Friday, 14 November 2008

Continuing on the Latin America policy theme

This Greg Weeks post has been on my “need to blog about” list for a while. In response to a broadside from then-not-president-elect Barack Obama aimed at Hugo Chávez, Weeks writes:

[I]f democracy is the key precondition to good relations with the U.S., then how will we deal with China, Saudi Arabia, etc.? The answer, of course, is that democracy isn’t the litmus test for anything.

I’d dissent in part here; I think it’s clearly been a key part of the U.S.’ post-Cold War agenda (and, arguably, a priority on the U.S. agenda going back to at least the Carter administration) to promote democracy and human rights more broadly, particularly in the Western Hemisphere. But there is certainly a Maslowian dimension to that agenda; we obviously have greater, higher-priority strategic interests at stake in the Arabian peninsula and China, and arguably less leverage, to promote our preferred form of governance in those places. More to the point, there is a clear, emerging consensus of the governments of the Western Hemisphere in favor of democratic practice that does not exist in the Arabian peninsula or East Asia.

Would Chávez and Morales be getting more of a free pass from Washington if they were attempting a right-wing equivalent (whatever that might be) of the Bolivarian revolution? Obviously this counterfactual doesn’t exist to any meaningful degree, but I suspect today the tolerance for a new Allende would be low among Republicans and Democrats alike.


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I would just respond that I did not argue that promotion of democracy isn’t on the agenda, and I would agree that the U.S. prefers democracy. My point is different—we like democracy, but it is not the litmus test for relations. If it were, we’d be antagonistic toward a lot of our current allies.


Maybe, but I think democracy is a key litmus test for relations in the Americas, even if we don’t necessarily apply it on a global basis. Maybe that’s because we have the luxury of making it one here, but I’d argue that the correct approach is to make it a litmus test in our relations with countries where our influence can plausibly make a difference and/or where there is not an overriding strategic interest to the contrary—and further to try to continue to expand the areas of the world in which we can and do make it a litmus test. (And I’d hardly classify China as an “ally” of the United States, although I’ll grant Saudi Arabia.)

Besides which, I don’t even think Obama was saying democracy was globally a litmus test, just that it applied to our relationship with Venezuela.


That veers very close to tautology—democracy is a litmus test for good relations unless it is not. The other problem is defining democracy, since Venezuela has had numerous free and fair elections. If by democracy we mean something deeper, then we would also have to disqualify Colombia, which is our ally.


I would argue that there is a key tension in US foreign policy on this subject for well over a century (indeed, one could take it back to before that) between a stated desire to promote democracy and a panoply of national security priorities. It has never been a litmus test, and I don’t think it ever will be (even when presidents say that it is). It is a preference that sometimes exists more in the realm of the ideal (if not the rhetorical) than it actually does in practice.

It is extremely difficult, for example, to look at US-Latin American relations in the 20th Century and not see this. And it starts well before Carter, btw, although Carter elucidated a more coherent idealist/liberal approach to the region than had some of his predecessor, but you can trace the rhetorical goals back to Wilson, and even to 19th century politicians who reveled in the independence of LatAm from its European masters and wanted to spread US-style democratic governance in the region.

Likewise our recent actions in the War on Terror have, unfortunately, further underscored the fact that ideals and policy actions frequently don’t match.

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