CSAD Morning Remarks: Interests or Ideals? An Overly Simplistic Dichotomy

The CSAD conference continued today, launched by morning remarks with Elliott Abrams and Nicholas Burns. I’d like to focus on the speakers’ insistence that American foreign policy relies on a balance between American interests and ideals. That’s a broad theme to cover, but as the Observer’s Tess Waggoner noted in her article in this week’s issue, the question of promoting democracy abroad includes not only “should” and “how,” but also can.” Our intervention sometimes benefits neither our interests nor our ideals, as opposed to one at the expense of the other.

While it is seemingly selfless of American politicians to frequently show concern for the welfare of foreign citiziens (Burns cited “our ethical obligation to improve the human condition … and help other people to free themselves,” and Abrams expressed similar views, even saying “we have [in the past] been too concerned with the side of our interests”), nobody attempted to bridge this dichotomy and acknowledge that the two may overlap.

Obviously, American intervention abroad has not always done more good than harm. The devastating collateral damage of our involvement in Iraq, both to Iraqi citizens and insurgents, as well as American troops, calls into question the justification of attempts to implement democracy. But that much is fairly obvious to the politically aware. Burns and Abrams were both optimistic about long-run improvement, suggesting perhaps that incurring losses now, devastating as they are, may lead to a better future for both countries.

But there was an element of condescension to the speakers’ rhetoric. Burns said, “my sense is that the Arabic people want freedom … they’re very entrepreneurial.” Abrams almost implied a lack of initiative among Arab citizens, saying, “when they use conspiracy theories … it creates the idea that Arabs don’t have control of their own fate,” and that there exists an “internal limiting principle about what [Arabs] can do.”

But intervention—whether in the name of aiding the oppressed or supporting American interests—does not create problems only in the short-run. The assumption that promoting democracy abroad will, if not now, then later, benefit the human condition or serve our interests is bold. The beginning of the Arab Spring in Egypt has often been compared to that of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which ultimately resulted in a failure of democracy and a roadblock to American interests. Neither speaker addressed the potential unforeseen consequences of American intervention, either in the short-run or the long-run.

Abrams said, “we’re not imposing our system on you—but we’ve got experience.” Our experience with democracy is confined to the U.S., which doesn’t necessarily translate into knowledge of functioning democracy abroad. There’s a difference between experience and experimentation, and the latter is potentially costly for ethical idealism and American interests. Even if a functional democracy were implemented after dismantling a regime, who will enforce free elections after one party gains control? This traces back to 1979 Iran as well: dismantling whatever regime is in place now (often one that we previously supported) and setting something else up won’t guarantee long-term benefits. And as Jon Green noted, the Arab people’s choice may not be in our best interests.

So it seems the tension isn’t necessarily between moral idealism and the American interest, but how they overlap and whether we can achieve long-term success in either.

6 Comments

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  1. kachen kimmell 13 April 2012 — 1:18 PM

    Interesting conference @ Kenyon.

  2. This is great Sarah. All I’ll add in is that implying that there may be an ““internal limiting principle about what [Arabs] can do.” is more than condescension, it was blatant racism.

    • And since anti-racism is increasingly written into our codes of permissible speech, we can look forward to criminalizing anyone who speaks of limits on what we can or ought to attempt.

      I can’t see *that* leading to any problems. Next stop, utopia!

  3. Wow Sarah well said! Great Job!

  4. This is such a great article that everybody need to read. It unfolds a lot of facts that are usually overlooked regarding US foreign policy.

  5. “There’s a difference between experience and experimentation, and the latter is potentially costly for ethical idealism and American interests.” Very well said!

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