The Duck of Minerva

The US, Democratization, and Grand Strategy

3 June 2005

Cross posted at “Discord and Elaboration

G. John Ikenberry, an esteemed professor of IR at Princeton, had an interesting piece the other day at America Abroad on the seeming shift from a focus on terrorism to democratization by the Bush administration. It was a post in response to one by Anne Marie Slaughter–also of Princeton–who argued that the administration had not foresaken the fight against terrorists for a crusade of democractization, but rather the latter had subsumed the former. Slaughter writes:

the Bush Administration doesn’t think it has won the war on terror—that war has just been subsumed into a larger global struggle now referred to as the war on tyranny, or, better yet, the fight for freedom.

Ikenberry essentially agrees with Slaughter regarding this transformation, and believes this was done for two reasons. The first is tactical. He argues that the fallout of the Iraq War has created a legitimacy crisis for the Bush administration abroad. In keeping with his scholarly focus on the construction of international orders, Ikenberry argues that Iraq War did not providfe a “master narrative”, a rationale for the war–and implicitly a vision of international order–that other states could feel comfortable with1. Second, Ikenberry argues the Bush administration had to come to grips with the problem of “extremist violence”. He notes that, “looking into the future, it seems all too clear that small groups of angry and determined extremists will find it increasingly easy to obtain chemical, biological or nuclear capabilities and unleash them upon the civilized world.” The question is how to deal with this threat. By focusing on democratization the Bush administration is answering this question by establishing a link between politically and economically underdeveloped or failed states. Battling extremism is hard enough, but it can be made easier if developed, politically transparent states exist which deprive these groups of resources and staging grounds.Ikenberry concludes:

If this logic is correct, President Bush’s claim is true that America is less secure when freedom and democracy are in retreat — and more secure when freedom and democracy are on the march. The essential insight is this: the ‘quality’ of the governments around the world bears directly on the ‘quality’ of international security. This is a sort of a rump liberal internationalist insight — even though it is being articulated by a conservative nationalist. The Bush shift from a focus on the war on terrorism to the promotion of open and accountable government is a step forward. It is a rhetorical shift that seems to also entail a shift in the diagnosis of the terrorist threat. The threat is not simply terrorists who are evil and hate us for who we are. Tyranny and bad government are now seen as integral to the problem.

My reaction to this piece is mixed. While I agree with Ikenberry that the focus on democratization certainly has a practical, strategic element I disagree that the impetus and timing behind the new rhetoric was primarily about repairing a crisis of legitimacy.

The shift in rhetoric for Bush’s second term certainly was used as a legitimation tool. However, the focus on democratization as a guiding principle of a grand strategy designed to deal with the terrorist threat was enshrined in 2002 in the National Security Strategy. The connection made between terrorism and dictatorships was evident in that document years before this supposed “shift”. I have no doubt that the President honestly believes in the underlying logic of this connection. Ikenberry’s contention that the shift was due to the fact that the original rationale for the Iraq War failed ignores the possibility that the war fit quite well into a strategy that already included democratization and the desire to rein in and eventually oust tryannical leaders. If this was the case–which I believe it was–Iraq was a natural and attrative target for a number of reasons.

First, removing Hussein from power allowed the US to begin shifting troops out of Saudi Arabia–this was a central call to arms for many terrorists associated with Al Queda, and while the US will never admit it (because it can’t), this move facilitated the removal of one major point of political friction.

Second, Iraq was incredibly weak militarily. A decade of UN sanctions as well as the enforcement of no-fly zones made the invasion and occupation of Iraq relatively simple compared to what similar operations elsewhere would have been (granted, extended occupation has been incredibly difficult and it appears the administration completely underestimated this fact, but I digress…).

Third, the administration needed a “demonstration effect” for their new policy–an example that would demonstrate a) the US was capable and willing to execute regime change if necessary and b) an image of Middle Eastern citizens from one of the most despotic states in the region freely participating in politics which would hopefully encouraged the public in other states as well as freighten tryannical leaders, all leading to one giant snowball of democratization in the region–similar to Eastern Europe in the late 80’s early 90’s (whether we are witnessing a “fourth wave” in the region which is the result of the war in Iraq is hotly contested. See here, here, and here).

So while the shift in the intensity and frequency of Wilsonian-rhetoric seems to emerge in time for the President’s 2nd term, the focus on democratization as a center-piece of policy can be dated earlier. Whether the policy will actually work is anothe question. However, I think its harder to argue that it is simply the result of a legitimacy crisis over the Iraq War. Rather, I think the focus on democratization was there all along–and Iraq certainly (altough not obviously) fit into this strategy.

1I would note here that Ikenberry does not consider that the administration was also facing a potential legitimacy crisis among its own citizens over this episode. The need to rationalize the war in this fashion after the original rationale–WMD’s–fell through certainly played a role and is consistent with his logic.

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