Illustration: Three people hold a mask of the Statue of Liberty in front of their faces.

Making Foreign Policy Honest

Not all democracy is the same: it is not state action that leads to true democracy, but individuals, groups and organisations committed to civil society.

Countries with the capability to interfere in another country’s destiny do so out of self-interest. This can be assumed from the onset, even more so for democratic countries. Democratic leaders simply cannot get elected by favouring the wellbeing of foreigners over nationals or foreign countries over their own. Every country on this planet thus has a self-interested foreign policy, seeking to achieve national objectives. The difference is that most countries do not have the means to actually pursue their foreign policy objectives vigorously. They lack the economic and military capabilities to do so. The US continues to be the country most able to pursue its national interests internationally, even if this power is currently being disputed by China. The EU has not committed to stocking up its economic and military power to such an extent that it can pursue any foreign policy goals independently.

As the most recent Afghan crisis has once more demonstrated, left to itself, the EU is not even able to hold an airport. To this day, the US spends more on its military than any other country on the planet, some $778 billion in 2020, which is more than China, Russia, India, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Australia combined. The EU lacks the technology, human resources, and financial commitment to ever catch up with the foreign policy capability of the US. The US and, by extension the EU, have no real interest in exporting true democracy.

Most countries do not have the means to actually pursue their foreign policy objectives vigorously. They lack the economic and military capabilities to do so.

True democracy means ‘rule by the people’ and, in its original, Greek, definition, it meant rule by average people, as opposed to rule by the smart, gifted, or the rich, as in an aristocracy, oligarchy, or plutocracy. Democracy emerged, in Europe and the United States, out of local democratic practices and proto-democratic institutions. In Europe, it was the North Italian city states that became the seeds for democratic nation states. In the US, it was the Puritan settlers and their rich associative life that bred the American democracy. In France, democracy advanced by getting rid of an abusive, non-tax-paying, lazy aristocracy. In Britain democratisation meant fighting back against the power of the king, supported by a powerseeking aristocracy. Everywhere in continental Europe, democratisation meant standing up against a Roman Catholic church that suppressed knowledge.

All these are particular histories, highly contextualised and contingent on the specific historical circumstances under which they occurred. Without a Catholic Church, secularism loses its importance. Without an abusive aristocracy, the importance of the bourgeoisie for democratisation is greatly diminished. Had the British aristocracy not sided with the emerging bourgeoisie, it would have not retained the kind of power and political influence it wields today. None of these particular experiences can be exported or transplanted.


Rule Without The People

What all contemporary democracies have in common is that they emerged from local proto-democratic political institutions, which expanded to reach regional, national, and in the case of the EU, even transnational levels. In Europe, it was the democratic city states that bore the seeds of a democratic Europe. In the US, Puritan settlers valued hard work and they cultivated a dense network of associations, actively grooming their civic spirit, as Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America, first published in 1835) famously explained.

All over the Americas, runaway enslaved Africans, the so-called maroons, created free democratic republics that could have served as democratic models and seeds for a truly democratic America – but those in power never had self-rule of average people, let alone Black people, in mind and they never accepted it. The United States gave birth not to real democracy, but to a system of elected rulers who did not even perceive enslaved Africans and their descendants or women to be part of their constituency, of ‘the people’ (see James Mills, The Racial Contract, 1997).


Image of an American flag on a cracked background.
What the US and its allies seek to export is the thinnest version of democracy, photo: DWilliam via pixabay

What become known, and accepted, as democracy and what the US and its allies seek to export is the thinnest version of democracy. It is a democracy stripped of self-rule and transformed into the rule of the few, the wise, the politicians, who formerly declared themselves rulers by usurping power and who now ascend to power through elections and through undemocratic promotions and appointments, in the case of bureaucrats. Democratic self-rule cannot be manipulated and distorted easily. A democracy run, executed, and administered by elected officials and bureaucrats can. All it takes is money and sometimes a bit of direct or indirect interference – foreign policy applied through the military, the CIA, or other, similar, organisations created for this purpose.

Afghanistan is a good case in point. The US promoted Ashraf Ghani to the Afghan presidency. Ghani, before taking the Afghan presidency, was an American citizen and professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He also worked for the World Bank. What the United States is seeking to implant abroad is not democracy understood as rule by average people. It is representative democracy, understood as rule by pro-US elites who ensure that their countries stay open for American business. 

Such political leaders as Ghani represent the interests of the US more than the interests of average Afghans. In other words: it is not one of the US’s foreign policy objectives to support genuine democracy abroad, that is democratic selfrule. What the US seeks to achieve abroad is to protect its own interests; to gain and protect access to important resources; to create markets for American products and services; and to achieve political stability so that American businesses can operate undisturbed.

What the US seeks to achieve abroad is to [...] create markets for American products and services; and to achieve political stability so that American businesses can operate undisturbed.

Any other political platform would not be viable in any contemporary democracy, because, as already explained above, nobody can get elected in any country who does not put the national interests of its own citizens first. The reduction of democracy to the election of rulers who practice democracy on behalf of the people must be seen as a tool to secure stability, not democracy understood as self- rule. Stability, in turn, means the stability to conduct business. With voting participation at a minimum and media manipulation and fake news at a high, such systems can only claim to be democratic in a very narrow, and perverted, sense of this term.


History Lessons

With US hegemony, political representation and the voting into office of pro Western and pro-American elites became the recipe and blueprint for how democracy is supposed to work and look like in the world. It is, however, an approach informed first and foremost by the profound suspicion of the American political class against average people, poor people, nonwhites, and non-Christians.

James Madison was motivated by the same fears as most contemporary US foreign policy experts so that the Madisonian model of indirect, representative democracy became the model for the world and still dominates in the US and in all those places where the US implemented their version of democracy. In the eyes of most American foreign policy experts, it is precisely political representation, and not democracy, that brought stability to such countries as Germany and Japan and it thus has the potential to achieve the same in Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. After all, average German people were found to be deeply undemocratic in their value systems by such prominent political scientists and American government advisors as Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba (Civic Culture, 1963), who advised not only the US Department of State but also other US foreign policy agencies.

So did their colleague, prominent political scientist Samuel Huntington, who argued in 1968 (Political Order in Changing Societies) that political participation by the masses leads to political instability in emerging democracies. Huntington favoured authoritarian government for the sake of stability over democracy in all those places where average people could not be entrusted, according to Huntington, to create systems where private property and capitalism were safe and protected. Almost all US interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean during the nineteenth and twentieth century were driven by the US government’s suspicion and fear of the mostly poor and nonwhite masses of those countries coming to political power. Historian Marc Becker lists 56 such interventions between 1890 and 2009.

The profoundly racist idea that average people, but particularly the poor and non-whites, cannot be entrusted with running their own governments had a stunning revival when the United States took it on itself to ‘bring democracy’ to such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, as there, average people were not only poor and nonwhite— they were also Muslims.

The agenda of US foreign policy with regards to ‘bringing democracy’ to such places as Iraq and Afghanistan is clear: instead of a system controlled by average people, the United States seeks to implement minimal, indirect, electoral democratic systems so that pro-US elites can take power and conduct pro-US policies even against the will of the majority.

Poster: Statue of liberty standing in front of democratic values.
Instead of a system controlled by average people, the United States seeks to implement minimal, indirect, electoral democratic systems so that pro-US elites can take power and conduct pro-US policies, photo: Johnhain via unsplash

Afghanistan has all the ingredients to practice self-rule and democracy. It counts on a long tradition of tribal and village councils and councils of elders who deliberate and reach collective decisions, seeking consensus. Similar to many European and American proto-democratic political institutions, the Afghan councils are dominated by men and thus require further democratisation. Supporting local proto-democratic political institutions so they can gradually become more inclusive and democratic would have been the way to assist in Afghanistan’s democratisation process. 

That is, however, not how the US and the West intervened in Afghanistan. Pushed by their own military-industrial complex and aide by their ignorant chauvinism, they conquered and destroyed, thus creating a fierce, anti-US and anti-Western movement in the Taliban and other resistance groups. Between 2001 and 2021, US airstrikes killed over 70,000 civilians in Afghanistan. In 2009, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health reported that fully two-thirds of Afghans suffer from mental health problems. Because of the misguided tactics of the West, fighting for freedom in Afghanistan has come to mean fighting against the US and its Western allies. Not surprisingly, then, the struggle for freedom in Afghanistan is an anti-Western, anti-Christian, and anti-imperialist struggle.

Supporting local proto-democratic political institutions [...] would have been the way to assist in Afghanistan’s democratisation process.

Through their brutal and ignorant interference, Western powers, led by the US, have forged an anti-Western ideology among those seeking freedom and self-rule in many Middle Eastern countries. This anti-Western sentiment has grown so strong that many Afghans now prefer the Taliban’s radical Islam over the control by the imperialist West. In a mixture of ideological blindness, ignorance, arrogance, and simple manipulation, the West is depicted by the Western media as seeking to export the ‘right’ values, whereas the East is portrayed, including by such leftist newspapers as the German taz, as having the ‘wrong values’.

However, the fact that the Taliban were able to conquer the whole Afghan territory in a matter of days after the US left the country shows that average Afghans support them massively. Most people, Afghan or not, prefer some sort of order over chaos, which is what the Taliban provide. Most people also prefer national leaders, even if they are crazy, over being ruled by foreign forces who drop bombs out of the sky and who are not accountable at all to national citizens.


The Role of Culture and The EU

To be sure: democratisation is in order among the Taliban, who need to include women in politics and end their discrimination in other spheres of public life, education first and foremost. However, women were only allowed to play a role in politics in Western countries in the early to mid-20th century and they conquered suffrage and political power not through foreign interference, but through forming social movements and pressuring their own governments. If the government is controlled by foreigners, whom can you pressure?

In Afghanistan, foreign occupation delayed women’s empowerment instead of furthering it, as it bolstered radical Islam to assume leadership in the fight for freedom and self-determination. Western powers, furthermore, while preaching equality, continued to discriminate against Muslims, thus laying bare the deep contradictions of most Western democratic countries who do not treat nonwhites and non-Christians as equals. What Western ‘value export’ has achieved in the Middle East is to spread resentment and bolster anti-Western forces and ideologies.

What Western ‘value export’ has achieved in the Middle East is to spread resentment and bolster anti-Western forces and ideologies.

In national politics, there is no real place for humanitarian aid or the promotion of democracy, as long as it does not affect national interests. We should not be surprised when national governments only act when it suits their own interests. Such aid and promotion must thus come from elsewhere – either the UN or non-governmental organisations. As the UN is notoriously hampered from taking action due to the heterogeneity of interest of its members, non-governmental agencies and organisations are the ones best suited to spreading their values and promoting their viewpoint abroad.

It is in this realm that EU cultural organisations can assist those abroad who stand up for human rights and gender equity. Among EU Member States the scenario is also different in that promoting human rights and gender equity must be the moral foundation of the EU and doing so internally is the interest of EU institutions. Beyond EU borders, however, the same principles discussed above apply.

We should not be surprised if the EU only acts internationally when such action is in the interest of the EU. After all, national, or in the case of the EU, transnational self-interest is what characterises international politics. Cultural organisations are not bound by narrow national interest and can act internationally, forming alliances, bonding with, and supporting, like-minded groups abroad. After the demise of ‘Workers Unite’, the time might be ripe for ‘Democrats Unite’. State action will not get us there, but civic minded individuals, groups, and organisations can.

After the demise of ‘Workers Unite’, the time might be ripe for ‘Democrats Unite’. 

Value export remains a problematic endeavour, as we all tend to think that our values are superior to those of others. If the EU wants to indeed export democracy and its values, a few things should be kept in mind:

  • The EU is itself only democratic in the thinnest of definitions.
  • Average people do not control the EU and citizen involvement is minimal. The EU is ruled by bureaucrats and elected officials whose only difference to aristocrats is that they were elected to office. Once in office, they rule for the people and instead of the people, the same way traditional aristocrats did.
Slightly crumpled EU flag
The long bemoaned ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU must finally be addressed before the EU can become a legitimate promoter of democracy abroad, photo: Elionas2 via pixabay

To be able to export democracy, the EU needs to first become more democratic itself by massively involving average citizens into its policy and lawmaking. In other words, the long bemoaned ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU must finally be addressed before the EU can become a legitimate promoter of democracy abroad. Those who believe that the West can and should ‘export’ its values put themselves in the tradition of Emanuel Geibel, who in 1861 coined the slogan Am Deutschen Wesen mag die Welt genesen [By the German spirit the world shall heal].

Geibel’s slogan became integrated into Nazi ideology, stipulating the superiority of the West over the East and of whites over all nonwhites. Most of the problems, and deaths, the world has suffered over the past 100 years were caused by one or another Western power thinking of itself superior to all others.

If nothing else, this history should make Westerners humble regarding the importance, desirability, universality, and ‘superiority’ of their own values. In the absence of a world government, foreign policy will always remain a national affair, seeking to advance national interest abroad. It is naïve and dangerous to believe that one country can rely on another to improve the conditions of life of its population. Occupation by a foreign country is the opposite of self-rule, which is the core ingredient of democracy. A people cannot rule itself when occupied by foreign forces. Instead of fighting states, people and groups supporting democracy and human rights should aid those individuals and groups who struggle for democracy locally.

About the Author
Portrait of Bernd Reiter
Bernd Reiter
Professor of Comparative Politics at Texas Tech University

Bernd Reiter is Professor of Comparative Politics at Texas Tech University. Before joining academia, he was an NGO consultant in Brazil and Colombia. His work focuses on democracy and citizenship.

A selection of books:

  • Decolonizing the Social Sciences and Humanities: An Anti-Elitism Manifesto. Routledge, London 2021
  • Legal Duty and Upper Limits: How to Save our Democracy and Planet from the Rich. Anthem Press, 2020
  • Constructing the Pluriverse. The Geopolitics of Knowledge. Duke University Press, 2018
  • The Crisis of Liberal Democracy and the Path Ahead. Alternatives to Political Representation and Capitalism. Rowman & Littlefield International, London 2017
  • Bridging Scholarship and Activism. Reflections from the Frontlines of Collaborative Research. Michigan State University Press, 2014
  • The Dialectics of Citizenship.Exploring Privilege, Exclusion, and Racialization. Michigan State University Press, 2013

Culture Report Progress Europe

Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.