The Bush administration’s angry reaction to Russia’s intervention in South Ossetia was of a piece with its harsh criticism of Vladimir Putin, the popular leader who has brought a measure of order and stability to a country that endured 74 years of communist misrule. The president and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, are clearly offended by Putin’s scarcely disguised view that democracy in Russia cannot mean what it has come to mean in the United States and Europe. It disturbs them that he exercises a personal authority greater than that which is his by virtue of his offices—that he bears, as a political figure, some resemblance to Charles de Gaulle, never a hero to democrats.
One should note that it was precisely the semi-authoritarianism of the Putin government that enlisted the support of the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. “It is not authoritarianism itself that is intolerable,” the courageous Russian wrote in his 1973 Letter to the Soviet Leaders, “but the ideological lies that are daily foisted upon us.” Not authoritarianism, then, but ideological tyranny was the enemy.
Americans, of course, also spurned communist ideology and feared that it might succeed in dominating the world, including the United States. They seemed not to notice that they themselves were in thrall to a political religion; recently, in fact, Yale professor David Gelernter described “Americanism”—that is, American democracy—as the fourth great Western religion. No doubt he cheered when President Bush, in his second inaugural address, declared it to be “the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” In practice, this imperial ambition, for that is what it is, has meant constant meddling in the affairs of governments the U.S. considers to be insufficiently democratic.
There is no doubt, for example, that the National Endowment for Democracy played a significant role in Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004-05. In 1999, the NED initiated the World Movement for Democracy, “which presupposes the universality of the democratic idea” and the inevitability of “democratic transition,” even in a Middle East that lacks democratic traditions. One of the least convincing reasons for waging war on Iraq was to plant the seeds of democracy, with the expectation that they would germinate and grow throughout the region.
Such visions should come as no surprise. America has always prided itself on being the world’s last best hope, a shining city upon a hill. But Woodrow Wilson’s call for a world made safe for democracy focused and intensified that missionary zeal. Most Americans believe democracy to be the only legitimate form of government and the U.S., as the leading democratic nation, to be duty bound to evangelize the world. American officials are quick to lecture leaders of sovereign states who violate one or another of democracy’s commandments, and few of them question their right to impose our system, by military force if necessary, upon those who resist conversion. They would be puzzled by the question once posed by Edmund Burke: “Is it then a truth so universally acknowledged that a pure democracy is the only tolerable form into which human society can be thrown, that a man is not permitted to hesitate about its merits, without the suspicion of being a friend to tyranny, that is, of being a foe to mankind?”
It is a truth acknowledged by neoconservatives, many of whom have the president’s ear. Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, has written that “large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal.” (The word “internal” here is particularly revealing of an interventionist mentality.) That being so, “democratic” Georgia must, at all costs, be defended against “autocratic” Russia.
It is not without interest that Kristol is an ex-Trotskyite. Like him, most of his followers have a leftist past, and that accounts for the fact that they are attracted to ideological movements. If communism did not save the world, perhaps democracy will. One can see something of the same instinct in the ex-communists who gathered around the old National Review. Frank Meyer was a former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Max Eastman translated several works by Trotsky. James Burnham, another ex-Trotskyite, argued that a new “managerial class” would replace the old capitalist class; different class, but the same structure of analysis.
There is something to Burnham’s argument, but it testifies to a cast of mind, one that predisposed him to a crusading internationalism. In a book-length pamphlet of 1953, he called for the “liberation” of Eastern Europe and dismissed mere “containment” of the Soviet Union as a sign of weakness. For him, as for so many ex-communists, anticommunism had replaced communism as a motivating ideology. One cannot help but sense that, without quite saying so, he, like many at National Review, including the late William F. Buckley Jr., wanted the West to wage hot war against Russia.
Leftists differ with neoconservatives on a number of important matters, particularly relating to culture, but they share the neoconservative enthusiasm for democratic revolution around the world. Why, one wonders, is this so? The answer, again, can be found in their predilection for ideology. Even before the Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe satellites collapsed, leftists had begun to distance themselves from real existing socialism, yet they were less embarrassed by the record of communist regimes in power than by their manifest failure.
Communism having been exposed as unfit by its inability to survive, leftists went in search of another ideology and soon hit upon democracy. For them, however, “democracy” does not simply mean universal suffrage and equal opportunity; they have redefined it to refer to political-social radicalism in general. To spread democracy, then, means to promote feminism, multiculturalism, homosexual rights, environmentalism—and socialism.
In the postwar era, those who raised their voices in opposition to America’s ideological foreign policy have been political realists such as Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, Henry Kissinger, and, above all, George Kennan. Burnham’s attack on the policy of containment was aimed directly at Kennan, its architect but also a probing critic of the manner in which Americans conducted foreign policy. Kennan was able to draw upon his vast experience as a Russian-speaking expert and diplomat in the USSR and, unlike so many of his generation, he was never tempted by communist, or any other, ideology, most of which espoused an egalitarianism that was foreign to his nature. “I am,” he told one interviewer, “very much opposed to egalitarian tendencies of all sorts in governmental life and in other walks of life.”
Naturally, then, Kennan never believed that the export of democracy was a semi-religious imperative. Forms of government and society, he knew, grow out of the historical experience of a people, and historical experiences differ greatly. “Our national experience,” he insisted “was never shared by any country and will never be shared by any country in the future.” We ought not to be surprised, therefore, to find that other peoples resent being told how they must order their public and private lives.
In general, Kennan, in the tradition of Plato and Tocqueville, preferred authoritarian, nonideological systems of rule. As a result of having observed Kurt Schuschnigg’s government in 1930s Austria, he concluded that while ideological tyranny was responsible for more evil than democracy, benevolent authoritarianism offered greater possibilities for good. He admired the semi-authoritarian system presided over by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck not only because of the realism with which the Iron Chancellor conducted foreign policy but because of his antipathy to mass political enthusiasms.
Such enthusiasms make it difficult to conduct a foreign policy based upon the national interest. The American people like to think that their government is pursuing moral goals, that it is striving to create a better world. Thus foreign policy makers defend their decisions in moral terms. Those like Kennan, Niebuhr, and Morgenthau, who defended the national interest, believe that those entrusted with the conduct of foreign policy must take the world as it is, not as they would like it to be. They must recognize realities of power and not be led astray by a legalistic-moralistic approach to world affairs. According to Kennan, such an approach, “rooted as it unquestionably is in a desire to do away with war and violence, makes violence more enduring, more terrible, and more destructive to political stability than did the older motives of national interest. A war fought in the name of high moral principle finds no early end short of some form of total domination.”
The legalistic-moralistic approach, with its lack of restraint, is precisely what America’s foreign-policy establishment has adopted. The United States’ determination to foment democratic revolution in every region of the world can only mean interventions without end and, inevitably, conflict with states unimpressed by democratic dogma. It has seriously damaged relations with Russia, which remains a proud, nuclear-armed power—and one now mercifully free of ideology. Had Georgia been a member of NATO, as the Bush administration insists it must, we would now, as Pat Buchanan has put it, “be eyeball to eyeball with Russia, facing war in the Caucasus” over a matter that does no harm to our interests. We ought by now to have learned the lesson of 1914—that nations can awake to find themselves in unnecessary wars that threaten the very foundations of civilized life.
Lee Congdon is the author, most recently, of George Kennan: A Writing Life.