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June 30, 2008

Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Stability
Posted by David Shorr

There are numerous problems with the way that Gregory Scoblete sets up a dichotomy between the universality of liberal ideals and the particularity of the world's different societies and their governance. Before launching into my critique, though, I'll credit Scoblete for putting his finger on a central issue for post-Bush foreign policy: how agitated or patient should the US be regarding the domestic regime character of other countries?

But his article is a classic example of distorting a policy approach to fit his frame -- the struggle between moral clarity and accommodation. If you're not punitive toward dictators (McCain), then you're passive (Obama). This passage shows how Scoblete skews things and misses the pivotal point of the debate:

Many politicians, Obama included, have spoken of the universal appeal of American values. But McCain's argument is different. He's not merely stating that they are appealing, but that they universally applicable and that it is in our interest to apply them.

I can't speak for Obama, my organization (and certainly not for other DA bloggers), but I think many progressive foreign policy specialists believe in the applicability of democracy -- even the US interest in same -- but think it's crucial not to overreach or lose sight of other interests. Obama hasn't necessarily put "a higher price on stability and cooperation with great powers than on ideological conversion." He might be making a prudent calculation about the prospects of conversion. He might have other fish to fry.

Here's the point about cooperation. I don't think Barack Obama or anyone else in this debate seeks cooperation for its own sake. The point of cooperation is to deal with urgent world problems, like nuclear proliferation, as Scoblete cites in his own quote of Sen. Obama. Take Iran, for another example. I hope Iran becomes more open and democratic; I'm optimistic that it will do so within my lifetime. I believe it's in US interests and would make Iran a better international citizen in foreswearing nuclear weapons and support for terrorists. Meanwhile, I want them to foreswear nuclear weapons and support for terrorists, which means we will have to focus on change of those policies and not change of the Iranian regime. That, my friend, is the real world we live in.

Scoblete's article draws on references back to the strategic choices of the Cold War. But another thing about which we must be 'particularist' is the difference between the stakes and circumstances of then versus now. The nuclearized bipolar ideological competition gave a differential rationale and context for stability. We shouldn't be completely dismissive of stability as a consideration (viz Iraq). The stubborn central fact remains, though, there are limits to how much you can compel or propel democratization. As every serious practitioner in that area will remind you, they're in the business of democracy support, not democracy promotion. In its nature, this is an opportunistic affair.

Toward the end of the article, Scoblete indeed highlights the blind spots of universalism -- summing up the critique of overfocus on regime character quite well, actually. But he doesn't recognize that international cooperation doesn't need to eschew the universalist outlook, just apply it with much greater care.


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Isn't this just a lot of hair-splitting?

What is the difference between a universalist who recognizes that democracy support doesn't mean democracy promotion, and a non-univeralist who favors promoting democracy where it has a chance and recognizes there are some places it just doesn't? As far as I can tell, the difference is that the former feels better about himself for being more benevolent, and the latter feels better for not tying himself in logical knots.

Penetrating and clever, Zathras, as per usual. Note that my post was a reaction to Scoblete's article, where I see real problems. Also note, a more substantive reaction to you on the earlier post.

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Very well written post.I would say Beneath Obama's stated preference for diplomacy when dealing with North Korea or Iran lies a clear subtext: barring acts of overt aggression, America can co-exist in a world with these loathsome, nuclear-armed regimes. His objection to the Iraq war carried a similar implication. Containing Iraq was preferable to conquering it....

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