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Published on: June 12, 2011
The Conservative Revolutionary

The United States is the most revolutionary power in the history of the world, but after more than 200 years of a brilliant revolutionary career we are still not very good at understanding or responding to the revolutions our example, our ideas, our economy and our technology do so much to create. The Arab spring […]

The United States is the most revolutionary power in the history of the world, but after more than 200 years of a brilliant revolutionary career we are still not very good at understanding or responding to the revolutions our example, our ideas, our economy and our technology do so much to create.

The Arab spring is the latest example of the clash between America’s revolutionary world role and our pathetic cluelessness about the forces we do so much to promote.  The Arab Spring is turning into a long, hot summer.  Civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen and the sullen silence of the Shi’a in Bahrain have baptized Arab democracy in blood.  More will flow — and American foreign policy is befuddled and bemused.

None of the experts look particularly smart at the moment.  The ‘realists’ who counseled President Obama to forget George W. Bush’s support of Middle Eastern democracy and cultivate our relations with regional despots like Hosni Mubarak, the Iranian mullahs and the younger Assad have been sent back to the benches in disgrace.  Their counsel is now seen as both morally dubious and pragmatically unwise; the ‘realists’ would have put the US on the wrong side of history in the service of unrealistic assumptions about the stability of despotic regimes.

But the idealists who seek to replace them already have egg on their faces.  “Days, not weeks” is what they promised the President when he began to bomb for democracy in Libya.  The democratic revolution in Egypt is looking less democratic by the day; it looks more and more as if the Army used public unrest to block the Mubarak family’s attempt to turn Egypt into a family possession.  The Army has ruled Egypt since the overthrow of King Farouk, playing liberals and religious conservatives off against each other.  It looks set to go on doing that for some time to come.  In Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, the counsel of the idealists seems dark and confused.  US policy overall seems to have found the ‘sour spot’ that is the particular curse of the Obama administration: too friendly to the revolt to earn the trust and gratitude of the despots, too cautious and compromising to win many friends on the street.

Overall I am more cautious than optimistic about where the Arab Spring is headed.  There is little prospect for the kind of rapid economic growth that could improve the prospects for young unemployed and underemployed Arabs.  Foreign investment and tourism have already been badly hit by the unrest of the last six months, and the Arab regimes are turning to aid donors and organizations like the IMF and the World Bank in increasing desperation.

Culturally, many of the necessary preconditions are not in place.  The poor quality of most Arab universities, the limited access to serious political history and discourse among all but a handful of Arab intellectuals, the suppression of political life under past dictatorships, the weakness of Islamic political thought in recent centuries and the absence of a robust and deeply rooted tradition of Islamic democracy all work against the rapid widespread development of stable liberal democracy in the Arab world.

Putting the dark economic outlook together with the problematic cultural and political situation makes optimism a tough position to hold.  Without in any way scanting or minimizing the idealism, dedication and vision of the democrats rising in the Arab world today, they still seem a long way from winning.  They remind me still of the Marquis de Lafayette during the French Revolution: they believe in all the right ideas, but their countries aren’t ready for the vision they seek to promote.  They can help make a revolution but others will, for a time at least, determine the flow of events.

If true, then both the realists and the idealists are wrong about the Arab Revolution.  The realists are wrong that despotic regimes can provide long term stability in the region; the idealists are wrong that the fall of the old despots will lead to liberal democratic states.

Americans have been getting foreign revolutions wrong for more than 200 years.  It began with the French Revolution.  Enthusiasts like Thomas Jefferson initially thought they saw France following in America’s footsteps.  Then came the Reign of Terror, Napoleon, and a generation of brutal war.

Many Americans responded with the same generous enthusiasm to the South American revolutions against colonial rule.  Once again, those revolutions failed to establish anything like liberal democratic rule.

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.

Delusional Realists

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.

Revolutionary Realism?

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.

A traditional conservative power knows what it wants.  Revolutionary powers have a tougher job; building the future is harder work than holding on to the past.  This is particularly true in the American case; the global transformation we seek is unparalleled for depth, complexity and scale.

We are not sure how this revolutionary transformation works.  We know that it involves liberal political change: governments of law rather than of men and legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed as measured in regular and free elections.  We also know that involves intellectual and social change: traditional religious ideas must make room for the equality of the sexes and the rights of religious minorities.  Property rights must be rooted in law and protected by an independent judicial system.  While governments have a role in the economy, the mechanisms of the market must ultimately be allowed to work their way.

We do not agree among ourselves about the proper sequence of these changes.  We know that in the short run, democratic voting procedures may not produce liberal governments.  We know that demagogues and aspiring despots can use the language and even the mechanisms of democracy to build personal dictatorships (Napoleon III and Hugo Chavez, for example).  We know that popular opinion is sometimes more nationalistic than elite opinion and that gains for democracy do not always lead to more foreign policy cooperation.  In most cases, progress toward stable and peaceful democratic government comes slowly if it comes at all; even if you believe in ‘democratic peace theory, hoping that the democratization of other countries will solve American foreign policy problems is a fool’s game.

Yet we also know — or at least we believe — that in the long run a more democratic world is a better if not always a safer world, and that it would be immoral as well as impractical to stand in the way of the changes that need to come.

If we add the conservative mission of the United States to the revolutionary agenda, the problems of American foreign policy become more complex still.  We are trying to carry out a vast reordering of global society even as we preserve the stability of the international political order: we are trying to walk blindfolded on a tightrope across Niagara Falls — while changing our clothes.

The uncertainties and risks that surround us should not be underestimated.  There has never been a worldwide revolution of this kind before; nobody knows for sure how best to speed the plow.  Nobody has ever had to balance transformational and conservative roles on a global scale before.

From an American point of view, the Arab Spring is just another complication of this global task — a sudden thunderstorm with flashes of lightening, driving rain and unpredictable gusts of wind as we hop one-legged on the tightrope changing our pants.  The Islamic world is entering new territory as it struggles to integrate religious and liberal political values; as the United States tries to juggle its geopolitical interests with its values at a volatile moment in world history, we are almost certain to get the balance wrong much of the time.

Here, however, history offers some hope.  As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the United States has been doing two things for more than 200 years: getting foreign revolutions wrong, but somehow still pushing its global revolution forward.  America’s success as a conservative revolutionary power on a global scale depends less on the clever policies of our presidents and our secretaries of state, and more on the creativity and dynamism of American society as a whole.

It is power of a free people more than the brilliance of our intellectual and social establishment that has brought the United States this far; in that truth lies the secret of our revolution and of our success.

show comments
  • Luke Lea

    “They remind me still of the Marquis de Lafayette during the French Revolution: they believe in all the right ideas, but their countries aren’t ready for the vision they seek to promote.”

    It may be worse than that. Societies based on consanguineous marriages and extended kinship ties aren’t ready for institutions based on individual rights and responsibilities. It took 500 years (25 generations) from the time the Catholic Church banned cousin marriage in Europe until the West was ready, according to this interesting blog post. Facts can be stubborn things.

  • nadine

    You’re on a roll, Mr. Mead. Great essay.

  • Georgiaboy61

    What happened to CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square is a microcosm of the “Arab Spring,” re: A leftist news organization, staffed largely by graduates of left-leaning journalism schools, sends a female reporter to cover the events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, unaware or uncaring that this is placing her life in danger. Rather than being the “ugly American” of stereotypical fame, this is an equally common variant, the “American innocent abroad,” naive and utterly unaware of the history and cultural knowledge he is missing. Logan, as we know, was raped by a gang of Egyptian youths, mostly the very kind of young Muslim men about which he bosses at CBS and other liberal outlets have spoken of so glowingly in their stories on the “Arab Spring.” Just as Logan’s bosses put her in danger by not understanding the Islamic, Arab world into which they were sending her, we place our nation in danger by grafting our values and expectations onto an utterly alien culture.
    The man on the street here in the States may believe that Egyptians, Libyans, et al., are rioting, demonstrating or fighting for “democracy” or some other western notion. This is mostly like false. When Muslims get democracy,” they use it to install sharia law and hard-line Islamic rulers. The old saying says “Better the devil you know, than the devil you do not.” Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East. As corrupt as Mubarek and his kind were and are, they are known entities. Everyone seems to assume that their replacements will be “better” than they were. In fact, Mubarek may be replaced with the Muslim Brotherhood. To this writer, this hardly qualifies as progress. The Ikhwan would like nothing better than to wipe Israel off the map. The moral of the “Arab Spring” story is not to beleive everything you see, or wish to see… and that grafting western experiences and perspectives onto others in cultures very unlike our own is an exercise fraught with danger and error. The prudent course would be to tread lightly.

  • teapartydoc

    I like Luke Lea’s post (is that alliterative enough for you?). Family and Civilization by Zimmerman shows how alterations in family structure and family law contribute to the transformation of society. The Church had a great deal to do with bringing Western Culture out of the dark age that followed the Roman Empire, and helped transform the barbarian cultures that replaced it. I don’t see Islam being similarly transformative, but there may be hope if there emerges a clerical sect conducive to change that acquires a following amenable to it. This, however, is not something that can be engineered from the outside.

  • Gringo

    We know that demagogues and aspiring despots can use the language and even the mechanisms of democracy to build personal dictatorships (Napoleon III and Hugo Chavez, for example).

    Good point, but don’t you mean Napoleon I instead of Napoleon III?

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    There is much merit in what you say. Perhaps the correct approach is to analyze each case individually; in some cases, like Iran and Syria, the status quo is of a nature that almost anything would be an improvement. In those cases, we should push harder to encourage the revolutionary forces. In others, like Egypt, the status quo is as good as we are likely to get, and our efforts should be to try and calm the situation if we can. At the time, I thought Iraq was one of the former. But inevitably, flexibility of thought, perception and insight will likely lead to the best results rather than reflexive ideology.

  • Yahzooman

    “When many American idealists think about revolution today, they have Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in mind.”

    Please don’t forget South Africa.

    Before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, “experts” predicted a bloodbath. Fortunately, the South African people and its leaders (F.W. DeKlerk, Mandela, Tutu and Pik Botha) envisioned another way.

    The new black-majority rule South Africa is still a work in progress. But it has surprised the “experts.”

  • ThomasD

    In our foreign policy of late we have elevated ‘democratic voting procedures’ to the level of a fetish, often to the point of giving rule of law and property rights short shrift.

    That our own revolution grew out of the colonists’ desire to be treated like any other British subjects – no better and no worse – simply cannot be over emphasized.

    Our revolution retained substantial portions of the prior regime. In that sense we were indeed blessed.

  • John Barker

    Another writer who has warned of the problems and dangers of the democratic revolution is John Lukacs. See his book (Yale University Press, 2005) “Democracy and Populism” for a discussion of some of the issues in this post. Lukacs’ vision is dark and troubling,but the book is informed and brilliant and should be read by both realists and idealists.

  • Tim

    Just a short comment to register my disapproval over the MSM-coined moniker of “Arab Spring”. Seems that hope and change continues to color everything.

  • SDN

    The problem is that the very structure of Islam works against such a transformation. Unlike the New Testament (or the Old), it is the work of one man, so there are no competing voices from within the text, and attempting to argue from outside simply opens the writer to a charge of apostasy.

  • Sam Treynor

    A brillian essay. Is there some way to make it required reading in the White House and the State Department?

  • Ritchie Emmons

    “If true, then both the realists and the idealists are wrong about the Arab Revolution. The realists are wrong that despotic regimes can provide long term stability in the region; the idealists are wrong that the fall of the old despots will lead to liberal democratic states.”

    I tend to take the long view here. We may not be able to expect a Western style democracy (or perhaps more importantly in the immediate future – a govt that respects human rights and individual liberties, be it a democracy or not). However, democracy has to start somewhere. No country ever begins as a democracy. If nothing else, the Arab Spring may at least set a precedent for future liberal Arab revolutionaries when they revolt against their future oppressors. The intellectual base needs to be there and the events of the Arab Spring may just be providing it. Perhaps it will be decades before another revolution in the Arab world comes about (as it surely will be needed to achieve democracy), but those revolutionaries will be able to rally around the “Heroes of the Arab Spring of 2011.” Maybe, just maybe, they can get it right someday in the long term. The short term is sure to be rough. As a side note, I don’t think the Arab Spring would have happened without our having unseated Saddam and placing a democracy in Iraq. People in that part of the world have seen that a represenatative govt that allows political freedoms is possible in their part of the world and they concluded that they could have that as well. Some guy lighting a match to himself was the spark that galvanized them.

    More over, if we get the Muslim Brotherhood or some other undesirables in power in these Middle East countries, at least it will give us clarity. We’ve played footsie with the Mubaraks and Saudi monarchs of the world and look what it’s gotten us. 9/11 and a global fight against Islamic terrorists. We’re better off knowing our enemies directly than pretending that they’re not there.

  • crypticguise

    So long as Islam is practiced and taught by 7th Century Imams in these countries there will be NO DEMOCRACY. Unless the people begin to realize that they are being DESTROYED by Islamist ideology there is no hope. Sorry, the Middle East is going to suffer for another 20 to thirty years and then simply IMPLODE. Islam is a CANCER.

  • brad

    If one wishes to engage in regime change in counties whose despots and tyrants cannot even spell freedom (nor recognize the universal freedoms enshrined at the u.n. for that matter) just carpet bomb them with color pictures of the typical American grocery store and with the caption that says this is how people who were able to flee your country shop for food.

  • huxley

    None of the experts look particularly smart at the moment.

    Who are these experts who all have “egg on their faces”? It seems to me that most of the writers at National Review and Commentary, for example, got Arab Spring right, while remaining firm in their support of America’s revolutionary agenda in the world.

    Meanwhile, aren’t the “idealists” who are, or at least were, breathless over Arab Spring and in support of Obama’s “kinetic military action” into Libya pretty much the same “realists” who opposed Bush’s Iraq War?

    It seems to me that you are describing the hypocrisy of liberals and Democrats to oppose or support policies depending on whether their party is in the White House.

    Otherwise, good article.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    The most serious and under reported threat to the Islamacists is pornography.

    Defeated By Pornography

    And the best part of that is that we make them pay for it.

    But we need to do something (like this Wave Engines) about oil.

  • J McCormack

    Consider also Emmanuel Todd’s “The Explanation of Ideology: Family and Social Systems” which maps marriage, settlement, and inheritance patterns across Europe and notes that only England and the Lowlands had “absolute nuclear families”. He builds off Macfarlane’s “Origins of English Individualism” research which pushes a cultural streak for individualism back into pre-Norman times. 1,000+ years of culture is a heck of a “following wind” for tackling change.

  • Engineer

    “Modern history teaches two great lessons about revolution: that revolutions are inevitable, and that a large majority of revolutions either fail or go bad.”

    I think this conclusion by Dr. Mead is an accurate reading of the facts. However, I think the late Jeane Kirkpatrick was also onto something with her observation that authoritarian regimes had more flexibility to evolve than brittle totalitarian states.

    This would suggest what I would characterize as a “humble realism” that included a bias for the status quo, accurate discernment of whether regimes are authoritarian, e.g. Mubarak’s Egypt or totalitarian, e.g. Khomeinist Iran, encouraging prudent liberalization of authoritarian regimes while opposing the expansionist designs of totalitarian regimes, while remaining on the look-out for those circumstances where revolution is virtually inevitable and, at the same time, actively working to expand the subset of those revolutions that might be fairly assessed as successful in terms of democratic liberty. That is no small order and might just as easily be described as a policy of “prudent idealism.”

  • http://hbdchick.wordpress.com/ hbd chick

    @teapartydoc & j mccormack – thnx for those references! (zimmerman & macfarlane.)

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Cultures change at glacial speeds, and the cultural distance between American culture and the authoritarian cultures prevalent in most of the rest of the world and of mankind historically, is much too far a leap to occur in less than a generation. That said the “Arab spring” is a good initial result from our cultural attack on the Islamic world, with our imposition of Democracy, the Rule of Law, and Free Enterprise, in Iraq. We are finally getting movement from the frozen, stagnate, and moribund, Islamic culture. Arguably 911 was a desperate cry for help from this dying culture, and our response was the most brilliant strategic example of cultural judo in human history. The Islamic peoples should be pleased with our sacrifice of blood and treasure to uplift them out of cultural darkness. LOL Well maybe not for a few generations, the greater the speed of cultural change the greater the pain. Kind of like the way a basic trainee feels about the Drill Instructor, as military culture is rammed down a civilian’s throat.

  • richard40

    This article makes a lot of good points. We must be prepared for revolutions to happen, and not cling to oppressive dictators, in order to be true to our democratic and revolutionary values. But we also must be perpared for the likelyhood that most of these revolutions go bad, and and not idealistically assume that all “democratic” revolutions will really lead to democracies, since far more will lead either to new strongmen, or socialist/communist style governments.

    The author does ingore another route that has worked for us in the past. Go to war occupy or defend a nation, and remake them in our own image. It clearly worked with Germany and Japan, also with S. Korea and Taiwan, and it might yet work with Iraq, but it also requires a long and costly committment, and the american people do not like long committments of this type, unless the committment is clearly in our national interest, as was defeating the Axis, and defending Taiwan and S. Korea.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    richard40,

    I lived through the early Taiwan/S. Korea years. It was not apparent given the regimes that were in place for so many years that defending them was in our interest. The only thing we knew for sure is that we didn’t want the communists to get them.

    The regimes were bad and the culture strange. Kinda like Iraq. And we sure as heck don’t want Iraq becoming a province of Iran. Similar motivations seem to apply.

  • Kohl Haas

    Islam is not just a religion; it is also an inflexible prescription for everything in life: politics, economics, family life, commerce, and relations with non-believers. As such, it cannot change, adapt, or mature into a modern society. Until Muslims revolt against Islam (not likely) the revolutions will only be revolutions against groups and individuals over some perceived insult and no lasting change will result.

    Why do we not just mind our own business?

    And back that up by reversing our current policies and become a feared enemy and a reliable friend.

  • S Roland

    I think you’re missing the point about the so called “realist” position, because our caution is not based on the notion that we consider the prevailing mode of governance as a source of stability, or that we have an affinity for the despotic leadership in the region. It’s that taking the side of the opposition will lead to a lose-lose outcome. Because nothing truly “revolutionary” has, nor will happen—-unless you consider some cosmetic changes, a military takeover, and the elevation of impotent civilian leaders to be “revolutionary.” The reality is that the incumbents are very entrenched, and will be here to stay in some form or another. And whomever wins the contest between the incumbents, they will be less amenable to following our guidance, because how could they possibly trust us when we’ve taken such an antagonistic position? Rather, states will be more likely to yield to the pressures of their populations, which by and large, are driven by sectarian identity, are suspicious of foreigners, hostile to most forms of globalization, and more likely to resort to violence in order to settle interstate or intrastate disputes. Indeed, we’re already seeing the beginnings of this behavioral change, with Egypt distancing itself from Israel, the specter of a damaging civil war in several countries, and with the Gulf Cooperation Council taking its own counsel on everything from Iran to Yemen.

    Even In the unlikely event of a truly popular movement triumphing, our interests would be even more at risk. Because in such an instance, the new rulers would be even more susceptible to populist pressures, and unstable, because of the societal divisions and their level of development. What, for instance, would happen to the former rulers in the case of a popular triumph, and do you think this elite is going to bow down easy? But more importantly, can you name a single opposition movement that is united by anything more than their hatred for the ruling governments? How on Earth are they going to rule?

    However you play it out, the end outcome will very likely lead to a diminished American influence, a rise in the level of violence, a dangerous security dilemma between states in the region, worse performances on almost all measures of state performance, and quite possibly, a war between states in the region. So we have to ask ourselves, would the slim chance of a consolidation of a liberal democratic system be worth it? Would it have been possible to take a neutral stance, in the interest of minimizing violence? Are we prepared to sacrifice our fragile gains in Iraq, or other diplomatic victories that are now under threat? Are we ready for the potential economic consequences of turmoil in a region that can have a serious impact on price levels?

    Although the states in the region have been dismissed as hopelessly corrupt and stagnant, there have been some remarkable successes in many measures, which deserves some level of continued support. And each year these states have yielded to some form of positive change, because even in the most corrupt states, the leadership has some desire for reform. But because of the many limitations of these states, it will take a great deal of time and patience before they reach the global norm. The United States can help in this regard, and in a way that doesn’t betray our values and interests: like negotiating power sharing agreements, preventing a worsening of civil conflicts, and providing support that allays popular pressure.

  • Petros

    You are forgetting that we almost did not survive our own Revolution. Between 1776 and when we finally got our current constitution in 1789, with a strong central government, there was much violence between the states, trade wars, riots and mayhem. Until there was the authority for the federal government to suppress the violence, the United States may not have survived.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    In my opinion, easily as good as anything Professor Mead has written on US foreign policy and the American “vocation.” Or anyone else I’ve read lately.

    One concern I have though:

    “. . . 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.”

    I have no doubt that’s the case with Russia and Saudi Arabia. But I often get the feeling the reverse is at least as much true of the mainland Chinese – namely, that the economic and political activity of the Chinese government is changing the world in ways that make life much harder for individual Americans and American companies. As to whose example will finally prove more compelling, I wish I could be sure it was ours.

  • S Roland

    I think you’re missing the point about the so called “realist” position, because our caution is not based on the notion that we consider the prevailing mode of governance as a source of stability, or that we have an affinity for the despotic leadership in the region. It’s that taking the side of the opposition will lead to a lose-lose outcome. Because nothing truly “revolutionary” has happened nor will happen—-unless you consider some cosmetic changes, a military takeover, and the elevation of impotent civilian leaders to be “revolutionary.” The reality is that the incumbents are very entrenched, and will be here to stay in some form or another. And whomever wins the contest between the incumbents, they will be less amenable to following our guidance, because how could they possibly trust us when we’ve taken such an antagonistic position? Rather, states will be more likely to yield to the pressures of their populations, which by and large, are driven by sectarian identity, are suspicious of foreigners, hostile to most forms of globalization, and more likely to resort to violence in order to settle interstate or intrastate disputes. Indeed, we’re already seeing the beginnings of this behavioral change, with Egypt distancing itself from Israel, the specter of a damaging civil war in several countries, and with the Gulf Cooperation Council taking its own counsel on everything from Iran to Yemen.

    Even In the unlikely event of a truly popular movement triumphing, our interests would be even more at risk. Because in such an instance, the new rulers would be even more susceptible to populist pressures, and unstable, because of the societal divisions and their level of development. What, for instance, would happen to the former rulers in the case of a popular triumph, and do you think this elite is going to bow down easy? But more importantly, can you name a single opposition movement that is united by anything more than their hatred for the ruling governments? How on Earth are they going to rule?

    However you play it out, the end outcome will very likely lead to a diminished American influence, a rise in the level of violence, a dangerous security dilemma between states in the region, worse performances on almost all measures of state performance, and quite possibly, a war between states in the region. So we have to ask ourselves, would the slim chance of a consolidation of a liberal democratic system be worth it? Would it have been possible to take a neutral stance, in the interest of minimizing violence? Are we prepared to sacrifice our fragile gains in Iraq, or other diplomatic victories that are now under threat? Are we prepared for the potential economic consequences of turmoil in a region that can have a serious impact on price levels?

    Although the states in the region have been dismissed as hopelessly corrupt and stagnant, there have been some remarkable successes in many measures, which deserves some level of continued support. And each year these states have yielded to some form of positive change, because even in the most corrupt states, the leadership has some desire for reform. But because of the many limitations of these states, it will take a great deal of time and patience before they reach the global norm. The United States can help in this regard, and in a way that doesn’t betray our values and interests: like negotiating power sharing agreements, preventing a worsening of civil conflicts, and providing support that allays popular pressure.

  • Mrs. Davis

    1688 is a great place to start one’s recollection of the rise of Anglospheric representative government. It lets you forget the prior 200 years consisting of the dictatorship of Henry VII, the beheaded Lady Jane Gray, followed by aptly named Bloody Mary, the Elizabethan respite, followed by James I and Gunpowder treason and plot, Charles, who lost his head to be followed by the roundheads, who practiced no rape or terror in Ireland, Charles II and the cross dresser James II.

    No wonder we were ready for 1688.

    And even after we showed the French the way, it still took them 150 years, four republics, two empires, one monarchy, one puppet and one whatever to find a republic that could last 50 years.

    We need not embarrass the Germans.

    To expect more of the Arabs, or anyone else so foreign, is unreasonable.

    We should marvel and learn from the exceptions that have something to teach us rather than dwell on those unable to escape the trap of the past which has ensnared so many. In the meantime many will suffer greatly, but the outcome is inevitable. If we do not lose our heads. For then we will return to Go without collecting our $200.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I see some here advocating, that we just mind our own business and let them rot. But, as 911 showed us, mankind is altogether on this tiny planet and we will not be left alone. I happen to think that American Culture is the most successful in human history and should be adopted by everyone on earth. And since American culture is so dominate and terrifying to so many who think it is just going to consume them. We are just going to have to ram it down some of their throats. But we have time, and we can be patient, as long as their attacks don’t land on our soil, and endanger our families.
    Cultures change with glacial speed; most of the Islamic cultures are not ready for Prime Time Bleeding Edge American Culture (Democracy, Rule of Law, and Free Enterprise). South America has only recently gone mostly Democratic, and they have had American Success staring them in the face for over 200 years. Let’s give our cultural attack in Iraq a few more decades to steep, and we will see that the “Arab Spring” was just the cracking of the Ice, of a frozen culture and that Spring was still some ways off.

  • Benjamin Eisenberg

    Dear Sir,

    Since the end of the Cold War. Democracies tend to stick. This is not just the Velvet revolutions. South Africa, Serbia, Georgia, Indonesia, and yes, even Romania are now stable democracies.

    In fact, democratic failure is now the exception. Russia is the largest, and most important. Pakistan is another. Belarus never had a democratic revolution, only a power transfer.

    Be clear to distinguish democratic revolutions from other revolutions. The socialist revolutions almost all failed. So did the Iranian revolution. But revolutions seeking democracy have a very high success rate.

    So look to democratic revolutions since the 1980s for your data. The picture is quite different.

  • Kenny

    “Overall I am more cautious than optimistic about where the Arab Spring is headed.”

    Quite frankly, Mr. Mead, anybody who expects anything good — aside from oil — to come out of Arab countries is a fool. As the guy up above correctly noted, the Muslim countries are not ready for prime time, and that is putting it midly.

  • Kohl Haas

    I asked why we should not just mind our own business. I said nothing about letting them rot; that is evidently a presupposition of the result of us not meddling in the affairs of others.

    I,too, believe we have a fine culture but if one lives outside the US for extended periods and look at where our culture has taken us in the last few decades, one wonders less why others are often reluctanct to emulate it: the Rule of Law has become a tyranny of lawyers with tort out of control, individual freedom has led to a breakdown of the family, democracy has led us to insolvency. We are now seeing the other edge of the sword in many ways.

  • Anthony

    For an excellent rendition of issues/themes covered in The Conservative Revolutionary see Walter Russell Mead: “POWER, TERROR, PEACE AND WAR – AMERICA’S GRAND STRATEGY IN A WORLD AT RISK.”

  • Mike C

    Milton Friedman called it: economic liberty is a prerequisite to political liberty.

    Property rights must be established and enforced, and cultures of bribery must be smashed, before political freedom can succeed. Democracy cannot survive amidst kleptocracy and chaos. This is the reason most revolutions fall apart.

  • yaman

    I have to say I couldn’t find anything original in this long essay; summary is: realist are not getting it wrong, idealist are not getting it all right, and revolutions are inevitable!!!

    I have to say I see this kind of conversation here in Yemen, almost everyday even amongst high-school students!

    US role should be in support of transparent/democratic regimes in the ME, this will always guarantee that the ppl of the country will support the US and because, eventually and as you stated “inevitably” revolutions happen!

  • http://monex.to/wiki/Christina_Carabini Christina Carabini

    They see a national security apparatus in disrepair and a government that is failing to protect the public from the next attack…….. But Americans also had enormous faith that the Global War on Terror would help keep them safe. Just one month after 9 11 for instance 94 percent of Americans told an ABC News Washington Post poll that they approved of how the fight against terrorism was being handled.

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