At war with liberal interventionism

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: November 19 2004

The course of US foreign policy over coming years will be set by the outcome of a struggle between liberal interventionism and hard-headed realism - between George W. Bush's embrace of democratic transformation in the Middle East and the harsher strategic truths confronting America's power in the region.

Mr Bush started out as a realist. Insofar as he was closely interested in international relations before the 2000 election, his prospectus emphasised the robust deployment of American power in the national self-interest and a withdrawal from nation-building and humanitarian entanglements. Even after September 11 2001, there was a suspicion that the administration's conversion to the neo-conservative cause was as much rhetorical as real, a cloak under which to complete unfinished business in Iraq.

No longer. Since his November 2 re-election, the president has removed the doubts. During his White House press conference with Tony Blair last week, Mr Bush returned again and again to the spread of freedom as the centrepiece of US foreign policy from Afghanistan to Palestine. The words were deliberate and unmistakeable: "The reason why I'm so strong on democracy is democracies don't go to war with each other. I've got great faith in democracies to promote peace. And that's why I'm such a strong believer that the way forward in the Middle East, the broader Middle East, is to promote democracy."

If there was any lingering uncertainty, Mr Bush dispelled it with the appointment of Condoleezza Rice to that bastion of pragmatism, the State Department. Ms Rice, too, was once a realist - a believer in the theory of international relations that says power is all that matters as nations pursue their selfish national interest. She cut her foreign policy teeth under the tutelage of Brent Scowcroft, who, as national security adviser to the first president Bush, was as tough-minded a pragmatist as any since Henry Kiss- inger. But that was before the twin towers fell and the present administration set off on the road to Baghdad.

Mr Bush's advocacy of democratic transformation explains the strength of his relationship with Mr Blair. The British prime minister has long believed that it is the duty of the west to do good in the world. In Mr Blair's words at the White House: "I think what we are learning is that there is not stability of any long-term kind without democratic rights for free people to decide their government." The promotion of freedom, he believes, should be a joint project to bind the wounds of the transatlantic alliance. As he put it in a speech this week at London's Mansion House: "Democracy is the meeting point for Europe and America." France's Jacques Chirac, a European realist, begs to differ.

In Mr Blair's view, their common democratic cause transcends the natural political divide between a Republican president in Washington and a Labour prime minister in London. The political labels are different but, watching the two men, it almost seems as if Woodrow Wilson had met William Gladstone.

This is a view of the world with which I instinctively agree. The historical experience of Europeans speaks to the gruesome consequences of totalitarian regimes and balance-of-power politics. As much as I admire the international order created after the second world war, the central premise that states usurp the rights of citizens is no longer sustainable.

Realism in foreign policy can claim few recent successes. Support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and eyes-closed pragmatism towards Saudi Arabia brought us Osama bin Laden. Realism turned its back on Pakistan's proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It also armed Saddam Hussein against Iran. Dealing with the despots has not made us safer.

Yet there is liberal interventionism and liberal interventionism. Mr Blair seemed to acknowledge this when he assured his Mansion House audience: "I am not, repeat not, advocating a series of military solutions to achieve it [democracy]." The purpose was to draw a distinction with the neo-conservatives in Washington. Liberal foreign policies can too often turn into armed missions - the cause is noble so any means are justified.

This is the deep divide between a European liberalism that says democracy should be spread through the projection on to the international stage of the rule of law, by the adoption of shared norms and the promotion of multilateral institutions, and a neo-conservatism that calls for America's unparalleled power to be deployed to order nations to "democratise or else".

Nor can liberalism entirely escape the real world. It is inevitably adulterated by realism. Thus, while Mr Bush has declared (prematurely) the triumph of democracy in Afghanistan, his administration simultaneously backs the ruling despot in neighbouring Uzbekistan. Liberties are being curtailed rather than extended in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Democracy is an anathema in China. Yet Mr Bush boasts of closer relationships with Moscow and Beijing than any of his predecessors. Meanwhile, to demand that Palestinians embrace democracy as the price of US engagement in the Middle East seems a suspiciously convenient way to avoid putting any pressure on the Israeli government.

I doubt such contradictions much worry Mr Bush. But there is a more immediate challenge to the neo-conservative mission. Neither Mr Bush's election victory nor the military pacification of Falluja has dispelled the deep pessimism in Washington about the prospects for a transition to democracy in Iraq. The gloom is not the preserve of disappointed Democrats. Republican realists, still a force in Mr Bush's party, are openly sceptical about the chances of defeating the current insurgency. Democracy is not the answer for Sunnis fighting to regain a monopoly on power in Iraq.

The visitor to Washington is struck by how many supporters of the administration have come to see the creation of a democratic Iraq as an unattainable dream. The discussion has turned to damage limitation. The realists' case - that military victory is impossible and that US voters have neither the will nor the patience for a long-term US occupation - has increasing resonance.

Mr Bush insists otherwise. But his policy is Iraq has become an act of faith. The president is discovering his own truth. Democracy and war are an unhappy mix.