Can America’s “principles” contradict its national interests? The question arises in light of the Obama administration’s invocation of the principle of democracy to justify its decision to suspend military aid to Egypt. As Voice of America correspondent Scott Stearns reported, “A senior U.S. official says suspending these programs may not lead directly to greater democracy or a more inclusive government in Egypt, but it makes clear that ‘the United States will not support actions that run contrary to our interests and our principles.’”
Note the equation of interests and principles. Put aside the hedging; the not so subtle implication is that democracy in Egypt—defined here as elections—is an American national interest, and a lack of progress toward democracy requires the suspension of aid.
But what if defining American interests solely as promoting elections is not only contrary to American interests, but inimical to American principles?
The last time around, elections in Egypt produced a regime dominated by Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood. Who knows what new elections will bring? At the very least we should not assume new elections will magically produce more democracy and freedom. It is just as likely that they will produce even more instability and violence.
That’s why we have to be careful about defining the promotion of democracy solely in terms of supporting elections. Ever since Woodrow Wilson said, “the world must be made safe for democracy,” Americans have been arguing over how important promoting democracy really is. Many people think the question is settled.
The inevitable contradictions between democratic idealism and stability continue to exist—and not just in Egypt. Look at the outcome in Gaza where Hamas, after winning elections, has been wreaking havoc on regional stability.
It’s not a settled philosophical matter either. Certainly the progressive idea of promoting democracy is part of the American tradition. But so, too, is the tradition inherited from the Founders that the government’s most sacred duty is to preserve the independence and security of the American people. When there’s no contradiction between the two, as when the U.S. helped reconstruct democracy in Europe after World War II, there is harmony between the principle of democracy and American interests.
But when elections produce results harmful to American security, then the harmony disappears. No matter how free or fair an election is, if it produces anti-Western Islamist victories or other antidemocratic dictatorships, then the right of the American people to be protected by their government comes into play. That right trumps all else, because that was why the government was created in the first place.
Now, if democracy is defined broadly in an institutional sense, as in support for freedom, pluralism and the rule of law, then it is indeed hard to imagine a democratic regime we would not support. But that’s really not the issue in Egypt. There the question is whether we should suspend aid to pressure the military-backed regime to move more quickly toward elections, which may or may not produce a regime that respects democratic values.
The problem is not promoting democracy per se, but reducing its promotion to the process of elections. Luckily we may not have to choose between democratic elections and our security in Egypt. The government there claims to be committed to elections, even if the Obama administration seems not to believe them.
- Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in the National Interest