As a lapsed and somewhat jaded idealist, I tend to analyze international relations independently of the moral categories that I apply to individuals. Certain regimes are just so beyond the pale that I simply avoid devoting much mental energy to them; North Korea and Burma, you’ll notice, rarely make appearances on the blog. But beyond a visceral repulsion to the extreme offenders, I usually find myself unmoved by whether a particular country deserves a certain outcome or not, and am instead drawn to figuring out what combined to make that outcome happen, what might have been done differently to achieve a different result, and what the likelihood is that the circumstances can subsequently be influenced in America’s favor. As evidence of the extent of my moral decline, I’ve even found myself agreeing with Henry Kissinger from time to time lately.
That is admittedly a very abstract way of approaching international relations, and probably not a very healthy one.
Which is why I’m thankful that Shadi Hamid brought together a group of foreign policy luminaries to sign this open letter to President Barack Obama (.pdf). Released on Tuesday, the letter calls on Obama to make support of democratic self-determination and freedom of political expression a centerpiece of his policy towards the Arab and Muslim world. It’s a far cry from democracy promotion, and closer to democracy support, as outlined in this CSIS white paper (.pdf) that was also just released yesterday.
Both the letter and the CSIS paper make the case that supporting not just elections, but also the building block activities that go into a democratic political culture is in the strategic interests of the United States. So even morally bankrupt people like myself can get on board. Both acknowledge that there will inevitably be tensions between the two as well. But as the letter points out, while providing the oxygen of democracy to the Middle East might allow extremist parties to burn, it will also allow moderate parties to breathe.
Ultimately, of course, the real point here is that nations are made up of people. And while the standards of judgment for the two are not identical, neither are they quite so hermetically distinct as my writing sometimes suggests. I have a hunch, too, that populaces are going to be playing an ever-increasing role in the behavior of nation states in the coming years, as the economic downturn starts to be felt more acutely. So the more that the resulting bottom-up ferment is channeled into well-supported democratic and peaceful political insitutions, the better.