The turmoil in Iran since its contested elections has created two policy dilemmas for Washington. Suddenly there's more at stake than the future of Tehran's nuclear-weapons program. Since last summer, Iran's political future has hung in the balance, too.
In the simple-minded realist calculus so in vogue these days, the United States, when it sets its foreign policy, must choose between head and heart, interests and ideals, and in both cases favor the former. This is supposed to correct the alleged idealism of the George W. Bush years, even though Bush did very little to promote democracy anywhere. Sure, the new thinking goes, Americans might prefer that democracy succeed in Iran. But right now the most important issue is the mullahs' nukes, and that must dominate Washington's calculus. When ideals and interest collide, ideals must give way. That has certainly been the Obama administration's approach—not just on Iran but also Russia, China, Venezuela, and Middle East dictatorships. The nature of a country's regime is thought irrelevant. The only thing that matters are "interests," ours and theirs, and making them converge.
This is thought to be the essence of realism. But history suggests it doesn't fit reality. The nature of a country's regime does matter: not only as a moral issue for the United States but also as a strategic one. That's because ideology is often decisive in shaping the foreign policies of other nations. Ideology determines their ambitions. It is through an ideological lens that countries determine who their friends and foes are. Even a government's perception of its interests is shaped by the nature of the regime.
This is something the godfather of modern realism, George F. Kennan, understood when he wrote his famous article on motivations for Soviet foreign policy back in 1946. Moscow's behavior was heavily shaped by the Soviets' communism and their belief in world revolution. There was no way to understand their ambitions and paranoia without reference to their world view.
The mistake many made after the end of the Cold War was to believe that the relevance of this kind of analysis died with communism—as if only communists based their foreign policies on ideology. In fact, Russia since then has continued to be a prime example of how ideology determines foreign policy. When Russia began its brief foray into political openness in the late 1980s and 1990s, Moscow's attitude toward the United States, Europe, and NATO softened dramatically. Mikhail Gorbachev combined glasnost and perestroika at home with an open and accommodating foreign policy. He allowed the Berlin Wall to fall, Eastern and Central Europe to gain its independence, and brought Soviet troops home. His successor, Boris Yeltsin, sought both economic and political integration with the democratic West.
Moscow's foreign policies changed in these years not because material circumstances in the world changed. The United States and NATO were no less powerful or threatening. What changed was Moscow's perception. And this perception changed because the nature of the Russian regime and its underlying ideology changed. Moscow's liberalizing leaders suddenly stopped viewing the democratic powers as adversaries.
All this presented a serious problem for so-called realism. As Francis Fukuyama put it, "according to realist theory, democratization of the USSR should make no difference to its strategic position." But it turned out that perceptions of threat and national interests in Moscow were "heavily influenced by ideology."
Today the Russian laboratory continues to produce evidence of the role of ideology. Since the Russian experiment in democracy faltered and succumbed to the neo-Tsarism of Vladimir Putin, Russian foreign policy has shifted once more. Suddenly NATO is a threat again. As Russia rolls back liberalism at home, its leaders see liberalizing neighbors such as Ukraine and Georgia as potential enemies and demand the reestablishment of a Russian sphere of influence.
As this suggests, although the link between ideology and foreign policy is not absolute, it can often explain what traditional realism can't. Consider Venezuela. Its foreign policy has shifted dramatically since Hugo Chávez dismantled democratic institutions and imposed his tyrannical rule. Venezuela's previous, democratic leaders were hardly slavish U.S. allies. But it is only since Chávez took over that Venezuela has become militantly anti-American and attempted to organize the hemisphere into an anti-American, pro-Russian, pro-Iranian bloc. Venezuela used to get along reasonably well with Colombia (a close U.S. ally). Now Chávez supports Colombia's narcoguerrillas and warns of armed conflict between the two nations. Did Venezuela's national interests suddenly change? No. Chávez simply redefined those interests.
Just as Kennan asked Americans to view Soviet foreign policy through the lens of communism, Americans today should not let the current fetish for realism blind them to the way autocrats in Russia, Venezuela, China, and Iran rule. Those leaders have many of the same interests as democratic rulers. But they have a few special interests of their own—above all, in their personal survival, since the loss of power by a dictator can often mean imprisonment, bankruptcy, and even death.
Foreign policy is one way such rulers help ensure their survival. Having a foreign enemy can prove extremely useful by justifying a strong hand at home. Thus the Chinese government, for example, often whips up anti-Japanese and anti-American nationalism to distract from domestic discontents, and Putin's government maintains a steady stream of anti-American invective. And no regime depends more on anti-Americanism than Iran's.
The world's autocrats also share a genuine suspicion of democracy. Even the most secure of them, such as Putin, worry constantly about losing control to popular democratic forces and see the United States and Europe as natural allies of those forces. When the West provided economic aid to the "color revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia, Putin saw it as an act of aggression. The Chinese responded with similar concern.
Ideology also helps explain why authoritarian regimes tend to stick together even when they don't share obvious interests. Venezuela has chummy relations with distant Iran. Putin sees Chávez as a natural ally in the Western Hemisphere and provides him with advanced weapons and generous loans. At the United Nations Security Council, Russia and China block or slow sanctions against fellow autocracies, in Iran, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Burma.
All these examples show how ideology still matters. So how should it affect U.S. foreign policy? On Iran it might dictate a very different approach than that taken by both the Obama and Bush administrations. Instead of focusing primarily on Iran's nuclear program, the United States should concentrate on the nature of Iran's regime and the possibility of reform or radical change. Instead of using sanctions to try to force the current government to give up its weapons program—a project unlikely to succeed—the United States and the Europeans would do better to devise sanctions that would force Tehran either to undertake genuine democratic reforms or lose power. Given the current instability of the Ahmadinejad regime, this strategy might even work. When combined with a vigorous domestic opposition, foreign pressures and sanctions have brought about change in places like South Africa, Chile, and Serbia. Since the June 12 elections, the rulers in Tehran have struggled to maintain their grip on power. Who knows what effect new sanctions might have?
An article of faith among U.S. and European policymakers is that even a democratic Iran would seek nuclear weapons. But would it? Ideology can change everything. Just as liberalizing Russian leaders changed their policies toward the West, a democratic Iran, embraced by the United States and Europe and fully integrated into the global economy, might weigh the costs and benefits of a nuclear-weapons program quite differently than does the current government. And even if a democratic Iran did then develop nuclear weapons, the West would have far less reason to be concerned. For one thing, democracies tend to be more willing to accept international safeguards and inspections of their programs. More important, if there is one iron law in international affairs, it is that democracies rarely go to war with other democracies.
That is perhaps the best reason why ideology still matters. As Americans once understood after learning the harsh lessons of World War II, a world dominated by democracies is not only a better world. It is also a safer world.