Egypt and the Idealist-Realist Debate in US Foreign Policy
by George Friedman on 16 Dec 2011 3 Comments

The first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections has taken place, and the winners were two Islamist parties. The Islamists themselves are split between more extreme and more moderate factions, but it is clear that the secularists who dominated the demonstrations and who were the focus of the Arab Spring narrative made a poor showing. Of the three broad power blocs in Egypt — the military, the Islamists and the secular democrats — the last proved the weakest.

It is far from clear what will happen in Egypt now. The military remains unified and powerful, and it is unclear how much actual power it is prepared to cede or whether it will be forced to cede it. What is clear is that the faction championed by Western governments and the media will now have to accept the Islamist agenda, back the military or fade into irrelevance.

One of the points I made during the height of the Arab Spring was that the West should be careful of what it wishes for — it might get it. Democracy does not always bring secular democrats to power. To be more precise, democracy might yield a popular government, but the assumption that that government will support a liberal democratic constitution that conceives of human rights in the European or American sense, is by no means certain. Unrest does not always lead to a revolution, a revolution does not always lead to a democracy, and a democracy does not always lead to a European- or American-style constitution.

In Egypt today, just as it is unclear whether the Egyptian military will cede power in any practical sense, it is also unclear whether the Islamists can form a coherent government or how extreme such a government might be. And as we analyze the possibilities, it is important to note that this analysis really isn’t about Egypt. Rather, Egypt serves as a specimen to examine — a case study of an inherent contradiction in Western ideology and, ultimately, of an attempt to create a coherent foreign policy.

Core Beliefs

Western countries, following the principles of the French Revolution, have two core beliefs. The first is the concept of national self-determination, the idea that all nations (and what the term “nation” means is complex in itself) have the right to determine for themselves the type of government they wish. The second is the idea of human rights, which are defined in several documents but are all built around the basic values of individual rights, particularly the right not only to participate in politics but also to be free in your private life from government intrusion.

The first principle leads to the idea of the democratic foundations of the state. The second leads to the idea that the state must be limited in its power in certain ways and the individual must be free to pursue his own life in his own way within a framework of law limited by the principles of liberal democracy. The core assumption within this is that a democratic polity will yield a liberal constitution. This assumes that the majority of the citizens, left to their own devices, will favor the Enlightenment’s definition of human rights. This assumption is simple, but its application is tremendously complex. In the end, the premise of the Western project is that national self-determination, expressed through free elections, will create and sustain constitutional democracies.

It is interesting to note that human rights activists and neoconservatives, who on the surface are ideologically opposed, actually share this core belief. Both believe that democracy and human rights flow from the same source and that creating democratic regimes will create human rights. The neoconservatives believe outside military intervention might be an efficient agent for this. Human rights groups oppose this, preferring to organize and underwrite democratic movements and use measures such as sanctions and courts to compel oppressive regimes to cede power. But they share common ground on this point as well. Both groups believe that outside intervention is needed to facilitate the emergence of an oppressed public naturally inclined toward democracy and human rights.

This, then, yields a theory of foreign policy in which the underlying strategic principle must not only support existing constitutional democracies, but also bring power to bear to weaken oppressive regimes and free the people to choose to build the kind of regimes that reflect the values of the European Enlightenment.

Complex Questions and Choices

The case of Egypt raises an interesting and obvious question regardless of how it all turns out. What if there are democratic elections and the people choose a regime that violates the principles of Western human rights? What happens if, after tremendous Western effort to force democratic elections, the electorate chooses to reject Western values and pursue a very different direction — for example, one that regards Western values as morally reprehensible and aims to make war against them? One obvious example of this is Adolf Hitler, whose ascent to power was fully in keeping with the processes of the Weimar Republic — a democratic regime — and whose clearly stated intention was to supersede that regime with one that was popular (there is little doubt that the Nazi regime had vast public support), opposed to constitutionalism in the democratic sense and hostile to constitutional democracy in other countries.

The idea that the destruction of repressive regimes opens the door for democratic elections that will not result in another repressive regime, at least by Western standards, assumes that all societies find Western values admirable and want to emulate them. This is sometimes the case, but the general assertion is a form of narcissism in the West that assumes that all reasonable people, freed from oppression, would wish to emulate us.

At this moment in history, the obvious counterargument rests in some, but not all, Islamist movements. We do not know that the Islamist groups in Egypt will be successful, and we do not know what ideologies they will pursue, but they are Islamists and their views of man and moral nature are different from those of the European Enlightenment. Islamists have a principled disagreement with the West on a wide range of issues, from the relation of the individual to the community to the distinction between the public and private sphere. They oppose the Egyptian military regime not only because it limits individual freedom, but also because it violates their understanding of the regime’s moral purpose. The Islamists have a different and superior view of moral political life, just as Western constitutional democracies see their own values as superior.

The collision between the doctrine of national self-determination and the Western notion of human rights is not an abstract question but an extremely practical one for Europe and the United States. Egypt is the largest Arab country and one of the major centers of Islamic life. Since 1952, it has had a secular and military-run government. Since 1973, it has had a pro-Western government. At a time when the United States is trying to end its wars in the Islamic world (along with its NATO partners, in the case of Afghanistan), and with relations with Iran already poor and getting worse, the democratic transformation of Egypt into a radical Islamic regime would shift the balance of power in the region wildly.

This raises questions regarding the type of regime Egypt has, whether it is democratically elected and whether it respects human rights. Then there is the question of how this new regime might affect the United States and other countries. The same can be said, for example, about Syria, where an oppressive regime is resisting a movement that some in the West regard as democratic. It may be, but its moral principles might be anathema to the West. At the same time, the old repressive regime might be unpopular but more in the interests of the West.

Then pose this scenario: Assume there is a choice between a repressive, undemocratic regime that is in the interests of a Western country, and a regime that is democratic but repressive by Western standards and hostile to those interests. Which is preferable, and what steps should be taken?

These are blindingly complex questions that some observers — the realists as opposed to the idealists — say not only are unanswerable but also undermine the ability to pursue national interests without in any way improving the moral character of the world. In other words, you are choosing between two types of repression from a Western point of view and there is no preference. Therefore, a country like the United States should ignore the moral question altogether and focus on a simpler question, and one that’s answerable: the national interest.

Egypt is an excellent place to point out the tension within US foreign policy between idealists, who argue that pursuing Enlightenment principles is in the national interest, and realists, who argue that the pursuit of principles is very different from their attainment. You can wind up with regimes that are neither just nor protective of American interests. In other words, the United States can wind up with a regime hostile to the United States and oppressive by American standards. Far from a moral improvement, this would be a practical disaster.

Mission and Power

There is a temptation to accept the realist argument. Its weakness is that its definition of the national interest is never clear. The physical protection of the United States is obviously an issue — and given 9/11, it is not a trivial matter. At the same time, the physical safety of the United States is not always at stake. What exactly is our interest in Egypt, and does it matter to us whether it is pro-American? There are answers to this, but not always obvious ones, and the realists frequently  have trouble defining the national interest. Even if we accept the idea that the primary objective of US foreign policy is securing the national interest irrespective of moral considerations, what exactly is the national interest?

It seems to me that two principles emerge. The first is that having no principles beyond “interest” is untenable. Interest seems very tough-minded, but it is really a vapid concept when you drill into it. The second principle is that there can be no moral good without power. Proclaiming a principle without having the power to pursue it is a form of narcissism. You know you are doing no good, but talking about it makes you feel superior. Interest is not enough, and morality without power is mere talk.

So what is to be done about Egypt? The first thing is to recognize that little can be done, not because it would be morally impermissible but because, practically, Egypt is a big country that is hard to influence, and meddling and failing is worse than doing nothing at all. Second, it must be understood that Egypt matters and the outcome of this affair, given the past decade, is not a matter to which the United States can afford to be indifferent.

An American strategy on Egypt — one that goes beyond policy papers in Washington — is hard to define. But a number of points can be deduced from this exercise. First, it is essential to not create myths. The myth of the Egyptian revolution was that it was going to create a constitutional democracy like Western democracies. That simply wasn’t the issue on the table. The issue was between the military regime and an Islamist regime. This brings us to the second point, which is that sometimes, in confronting two different forms of repression, the issue is to select the one that is most in the national interest. This will force you to define the national interest, to a salutary effect.

Washington, like all capitals, likes policies and hates political philosophy. The policies frequently fail to come to grips with reality because the policymakers don’t grasp the philosophical implications. The contradiction inherent in the human rights and the neoconservative approach is one thing, but the inability of the realists to define with rigor what the national interest is creates policy papers of monumental insignificance. Both sides create polemics as a substitute for thought.

It’s in places like Egypt where this reality is driven home. One side really believed that Egypt would become like Minnesota. The other side knew it wouldn’t and devised a plan to be tough-minded — but not tough-minded enough to define what the point of the plan was. This is the crisis of US foreign policy. It has always been there, but given American power, it is one that creates global instability. One part of the American regime wants to be just; the other part wants to be tough. Neither realizes that such a distinction is the root of the problem. Look at the American (and European) policy toward Egypt and I think you can see the predicament.

The solution does not rest in slogans or ideology, or in soft versus hard power. It rests in clarity on both the moral mission of the regime and its ability to understand and wield power effectively. And this requires the study of political philosophy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with his distinction between the “general will” and the “will of all,” might be a good place to start. Or reading the common sense of Mark Twain might be a more pleasant substitute.

[Egypt and the Idealist-Realist Debate in U.S. Foreign Policy is republished with permission of STRATFOR]

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