June 14, 2011


The Conservative Revolutionary (Walter Russell Mead, 6/12/11, American Interest)

The cycles of revolution — 1830, 1848, 1917-20, 1946-1960 (decolonization), 1989-91, 2003-5 and now 2011 — catch Americans flatfooted over and over again. We are surprised when they occur, and we are surprised when they fail to follow the course we expect.

The realists are half right: most revolutions will not bring about stable democratic societies. But realists get the other half wrong; revolution is a basic fact of modern life and the kind of ‘stability’ that old fashioned diplomats long for is just a mirage. American foreign policy cannot proceed on the assumption that despotic, frozen regimes will last. They won’t. Sooner or later they will come crashing down — and as the pace of technological and social change around the world continues to accelerate, such revolutionary upheavals are likely to become more frequent.

There is another problem with realism. Like it or not, the United States is a revolutionary power. Whether our government is trying to overthrow foreign dictators is almost irrelevant; American society is the most revolutionary force on the planet. The Internet is more subversive than the CIA in its prime. The dynamism of American society is constantly creating new businesses, new technologies, new ideas and new social models. These innovations travel, and they make trouble when they do. Saudi conservatives know that whatever geopolitical arrangements the Saudi princes make with the American government, the American people are busily undermining the core principles of Saudi society. It’s not just our NGOs educating Saudi women and civil society activists; it’s not just the impact of American college life on the rising generation of the Saudi elite. We change the world even when we aren’t thinking anything about global revolution — when Hollywood and rap musicians are just trying to make a buck, they are stoking the fires of change around the world.

A revolutionary nation cannot make a conservative foreign policy work for long. In the 1820s and 1830s Washington tried to reassure the Mexican government that it had no hostile designs against Mexican territory. But the American people were moving into Texas and the US government couldn’t stop that movement or blunt the threat to Mexico if it tried. In the same way today, the economic and political activity of individual Americans and American companies is changing the world in ways that make life much harder for governments in countries like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. We can press all the reset buttons with Russia that we want, but the Russian government will still notice that both US society and sometimes the government are actively working to help foreign subversives overthrow repressive regimes.
Feckless Idealists

If the desire of our realists to conduct foreign policy with foreign despots as if unprincipled cooperation with the bad guys could build a stable world is unrealistic, the idealism of our enthusiasts that every new foreign revolution will bring a millennium of democratic peace is absurd.

American foreign policy cannot expect that revolutions in foreign countries will rescue us from the painful dilemmas our foreign policy often confronts. Revolution is not the deus ex machina that will make the world peaceful; it is a tsunami that sweeps everything before it, and often leaves the world messier and more dangerous.

Modern history teaches two great lessons about revolution: that revolutions are inevitable, and that a large majority of revolutions either fail or go bad. Americans almost instinctively look at revolutions in terms of our own past: the 1688 Glorious Revolution that made Parliament more powerful than the King in England, and the American Revolution that led in relatively short order to the establishment of a stable and constitutional government.

Most revolutions don’t work like this at all. Many of them fail, with the old despots crushing dissent or making only cosmetic changes to the old system. (This happened in Austria in 1848 and something very like it may be happening in Egypt today.) Others move into radicalism, terror and mob rule before a new despot comes along to bring order — at least until the next futile and bloody revolutionary spasm. That was France’s history for almost 100 years after the storming of the Bastille. China, Russia and Iran all saw revolutions like this in the 20th century.

The revolutions that ‘work’ are the exceptions, not the rule. The peaceful revolutions in the Central European countries as Soviet power melted in 1989-1990 are a unique exception to the rule that most revolutions either turn nasty or fail. When many American idealists think about revolution today, they have Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in mind.

Few assumptions can lead you into as much trouble this quickly. Even in 1989-90, those countries were the exception and not the rule. Think Ukraine, Belarus, Yugoslavia, Romania, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and of course Russia itself. More people live in countries where the 1989-90 revolutionary wave failed to establish secure constitutional democracy than live in those where it succeeded.

More, the countries that had ‘velvet’ revolutions shared a number of important characteristics. They had or longed to have close political and cultural ties to the West. They wanted to join NATO and the EU, and had a reasonable confidence of doing so sooner rather than later. They could expect enormous amounts of aid and foreign direct investment if they continued along the path of democratic reform. They lay on the ‘western’ side of the ancient division of Europe between the Orthodox east and the Catholic/Protestant homeland of the modern liberal tradition.

No Arab country looks anything like this. Indeed, most seem closer to Yugoslavia and Belarus or, at best, Ukraine. We, and they, may get lucky, and the revolutions in the Arab world may lead to something that looks more like Central Europe than like Central Asia. That would be a nice surprise, but we should not be placing large bets that this will actually happen.

China, by the way, does not look very much like the Czech Republic. Revolution there is very unlikely to produce a US or European style democracy anytime soon.

If realists ignore the inevitability of revolution, idealists close their eyes to the problems of revolutionary upheavals in societies that have difficult histories, deep social divisions, and poor short term economic prospects. Unfortunately the countries most likely to experience revolutions are usually the countries that lack the preconditions for Anglo-American style relatively peaceful revolutions that end with the establishment of stable constitutional order. If things were going well in those countries, they would not be having revolutions.

Historically, revolutions in foreign countries are both necessary for their political development and inevitable. They often tend to make American foreign policy more difficult — and the world more dangerous. On the evidence so far, this is the pattern we are seeing in the Middle East today.

The difficulty American policymakers have in coming to grips with the recurring phenomenon of foreign revolutions is rooted in America’s paradoxical world role. We are not just the world’s leading revolutionary nation; we are also the chief custodian of the international status quo. We are upholding the existing balance of power and the international system of finance and trade with one hand, but the American agenda in the world ultimately aims to transform rather than to defend.

It is harder to be an effective revolutionary power than to be a conservative one — and it is harder still to combine the two roles.

Fortunately, being a conservative country, we don't expect them to succeed in becoming like us overnight.

Posted by at June 14, 2011 6:33 AM

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