Soviet and East European targets.

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