Is Democracy Doomed Abroad?

As the world order falls into disarray, the U.S. must confront the fact that no other truly great power shares our values.


Are we the only idiots who can get this right?

Even though the ordeal in Ferguson has prompted lectures from around the world, that’s the kind of question more of us are apt to ask about democracy. The world is unraveling, and we are watching, and it doesn’t look good.

Headlines big and small proclaim the bracing news: democratization, as a global project, is over. Russia is invading Ukraine, sanctions be damned. ISIS is now a hundred thousand people strong, and boasts the support of Nigerian terror army Boko Haram. Pakistan is headed toward a military coup. Libya is in freefall. The list goes on.

When it comes to the practice of democracy, Americans now have few illusions about our own incompetence, division, and negligence. Nevertheless, it seems clear that—with precious few exceptions worldwide—the US is alone in its combination of political stability and projection of power.

Paradoxically, that strength has put us into a very vulnerable position. Not only does it make America into the county that’s most responsible for propping up what’s left of the current world order; it makes America seem like the country that’s responsible, even when that isn’t or ought not to be the case.

That’s not just important because it drags us into conflicts we might want to keep at arm’s length. It also tends to turn every minor conflict into a situation with global implications. The stakes of each disturbance rise accordingly—increasing the sense of general crisis and emergency washing over the globe.

Even worse, the more general and abstract the New Chaos becomes, the more opportunities arise for our enemies and adversaries to make a play for whatever advantage seems worth the risk.

Perhaps worst of all, this scramble for spoils raises the value of gains even as it lowers the bar for action. Russia, for instance, has adopted a superficially ridiculous but deeply powerful method of advance—using small-time pretexts, charades, and subterfuges to nibble away at Ukraine while the global order is nibbled away at point after point around the world.

In the language of international-relations theorists, every “revisionist” power—that is, the large or small countries looking to challenge the global status quo—now has a growing incentive to try out one of its pet schemes. And after enough snowflakes of conflict comes the avalanche.

It is not president Obama’s fault that this has happened, but it is certainly Obama’s problem that he hasn’t done anything to prepare us for the eventuality. And as his second term limps to a close, it is his responsibility to account for why.

In the realm of foreign affairs, Obama has been at his most independent from the obstinacy of those despised Republicans in Congress. There, they have not stopped him from doing anything big—except going to war in Syria, an idea so unpopular at the time that bipartisan opposition sent the administration packing without the humiliation of a floor vote.

Indeed, Republicans are now broadly in favor of hitting “back” at ISIS. The White House has gamely dispatched jet fighters at the Caliphate, tasked to (figuratively) decapitate the terror state’s leadership.

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This is not too little, too late in the sense that we ought to have carpet-bombed the desert long ago. The problem is deeper than that. The administration simply hasn’t addressed the frightening reality of American exceptionalism: it’s up to us to ensure at least one more friendly major power can help keep order in the world.

Liberals defending the president might say that’s an unreasonable ask. Conservatives attacking the president, intriguingly, might say the same. That’s why the left repeatedly falls back on multilateralism—and why the right harps incessantly on unilateralism. They’re two diametrically opposed “solutions” to the same perceived problem.

Unfortunately, neither has been very successful. Each has merely postponed the problem—and neither political party has shown much understanding of how to start solving it.

No matter how we ascribe ultimate blame for this geostrategic debacle, it has tempted ordinary Americans to give in to a strong prejudice: the sense that the rest of the world is simply screwed in a way that America is not.

Unfortunately for global order, that harsh judgment has some historical truth to it. The United States is now the only really powerful nation to have eased into stable democratic government from the ground up. Yes, we fought our “revolution” against the British, but our practices of self-government were largely unchanged, and the principles behind them were in fact strengthened.

We do have a few friends around the world that share relatively peaceful origins. But Switzerland, New Zealand, and Costa Rica cannot hold back the New Chaos. The sad fact is that Europe and its former colonies are still mostly trapped between the reactionary longing to re-enchant the world and the radical fantasy of perpetual revolution.

It is this, and not “ancient hatreds” or our perceived “weakness,” that has truly fostered the New Chaos. Rather than blaming Barack Obama for the problem, we should blame the inability of the rest of the world to peacefully process the sweeping changes wrought by global democratization.

Those changes will come, and in all too many cases they will bring hell with them. From early-‘90s Russia to mid-‘00s Iraq, America’s efforts to ameliorate the ensuing chaos have utterly failed. As important as competent statecraft may be, we need to accept that our failures are not simply a consequence of “doing stupid stuff” or lacking in “smart power.”

In today’s era, the ultimate smart power is the conscious stewardship of our precious cultural inheritance—one that even our closest allies may once again struggle violently to approximate.