“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.
You’re on a roll, Mr. Mead. Great essay.
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.
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.
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?
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
A brillian essay. Is there some way to make it required reading in the White House and the State Department?
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
@teapartydoc & j mccormack – thnx for those references! (zimmerman & macfarlane.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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.