“I know very well that right now some are trying to isolate Cuba. We Europeans want to show, on the contrary, that we are closer to you than ever,” said Federica Mogherini, the head of the European External Action Service, in a not-so-subtle dig at the Trump Administration. A few weeks later, Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former Prime Minister, pussyfooted on Twitter around Iran’s aggressive posture in the Middle East: “Yes, Iran obviously sent a drone into Israel airspace. Israel regularly violates the airspace of Lebanon and Syria.”
The idea that political dialogue, or engagement on economic and cultural topics, can bridge the gap between countries governed by leaders who are accountable to voters and taxpayers and those pillaged by a narrow predatory elite counts among the worst misconceptions plaguing foreign policy thinking on the political Left and Right. While the two approaches often differ in their prescriptions, Barack Obama’s multilateralism and Donald Trump’s cynical realism are two sides of the same coin, producing much the same effect: to obscure the motivations of leaders of different countries and the particular incentives that they face.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to both. Even though defending Bush-era neoconservatives might not be the most popular of propositions these days, the neoconservative outlook left little space for the illusion that democracies and authoritarian regimes could behave alike in any meaningful respect in the international arena. That insight needs to be re-learned today by both American and European policymakers.
No social scientist would deny that the nature of a political regime—or its institutions—matters a great deal for domestic policy outcomes. Autocracies dependent on natural resource revenue are less likely to supply public goods and be responsive to the wishes of voters and taxpayers than democracies where public revenue comes from general taxation. Governments facing weak political scrutiny will rely on networks of patronage catering to political loyalists instead of providing public goods and a social safety net for the general public. And so on and so forth.
The same logic extends itself easily to foreign policy. When authoritarians engage in “multilateralism” or “dialogue,” they are not doing the same things as liberal democracies. A government that is accountable to voters faces public scrutiny and criticism of its foreign policy decisions. Large and consequential commitments made by liberal democracies—such as EU and NATO membership, for example—do not reflect just the whim of the leaders of the moment but a broader societal consensus, running across political divides. Not even Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Hungary’s Fidesz question the geopolitical decisions that previous governments made after the fall of communism.
Because of a much smaller number of veto players, one should accord a much lower degree of trust to promises made by authoritarians. Not even the staunchest supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would dare to argue that the deal means a material shift in the long-term ambitions of Iran’s mullahs, who are likely to scrap it the moment it becomes convenient for them. After all, the regime did not acquiesce to the temporary restrictions on its nuclear program in good faith but only because the Iran Deal also empowered it to play a much more aggressive game in the Middle East.
Likewise, once Russia’s economic model started running out of steam in the second half of the 2000s, Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy stance hardened quickly, without being subject to the same public debate and scrutiny that would accompany a similar shift in a democracy. If some hailed China’s President Xi Jinping as a new guarantor of an open globalized world in the Trump era, his emulation of Putin’s political and national security strategy, including the concentration of power in his own hands, suggests a similar hardening and exploitation of foreign policy for domestic political purposes in the years to come. It is unlikely that the West can successfully talk Mr. Xi out of it or offer a bargain that the Politburo Standing Committee could credibly commit to.
Alas, the prevailing orthodoxy of the past decades has assumed that any form of cooperation and multilateralism is good and that essentially any dispute between any regimes can be tackled by using diplomatic tools. The failure of that approach to deliver the goods—in Syria, for example, or in eastern Ukraine—has provoked a backlash, manifested today in the Trumpian, neorealist view of international relations as a Hobbesian zero-sum competition, which sees no value in international structures beyond those reflecting the immediate self-interest of countries.
None of this is to suggest that the liberal faith in diplomacy and multilateralism is completely misplaced. Cooperation between governments can be extremely valuable: GATT and WTO have contributed to keeping global trade open even when individual governments might have been tempted to have recourse to protectionism, as in the aftermath of the crisis of 2008. With no similar structures in place, rampant protectionism in the 1930s greatly magnified the Great Depression. The phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) under the Montreal Protocol was a clear win for the environment—and for humankind at large—made possible by the cooperation of all countries, democratic and authoritarian.
Alas, other situations are more complicated than the phasing out of CFCs, which imposed only a modest economic cost and enjoyed overwhelming popular support. And in more complex settings, trust between actors trying to cooperate is essential, as any game theory textbook shows. As a result, multilateralism will tend to work best when it takes places between likeminded governments—namely, liberal democracies with market economies. If Americans and Europeans want to work with governments lacking popular accountability, they need a different set of carrots and sticks than those that they use to incentivize cooperation between themselves. And, finally, there are good reasons to be extremely wary of cooperation between authoritarian regimes themselves, even if they come under banners of “multilateralism” and “cooperation,” which seem recognizable to us.
There is, therefore, some wisdom to the Wilsonian imperative of “making the world safe for democracy,” albeit with important caveats about the ability of the West to actually achieve that end. At its heart, however, the idea that a safe and open international order hinges on the character of political and economic institutions of countries that are shaping it is sound. If taken seriously, that insight would shift the focus of foreign policy on both sides of the Atlantic and provide it with a basic compass: to help increase the returns, economic and others, of democratic governance and rule of law—and to push back systematically against authoritarianism, despotism, and kleptocracy.
For one, the West can make it much harder for dictators and their cronies to hide their money in London, Switzerland, or Florida. There are ways of cracking down on North Korean and Iranian business interests and illicit revenue. The European Union could become more circumspect in scrutinizing investment coming from state-owned and state-connected companies in authoritarian regimes—whether it is Rosatom’s contract with Hungary regarding the Paks nuclear power plant or the numerous business activities of CEFC, an opaque private entity with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, in Central Europe.
Second, Western democracies should prioritize trade and visa liberalization with other democracies over other countries, making democratic governance and rule of law not only a goal in itself but also a means to greater prosperity and more opportunities. The European Union, currently negotiating trade agreements with a plethora of countries around the world, should make it clear that the places where people enjoy political freedoms, such as Tunisia or India, are at the front of the queue. Conversely, for as long as they continue with their current practices, economies such as Azerbaijan and Myanmar—or China, for that matter—cannot expect to benefit from a deeper form of trade liberalization and regulatory alignment.
Third, the existing system of international organizations is overdue for a major shake-up, as President Trump has hinted many times. Start with United Nations agencies, where the idea of one country, one vote has produced multiple pathologies—of which the Saudi membership of the Human Rights Council is only the most visible one.
Furthermore, some specialized agencies, especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, treat their mission as purely technocratic, as if economic questions could be separated from political ones. The result has been a disaster, particularly in the area of economic development in Africa, where development assistance has been used by dictators in countries such as Ethiopia—a darling of the development community—as a tool of patronage and political domination.
If some international organizations are inherently unreformable, the West ought to marginalize or wind them down. If necessary, new structures can be built catering to liberal democracies. Regimes such as Russia and China are already busy doing exactly that for their own purposes, through organizations such as the International Investment Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
To be sure, Western policymakers have no choice but to engage with unfree societies around the world and with their leaders. But they need to do so without illusions and with a strategy that takes into account the asymmetry that exists between the behavior of political regimes that are accountable to the public and those that are not. Otherwise, the 21st century might not be too friendly to the political values most of us hold dear.