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Magazine / Vantage Point

Scholar Meets World

A just-departed State Department official is only the latest American to learn that democracy isn’t a panacea.

It’s complicated: Anne-Marie Slaughter

photo of Michael Hirsh
February 11, 2011

Anne-Marie Slaughter says she came to Washington with a “wee bit of hubris”—and a lot of ideas—about making the world a better place. Slaughter, the former dean of Prince­ton’s Woodrow Wilson School who has just returned there to teach, is proud to have stepped into George Kennan’s shoes as the State Department’s first female policy planning chief. Two years later, she herself has left huge “pumps” to fill (as her admiring boss, Hillary Rodham Clinton, joked at her farewell reception).

But Slaughter concedes that much of her hubris didn’t survive a collision with the real world. Asked what she most had to cast aside during her transition to State from the academy, she cites her grand ideas about democracy, which she says have changed considerably in the past two years. “Labeling states as democracies or non-democracies, or labeling movements pro-democracy or not, is too simplistic,” Slaughter says. “The people in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt are calling for new government. They’re calling for freedoms they have not had; they’re calling for jobs. That’s a much more complicated picture than [whether they are] calling for what we think of as democracy or not.”

Imposing democracy has never worked out very well.

Slaughter’s ambivalence about democracy promotion aptly sums up the problem bedeviling the Obama administration, which has been tacking this way and that over how solidly to stand behind the Egyptian protesters. The administration has now shifted several times, from supporting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to asking him to go, to suggesting that he can stay around for a while. It’s not surprising that the White House is being careful. At stake is the entire future of the Middle East. At issue is the conflict between stability and change—between a tenuous stability in a part of the world that is central to U.S. interests and a fundamental change that may be good in the long run but could be unstable and violent in the interim.

But also at issue is, yet again, the ever-present American impulse to present democracy as a panacea—it’s always the first thing out of our mouths—only to find ourselves having to backpedal embarrassingly.

U.S. policymakers have been struggling fitfully with the pitfalls of democracy for a long time, of course. Woodrow Wilson wanted to “make the world safe for democracy,” but he set loose a chain of self-determination movements that led the late Richard Holbrooke, 80 years later, to grumble to me as he struggled to quell ethnic killing in Bosnia and Kosovo: “Wilson gave us this mess.”

President Clinton’s global strategy, to the extent that he had one, was “enlargement of democracy,” but his plans came to grief with dysfunctional and ethnically divided nations in Africa, beginning with Rwanda in 1994, as well as the Balkans. And, of course, George W. Bush decided to solve the Mideast’s problems with democracy imposed on the pointy end of a trillion-dollar war. Yet that titanic expense of blood and treasure may have had less to do with the new democratic spring in the Arab world than did the indigenous uprising of recent weeks.

With a few exceptions—think of postwar Japan, Germany, and other places that already had democratic traditions—imposing democracy has never worked very well. Now that a substantial portion of the world is already democratic, things look even more complicated, Slaughter told me. “Since the end of the Cold War, you’ve seen a particular evolution from, ‘It looks like our model won,’ and then what that meant, and then all sorts of internal conflicts that weren’t really about democracy or not in the 1990s.… And seen through that lens, democracy worked in Eastern and Central Europe but not in Africa. And not in parts of Latin America.”

For Slaughter, the first thing to go upon arriving in Washington was her Princeton-hatched idea for convening a “concert of democracies.” The problem: The world’s democracies often don’t see issues the same way, and there are too many quasi- or non-democracies, such as those in the G-20 (Russia, China), that Washington needs to be part of the club. “I just think it doesn’t fit with ways in which rising powers see the world,” she told me. “To create a G-20 on the one hand and a concert of democracies on the other was like giving with one hand and taking away with the other. It didn’t make sense as a coherent approach to a much more complicated world.

“And then what I think is interesting for me,” she adds, “is, I do believe in the ‘democratic peace.’ I do believe that as liberal democracies mature, they are much less likely to fight each other. But even in the academy the last 10 years has been a process of complicating that thesis. So, emerging democracies or new democracies are more likely to go to war, and we’re not entirely certain what the cause is.”

Perhaps it’s time for a deeper and more frank discussion about the pitfalls of democracy, including the possibility that we are suffering a sort of ideological blowback from the too-eager promotion of American ideals—what Henry Kissinger has called the “age-old American dream of a peace achieved by the conversion of the adversary.”

Among Anne-Marie Slaughter’s achievements was the first-ever quadrennial strategic planning document for a department that does surprisingly little strategic planning. She says she was determined to frankly assess State’s failings. “Well, we thought hard about it. This was an honest review. And we could have said, ‘Well of course we’ve been doing that all along,’ ” she says. But “it’s not the culture.… If two months ago the Near-Eastern Affairs Bureau had started planning for a scenario if President Mubarak fell from power, and that gets out? You’re creating a diplomatic incident simply by anticipating what might happen.”

That may be true. But now we face an even bigger diplomatic incident.

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