The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky

The path this former isolationist took to a foreign policy of moral clarity and responsibility

2006 has been filled with some of the most wonderful book reading of my life, though I confess that a good portion of the 2006 book reading subject matter was determined by mental and ideological arm wrestling contests I have internally participated in for several years. I have been very public for years that my own commitment to a traditional understanding of “just war theory” was wavering, and that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have forced me to evaluate a holistic understanding of foreign policy. I do, of course, mean “Biblical” in saying “holistic”, but I fear many professing Christians are dissatisfied (or not convinced) of an important criteria I include in the definition, and that is “something that makes sense in the modern world”. If the application of an allegedly Biblical principle of foreign policy contradicts the entire essence of other parts of the Bible, I am not willing to call it Biblical, no matter how many colonial settlers believed it, or how many first millennium church fathers wrote about it. Fortunately, as I have wrestled with complicated and challenging issues pertaining to ethics and foreign policy, I have operated with the comfort that God is not a God of false dilemmas, and that the holistic and Biblical ideology of these matters will, in fact, make sense in the modern world. With that peace and assurance, I have embarked upon a multi-year journey to challenge my own presuppositions about this subject matter, and to find resolution in the Christian response to “neoconservatism”. The results have been most gratifying, and I am pleased to review the book that I feel most assisted my conclusion in these matters.

Before the review, a bit more biographical context may be in order. My influences from a very young age were mostly William Buckley-style conservatives who instilled in me a foundation of anti-communism, and Reaganite Republicanism. As I progressed in my reading and love of this brand of political ideology, much larger influences in my life (my late father being most prominent here) taught me that while I ought to appreciate the fiscal conservatism of many of these great thinkers, and could even find much overlap in their social-ethical belief system, the pro-war, pro-interventionist Wilsonianism prevalent in many 20th century conservative leaders was dangerous and off track. The circles in which I was so incredibly influenced tended to favor a more isolationist view of foreign policy, and in hindsight I can say was very unsuccessful in attempting to argue that they had the common ground with our forefathers on this issue. Consequently, I spent many of my very young years adoring the economic revolution of the Reagan years, but cautiously worrying about our efforts to undermine the Marxist-Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. My viewpoint was that the truth in the vast majority of policy issues belonged with the National Review, but that their defense of the Vietnam War was indefensible. Admittedly, aside from a very short-lived Persian Gulf War in 1991 (which I joined my dad in being ideologically opposed to, but being militarily supportive of our troops), this isolationism was easy to maintain, as the Reagan-led efforts to defeat the Soviets in the Cold War were successful, and foreign policy matters were easy to ignore from 1989 through 2001 (as the President of the 1990’s made so abundantly obvious). My socio-political emphases in the post-cold war, pre-9/11 era were on such things as the Supreme Court, the tax code, and a slew of social/moral issues that continue to be crucially important to me to this day.

I bring all this up, though, because there is something in the philosophy the United States of America took throughout the second half of the 20th century that should have been deeply disturbing to all of us as it pertains to our foreign policy with neighboring countries. It may have taken 9/11, and a slew of influences, studying, and reading, for me to experience the paradigm shift I am about to describe, but I am sad to say that the Wilsonian model of foreign policy, contra the sickening Kissingerism of the 1970’s, should never have been abandoned in my youth. My attempts to combine strict fiscal conservatism with an obnoxious view of isolationism, while well-intentioned, were morally dubious, and intellectually indefensible. I credit a good portion of this clarity to the subject of this review, Natan Sharansky’s, “The Case for Democracy”.

If any were to opine that they could not read Sharansky’s work out of concern for the 293-page size of the work, I would happily tell them that the 17-page Preface, and 17-page Introduction would at least hold them over. Indeed, I believe these two opening contributions pave the way for what is a simply delightful read. Sharansky begins on p. xviii of the Preface:

“A lack of moral clarity is why an Israeli journalist compared a kippah to a prison. It is why people living in free societies cannot distinguish between religious fundamentalists in democratic states and religious terrorists in fundamentalist states. It is why people living in free societies can come to see their fellow citizens as their enemies, and foreign dictators as their friends.”

This “lack of moral clarity” theme intrigued me early on in my reading of Sharansky, and captivated me throughout the book. I have heard many an isolationist equate Churchill and Roosevelt with Hitler and Mussolini in an effort to preach their isolationism. This inability to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys can only be described as a colossal lack of moral clarity. Indeed, my recent reading of the wonderful Durham Bishop, N.T. Wright, demonstrates a disturbing lack of moral clarity in his describing of “dropping bombs on terrorists” as “further terrorism itself”. The real points of contention to be hashed out in one’s foreign policy ideology are crucial, but I find myself far more able to engage the dialogue when I have determined to enter the subject with a commitment to moral clarity. Contemporary critiques of the Bush policies in Iraq are sorely lacking such moral clarity. Indeed, if President Bush is wrong in 99 out of 100 policies and decisions pertaining to the Iraq war, and many valid arguments exist demonstrating ample poor judgment, he still does not enter the radar screen of moral villainry the way that Saddam Hussein did. Discussion of proper policy is important, but to throw presuppositions of egalitarianism into the dialogue pollutes the waters badly, as the notion that “the terrorists and us are all the same” reaks of a lack of moral clarity. Sharansky’s base foundation is one that reinforces a commitment to right and wrong, to good and evil, to moral clarity vs. moral ambiguity. He embarks on the challenge of making the case for democracy by saying:

“Now that we are entering what some have called World War IV, we must restore the moral clarity that helped win the last world war without firing a shot. We must understand the difference between fear societies and free societies, between dictators and democrats. We must understand the link between democracy and peace and between human rights and security. Above all, we must bring back moral clarity so that we may draw on the power of free individuals, free nations, and the free world for the enormous challenges ahead.”

Sharansky faithfully and eloquently demonstrates the failures of many in contemporary society to appreciate the distinction between free societies, and fear societies, between human rights, and rank dictators. He begins his work by providing a historical context for the “appeasement” approach of men like Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter, vs. the morally superior approach of men like Ronald Reagan. The key dividing line this book demonstrates to me is that a truly righteous nation ought not only base its policy toward foreign countries on how it treats us, but also on how it treats its own people. Indeed, history is full of examples of catastrophic errors in foreign policy being made because, despite all evidence of brutal treatment of a nation’s own citizenry, we chose to befriend countries because we saw them as generally benign in their relationship to us. Time and time again, we have seen that nations who abuse their own people, and who deny their own citizens basic democratic freedoms, are not to be trusted in matters of genuine alliance with us either. Jimmy Carter openly confessed to blind trust and sympathy for dictators, justifying such on the basis that “they had never lied to him”. Suffice it to say, various dealings in Syria and Egypt over the years may have produced a cynic in even Jimmy Carter, at this point (though I fear his own lack of moral clarity has ballooned so out of control, that he may be incorrigible). The tremendous paradigm shift in American foreign policy that Sharansky persuasively argues led to the termination of the Communist Soviet Union, was that President Reagan refused to befriend and negotiate with them as his predecessors had, even as they made substantial steps toward increasing friendliness with the United States. As long as they possessed political prisoners living in Soviet imposed exile, and as long as they continued to occupy Eastern European nations against the wills of those peoples, they were to be considered an “evil empire”, something no predecessor to President Reagan had ever dared to suggest. This primary distinction has caused me to re-think much of what I have previously thought about foreign policy, and frankly to critique even those that I am generally quite supportive of (i.e. the current President Bush as it pertains to Saudi Arabia). I find the notion that our general foreign policy ought to be favorable to nations who oppress their own people, just because they generally “leave us alone”, to be morally lacking, and pragmatically foolish. Extensive gratitude is in order to Sharansky for demonstrating this to me. The “city on a hill” that Godly nations strive to be do not make their list of “good countries” and “bad countries” as Kissinger had suggested, but rather, they recognize that a country that does not respect the rights of its own people will ultimately never respect the rights of its neighbors either.

Much of the vitriol directed at many in the “neoconservative” camp stems from the perception that they believe democracy can be “imposed” on to a society. Indeed, even many sympathetic to what President Bush is doing in this war on terror express doubt and concern at the notion that democracy can ever gain a foothold in the Middle East. Sharansky spends the bulk of this great book using the Soviet Union and the fall of Communism as a great example for what can be accomplished in the Middle East. He writes:

“When freedom’s skeptics argue today that freedom cannot be “imposed” from the outside, or that the free world has no role to play in spreading democracy around the world, I cannot but be amazed. Less than one generation has passed since the West found the Achilles heel of the Soviet Union by pursuing an activist policy that linked the rights of the Soviet people to the USSR’s international standing. The same formula will work again today. The nations of the free world can promote democracy by linking their foreign policies toward nondemocratic regimes to how those regimes treat their subjects. Those regimes are much more dependent on the West than the Soviets ever were, giving the West far more leverage to demand change.”

Far more than any defense of American military involvement in the Middle East, Sharansky’s work has demonstrated to me that we do possess the leverage to spread democracy around the world through the simple process of improving our list of “good countries” and “bad countries”. He writes:

“More than fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the free world continues to underestimate the universal appeal of its own ideas. Rather than place its faith in the power of freedom to rapidly transform authoritarian states, it is eager once again to achieve ‘peaceful coexistence’ and ‘détente’ with dictatorial regimes.”

It is my belief that democracy is a political form of government that is naturally attractive to people, when they can see it, taste it, and experience it. Fear societies (such as the dictatorial regimes in the Middle East) are poor examples in attempting to show that many “do not want democracy”, as the double-speak of their fearful citizenry renders such a belief impossible. I do not wish to use this review to re-state all of Sharansky’s arguments for such a conclusion, but the inescapable conclusion for me is that people do desire to be free, when they are allowed to have that desire. Societies of people who are exposed to freedom, capitalism, and democracy always embrace it. Illustrations of past societies that failed in such “teasing” fall short at disproving this notion, as such illustrations always use nations that were hampered in their efforts to showcase and implement democracy. If Sharansky is correct that freedom is something sought by human peoples, I find it an inescapable conclusion that “freedom anywhere, makes the world safer everywhere”. Democracy and freedom are contagious ideas. The Westernization of much of the globe has proven this all over the world. Sharansky argues, without suggesting that the United States need to lead a military crusade, that setting our policies along these principles will enable these goals to come to reality. His historical footnoting of what took place in the Communist bloc (which once occupied over 1/3 of the world), serve as a powerful precedent to what we currently face in the Middle East.

The book delves into the subject matter of American military foreign policy when it makes the case for ending state support of terrorism, and replacing such terrorist regimes with democratic governments. He wisely points out that successfully building a democratic government will be predicated upon a free society being established. Like a good incrementalist, he writes:

“Surely, the fact that democratic societies are not built overnight is not evidence that they cannot be built at all”.

We are asked to believe in the current war on terror that democracy in the Middle East is a complete impossibility. Sharansky responds with the historical precedent of Italy, Germany, Spain, Latin America, Russia, etc., and finds the doubt in potential Middle Eastern democracy to be less grounded than confidence in it. He objectively affirms that out of 22 Arab states, zero of them can be called a democracy. However, the historical parallel that Sharansky finds confidence in is not the precedent of Arab nations going democratic (which clearly has not happened), but the overwhelming precedent for any nation that converts from a fear society to a free society going democratic. Just as we must grant that no Arab nation has ever embraced the democracy that Sharansky writes about, opponents must recognize that these nations have been, up until now, “fear societies” (in the textbook definition of the phrase). The ability to transition these societies into place of freedom rather than fear will allow for a more fair testing of the belief that democracy and freedom can flourish where it is allowed to.

“I am equally certain that once a people live in freedom, the vast majority of them will never want to live in fear again. To suggest, as the skeptics do, that the majority of people would freely choose to live in a fear society is to suggest that most of those who have tasted freedom would freely choose to return to slavery.”

The belief that democracy can succeed in parts of the world that have always been antagonistic to it is not the same as saying that the United States ought to play a military part in making it so. I prefer the language of Fukuyama, who wrote in “America at the Crossroads” that one of the major tenets of neoconservative thought is:

“A belief that American power has been and could be used for moral purposes, and that the United States needs to remain engaged in international affairs. There is a realist dimension to neoconservative foreign policy, which lies in the understanding that power is often necessary to achieve moral purposes. As the world’s dominant power, the United States has special responsibilities in the realm of security. This was true in the Balkans in the 1990s, as it was in World War II and the fight against Hitler.”

Critics who disingenuously accuse the United States of “nation-building”, or “imperialism”, are fully aware that we have never once occupied one nation on the globe with the goal of “colonializing” them, and that to this day, our efforts around the globe have been focused on bringing nations to a place of sovereign independence. Legitimate need for discussion on the propriety of some of these efforts exists, but these efforts are not “imperialistic”, and the anti-Buckley, anti-Bush, anti-neocon, anti-war, anti-Wilsonian crowd knows this (at least if they are willing to demonstrate the slightest bit of objectivity and honesty). It is my contention that the “interventionism” we do participate in has the dual and simultaneous benefit and effect of (a) Meeting the humanitarian objective of freeing oppressed peoples, and (b) Making the world a safer place, which definitionally makes the United States a safer place.

The purpose of this review is not to provide an exhaustive defense of humanitarian war efforts, or to create a comprehensive apologetic against those who would argue for extreme isolationism. Philosophically, Sharansky’s “Case for Democracy” at least demonstrates the need for a policy of non-appeasement – a policy that embraces democratic nations and principles. What I have learned in a post-9/11 world is that democracy must be protected, and that has to be done with guns. I have learned, and am firmly convinced, that the Augustinian applications of just war theory fail to fully deal with the technological and political realities of today. I am certain that today’s geo-political environment requires an interventionist willingness, and that such a willingness is both humanitarian, and defensive, all at once.

This book is not an apologetic for the war in Iraq, and neither is this review. Exhaustive elaborations of a “holistic” foreign policy will be more readily available as I continue this project (though my subsequent reading of Mandelbaum’s, “The Case for Goliath”, greatly assisted this cause). What has happened in my development, though, is a paradigm shift that embraces the right and moral imperative of America to pre-emptively defend itself, and the inclusion in such a statement of the right and imperative to prosecute humanitarian wars. This has led me to a place of sympathy for our efforts in Iraq, and has led me to a place of outrage for our inaction in Sudan. My paradigm shift enables me to more intelligently study America’s real role in the world (the Mandelbaum book is a required read), to better appreciate the true pragmatic threat we face in the war of Islamo-Fascism (Lawrence Wright’s, “The Looming Tower”, is a frightening gem), and to ideologically reconcile the Biblical teachings on war with the military conventions we face today.

I maintain a great deal of respect for those who hold on to a more traditional view of just war theory, and those who wish to see America abstain from military conflict in such countries as Afghanistan and Iraq. What I emphatically request though, as like-minded people attempt to wrestle with these issues, is that we not forfeit all semblance of moral clarity, as the mainstream media, and many on the far left (and far right), have clearly done.

I am not fond of the excessive coverage in Sharansky’s book of the deficiencies in the Israel-Palestine peace efforts of the 1990’s, though I accept at face value the validity of the points he is making. I also find intriguing his proposal for a UN-pullout, followed by the creation of a “Coalitian of Free Nations” (what William Bennett has argued for in his United Democracies concept). All things considered, the book provides practical and philosophical food for thought that is profound, persuasive, and provoking. I not only recommend this book for skeptics and sympathizers alike, but I recommend a thorough reflection on all of our own presuppositions about matters of freedom and policy. Indeed, it has been invigorating for me personally. I conclude with Sharansky’s concluding vision, which I am passionately prayerful for:

“Perhaps in less than a couple of generations, the world could become a community of free nations in which each country would build a democracy that suits its unique culture, history, religion, and traditions, but where no nation would be able to undermine the right to dissent that truly is God’s gift to humanity.”

“I am convinced that a successful effort to expand freedom around the world must be inspired and led by the United States. In the 20th century, America has proved time and again that it possessed both the [moral] clarity and the courage that is necessary to defeat evil.”

May this be the case into the 21st century as well, for our own national survival, and for international peace and prosperity as well …