For the last seven months, headlines have documented daily the tumultuous upheavals engulfing the Middle East. Long-time dictators and American allies have fallen, or will soon fall. One lesson that the U.S. must take away from the Arab Spring is that dictatorships rarely dissolve peacefully; instead, they crash and burn, erupt like volcanoes, and tear apart societies like earthquakes. Therefore, it is imperative for the U.S. to rethink entrenched foreign policy. America must stop pretending that dictatorships are in our national interest and instead provide unequivocal support for democracy across the globe.
America has long sought to balance competing, if not contradictory, feelings of moral excellence and a desire for global power. On one hand, America proclaims itself to be the vanguard of democracy and a beacon of human rights around the world. On the other, America’s superpower status permits it to meddle in the affairs of other nations, in the name of national security, to a degree unattainable by any other nation in the world.
Perhaps the most egregious contradictions in American foreign policy are the duplicitous policies designed to support or condone authoritarian governments around the globe. For example, the U.S. has sent billions in aid to countries like former President Hosni Mubarak's Egypt and has developed close alliances with oil-rich Gulf States that oppress their populations, silence critics, and violate human rights.
The justification for such policies was to create political and economic stability in bilateral relationships. The logic was that dictators would maintain power, espouse the interests of the U.S., supply America with much-needed oil, harbor overseas military bases, and restrict the spread of Islamic extremism. The logic was sound given the assumptions of dictators’ longevity. Policymakers pursued stability in the international arena, which ensured the status quo.
But the rapid and unexpected Arab Spring reveals the need to radically change U.S. foreign policy to support democratic governance around the world. This is not weak-kneed liberalism. Rather, democratic change serves both American values as well as long-term strategic interests. Democratic governments have routine, peaceful changes of power that make international relations far more predictable in the long term than the explosiveness of autocratic upheavals, revolutions, and coups. It is difficult to argue that American support for Arab dictators now provides stability in the Middle East, strengthens security for Israel, and weakens extremism. Stability is the least accurate description by far.
The only legitimate long-term policy for U.S. interests is to explicitly support democratic reforms in all countries. Admittedly, this is an idealistic view. Reality demands a more nuanced and patient foreign policy that must adapt over decades. But the U.S. should stop pretending that dictatorships can be in our strategic interest, and instead embrace this opportunity for change. For the first time in American history, a marriage of moral excellence and realpolitik is possible. And no other country has the means to pursue democratic change more than the United States.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons