Editor’s Note: This is the last essay in our series, “The Foreign Policy Debate We Need.” Here, Svante E. Cornell replies to five critics of his essay, “How Should America Deal with Authoritarian States?” Read Cornell’s original essay here and the replies from Giselle Donnelly, Michele Dunne, Shadi Hamid, Mark P. Lagon, and Gary J. Schmitt here.
In these pages I suggested that a revised Kirkpatrick doctrine could help American policymakers find ways to deal more systematically with authoritarian states. Five commentators have since raised thoughtful objections to this thesis. I welcome these comments, as they advance my original objectives—first, to advance discussion of the differences among authoritarian states and, second, to engage opinion leaders on how American policy should treat them. Space constraints do not permit a rebuttal to each of the objections raised, so I will respond by addressing a few of the critics’ recurring themes.
First, it is important to restate what I did not say. I did not suggest that authoritarian states are better partners for the United States than democracies. And I did not argue that America should stop promoting democracy. What I did argue is that authoritarian states are here to stay, that some can be quite reliable partners, and that we should have a workable standard for differentiating among them. I also argued that we should change the way we seek to promote democracy. “Naming and shaming” and applying coercive measures has not worked. We should be willing instead to build trust with the more benign authoritarians and thereby create channels that can advance meaningful change.
Several respondents emphasized their preference for democracies over authoritarian states, which they refer to as odious, outrageous, or the like. Who could disagree? But this is mere virtue signaling and provides no foundation for policy. Who would dispute that democracy has been in retreat globally, or that various forms of authoritarianism are likely to remain the norm in much of the globe? Like it or not, policymakers must therefore deal with the world as it is, and not as a band of countries eagerly waiting to be badgered into programs of democratization.
It is appropriate for human rights activists to react in a principled and even emotional manner to the abuses that accompany authoritarian systems. But policymakers must take a cooler and more strategic approach. This means asking, first, what policies advance American interests? If the answer includes the promotion of democratic governance, they must then ask whether that cause is advanced by isolating a given authoritarian government or engaging with it.
It is perhaps understandable that American officials often come to despise their authoritarian interlocutors, and would celebrate their overthrow. But the notion that ousting authoritarian rulers leads to democracy is manifestly false. True, Iraq may be freer today than under Saddam Hussein. But in spite of the deaths of over 4,000 U.S. servicemen, ten times that number wounded, and several hundred thousand dead Iraqis, Freedom House still lists the country as “not free,” and with a government that is under the thumb of theocratic Iran. Since then, neither the “color revolutions” across Eurasia nor the “Arab Spring” that engulfed much of the Middle East has ushered in participatory democracy and open societies. In each of these cases, and others as well, all too many Americans, including policymakers, harbored unrealistic hopes that were bound to fail.
“Regime change” has not only failed to produce results in the countries where it has been tried, it has also had a profoundly negative effect on those authoritarian rulers who survive. They invariably concluded that they must intensify repression and band together to prevent regime change imposed from without. Thus, the effort to promote democracy through force or through the selective application of carrots and sticks has reached a dead end. It is time to realize that enduring changes emerge from within authoritarian systems and not from without, and that the key to successful democracy promotion is to engage with authoritarian states in such a way as to strengthen agents of change on the inside. To accomplish this we must first build partnerships with these states. But this is possible only if we have developed rigorous criteria for deciding which authoritarian states we should partner with, and which we should shun.
Critics also take issue with the importance I accord to ideology among my criteria for differentiating among authoritarian regimes. Yes, ideology matters, much more so than American policymakers tend to acknowledge. Note, for example, the similarity between America’s openness to radical leftist regimes and the more recent open door to purportedly “moderate” Islamists. This, indeed, is perhaps the strongest reason why Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 40-year-old insights are so relevant today. Several of the commentators, notably Michele Dunne and Shadi Hamid, take issue with my identification of Islamist ideology as the kind of totalitarian force America should treat as an enemy. Their objection ignores the obvious reality of the past two decades: wherever “moderate” Islamists have come to power, they have shifted rapidly in an authoritarian direction, while pursuing foreign policy objectives that directly undermine American interests. This is both their goal and strategy for reaching it. At risk of repetition, let me reiterate Kirkpatrick’s observation that those who consider America to be the source of evil in the world and the perpetrator of imperialism, are not “authentic democrats or, to put it mildly, friends.” This is true for both Turkey and Qatar, even though both host U.S. military bases.
Islamists have learned to exploit the rhetoric of democracy and human rights to advance their cause, and to curry favor in the West in order to resist the authoritarian leaders keeping them in check. Far too often Americans and Europeans have taken these claims at face value, leading us to accept Islamists as a force for democracy. Turning a deaf ear to their stated ideological convictions, we have accepted them as democrats simply because they have identified democratic elections as the best path to power. But they have shown no interest in internalizing the deeper values of democracy, including respect for minority voices and the institution of checks and balances.
In the Sunni Middle East two broad blocs currently compete with each other. One is comprised of conservative, often monarchical regimes as in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt, which oppose political Islam and seek to maintain the status quo. The other, which includes Turkey, Qatar, and the transnational Muslim Brotherhood, is the Islamist bloc. Both sides are authoritarian, and neither is a natural partner for the United States. Still, the Islamist forces promote anti-Americanism, seek to undermine or destroy Israel, and sponsor extremist groups in Syria, Libya and other conflict zones. In spite of this, many in the United States consider them preferable to the more conservative regimes, for the former “talk the talk” of participatory politics and the latter do not.
The commentators took particular issue with my discussion of al-Sisi’s Egypt. But they missed the point. My intention was not to excuse or whitewash any of the serious problems with the regime in Cairo. Rather, it was to propose that it is by no means a worse partner than the anti-American and anti-Semitic Muslim Brotherhood regime that preceded it. Lest we forget, Muhammad Morsi urged Egyptians to nurse their children on hatred for Jews, whom he branded as the descendants of apes and pigs. When he was called out on such vicious statements, he attacked his critics in what he called the Jewish-controlled U.S. media. It is certainly true that Sisi’s regime has failed to provide adequate protection for Egypt’s Coptic minority, but the Muslim Brotherhood actively incites violence against them. Which is worse?
Still, some American pundits cling to the notion that Islamists are democrats. One can only stand in amazement when Hamid argues that Islamist parties have not actually gone on to “cancel democracy after being elected to power.” To be sure, Erdoğan in Turkey has not abolished elections. But who would seriously argue that Turkish elections are free and fair, and that the country is a functioning democracy? The reality is that wherever Islamists have taken sole control of the state they have refused to give up power. Before Morsi could consolidate his control in Egypt, the country’s military forces removed him from power. Significantly, the most respected Egyptian liberals supported this move, which enjoyed the backing also of a large popular uprising. By contrast, more democratic tendencies prevailed in Tunisia precisely because the Islamists there never ruled alone and knew that if they were to yield to the temptation to grab total power, it could silence whatever voice they had.
Underlying this line of criticism is the notion that we must accept the blending of politics and religion in the Middle East because “politics and religion are inevitably intertwined in Muslim-majority countries.” This reflects the demeaning dogma that secular governance may be appropriate for the West but is somehow unnatural for Muslims. It also equates Islam with Islamism, and neglects the primacy of non-Islamist ideologies in the Muslim world for most of the 20th century. As Hassan Mneimneh has argued, it “accepts the Islamist notion of the uncontested primacy of a totalitarizing religion.” Is this not equivalent to saying in the 1930s that the deep culture of Germany and Italy condemns both countries to fascism? This view also ignores the dismal failure of Islamists in power. More often than not their own actions undermine popular support and lead to a revival of secularism.
In the final analysis, American policymakers need better tools for dealing with authoritarian governments. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 essay is a good starting point, because it challenges us to look deeper as we seek to differentiate between friend and foe, and not to be fooled by authoritarians who proclaim their commitment to the “popular will.” She would certainly have agreed that America’s best friends are other democratic states. But she refused to lump together all of the many regimes that are likely to remain authoritarian for the foreseeable future. She exhorted Americans to examine more closely their ideologies, specific actions, and international links. Only by carefully and prudently distinguishing between authoritarian states can the U.S. develop sound policies towards them.