Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts

We greatly appreciate all of the wonderful postings this week on America Between the Wars and thank all of those who participated. We wanted to conclude by touching on two of the issues raised in the discussion. One is the question Matt Waxman raised concerning the future of the U.S. political debate about democracy promotion. The other is Roger Alford’s recognition of the continuities between the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, which also implies speculating about policy continuities looking forward (a point raised by Ken Anderson who was kind enough to post from his trip to Paris).

Matt is quite right to wonder about the future of democracy promotion, especially given the political taint it has assumed as Bush has talked about the so-called “freedom agenda.” Many Democratic politicians and activists seem to forget that this was once their issue, not only in the 1992 campaign and during the Clinton years, but from Wilson through Roosevelt and Truman to JFK. Too many now see democracy promotion as a George W. Bush invention, and a number of people we interviewed, for example, Madeleine Albright, are quite upset that the war in Iraq has given democracy promotion such a bad name for those on the political left. In the early 1990s, there was also the euphoria associated with the collapse of communism, and the flourishing of democracy not just in Central and Eastern Europe, but in countries such as Mongolia and Namibia. As Matt notes, the international trends are less favorable today.

If the Democrats prevail in November, winning both the presidency and larger majorities in Congress (as polls now suggest), some will be tempted to adopt an “Anything but Bush” attitude as the Bush team did with Clinton policies in 2001. We hope they will avoid doing so – especially when it concerns democracy promotion and the place of liberal values in American foreign policy. To be sure, we must learn from Bush’s hubris and failures: there are far better ways to promote democracy other than overthrowing regimes. And while it is hard to see how a Democrat could define a progressive foreign policy that was purely realist in outlook, it will be tougher to raise democracy promotion as a central concern in this political environment. Matt is right to point to the institutional deficiencies in U.S. foreign policy in helping to do build civil society elsewhere, but it is also politically difficult because unlike holding elections, the institution-building takes time, and that means clear payoffs are way down the road, often after administrations have left office (witness Jimmy Carter’s efforts in Latin America, for example).

As Matt notes, McCain has raised the notion of a League of Democracies (which seems to build on the Clinton administration’s Community of Democracies). The League, however, seems largely focused on having countries with shared values come together to deal with common challenges. So far, at least, it seems not as focused on promoting democracy where it doesn’t exist. But if it were to get off the ground (and a number of top Obama advisers also have supported similar ideas), then democracy promotion might be an obvious agenda item for such an institution.

Roger is quite right to notice the continuities between the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations when it comes to the challenges of wielding American leverage and might. The Clinton team was not happy about leaving Saddam Hussein in power. And the United States did go to war in 1999 over Kosovo without U.N. authorization. Continuity across administrations since the end of the Cold War is a big theme of our book, and we do believe that on many of these questions there will be continuities after January 2009, as Ken’s discussions in Paris also indicate.

For example, it’s not clear how much emphasis there will be on humanitarian intervention in the next administration given that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be front and center for some time. But certainly if the next president believes that the use of force is necessary somewhere in the world (whether for humanitarian reasons or to meet a security threat), and if he believes that Russia and China will not support such action, then he is likely to go forward anyway, either as Clinton did under NATO auspices in 1999 or as Bush did with his “coalition of the willing” in 2003. And that certainly raises questions about the future of international law and the role of the United Nations in legitimizing the use of force.

In this sense, we’ve come full circle, which is exactly what we set out to do in this book. Our belief is that instead of dismissing the years we describe as a meaningless “holiday from history,” we can learn valuable lessons from this recent past, becoming better informed about our current debates, and hopefully making better choices in the future. As America grapples with the complexities of the 21st century, struggling to find the right balance between its power, responsibilities, and ambitions in a globalizing world, the lessons and legacies of the years America between the wars, from 11/9 to 9/11, will endure.

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