Withdrawing from—or should we say, giving up—Afghanistan appears to have been a turning point in foreign policy thinking. Commentators have been tumbling over each other lately to show how much of a failure the approach of past decades has failed. There would have been a ‘liberal urge to expand’ and a moral crusader mentality accompanied by overly high-strung ideals such as nation building and democratization. There are also voices everywhere that Dutch and European foreign policy should be more pragmatic and driven by self-interest.
There is nothing wrong with such a change of course. But with the analysis of the old policy, yes. That was much more pragmatic that is supposed. If we can’t or don’t want to see why things went wrong in the past, we run the risk of making the same mistakes again.
Two moments in American foreign policy show that democratization was not a Western civilizational offensive, but was driven by pragmatism. Other western countries, including the Netherlands, have enthusiastically followed the United States in this approach.
The first moment was in 1994, when President Bill Clinton addressed the United Nations. His premise was that democratic states are generally more stable and less inclined to go to war. And from that position he came to the following statement: “Our efforts to contribute to building more democracies will make us safer, more prosperous and more successful.”
This was a clear example of American self-interest: if the rest of the world was more democratic, America would be better off. You could call this the Clinton Doctrine. And from that moment on, the West, led by the Americans, began to support, build and strengthen democracies around the world.
Those were the 1990s, and the magic word in foreign policy was civil society, translated into Dutch as ‘civil society’. The idea was that strengthening that social layer would lead to a strengthening of democracy. However, according to governments of the countries where this policy was applied, the West was engaged in subversive activities. That impression was not unjustified. It was therefore not long before it was banned in many countries to receive financial support from Western donors.
Read the essay by Luuk van Middelaar here: Crusaders of universalism: Afghanistan had to become like us
And then followed the attacks of 9/11 in the year 2001. And again an American president made the connection between democracy abroad and security for America. According to President George W. Bush, the attacks against the United States were the result of the lack of democracy in the Middle East. And that lack was due to the West, he thought“For sixty years, Western countries have condoned and allowed the lack of freedom in the Middle East, and that has not made us any safer.”
Bush reasoned this way: the lack of democracy in the Middle East had led to growing discontent among the populations there, and this discontent was increasingly directed against the West for actually supporting the regimes in the region. It was an analysis shared by many observers.
But President Bush drew a conclusion from this: if America wanted to be safe from attacks, it had to ensure that the cause was fought at the source. And that cause was the lack of freedom, so it was in America’s interest to have more freedom and democracy in the region. As with Clinton, there was no ideological high-flying here, but hard realpolitik.
Also read this opinion piece: The time of civilization is over
But this time, too, there were hiccups in the translation of American self-interest into foreign policy. Because while a Middle East Partner Initiative was set up to accelerate education, freedom and democracy in the Middle East, the US invaded first Afghanistan, then Iraq. That eroded the credibility of the Americans to such an extent that the entire democratization project deflated like a balloon.
So it may have all gone hopelessly wrong, that Western policy, but let’s not convince ourselves that the failure is due to the ideological content of that policy. Perhaps the Europeans were idealistic in all their democratization projects abroad, but the Americans certainly were not: democratization was not an ideal for export, but realpolitik which only served self-interest.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of October 4, 2021