Should Tillerson Be Promoting Democracy in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines?

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Just before Christmas, an unclassified memo authored by Brian Hook, head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was leaked.

The memo was written shortly after the secretary’s appearance in early May at a “town hall” meeting for State Department employees in which he argued that advancing American “values” should be mostly an afterthought to the exercise of American diplomacy.

Hook’s memo, while ostensibly written to give the secretary a bit of history behind the debate his remarks engendered, is more accurately described as an attempt to give his boss intellectual top cover for his views.

Hook starts off by writing that on the one hand there are the Wilsonian idealists and on the other there are hard-headed realists. And although he writes that “both are authentically American,” it is clear which of the two he favors.

GettyImages-873190590 Donald Trump and the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Manila on November 12, 2017. ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA/AFP/Getty

In Hook’s account, liberalism is a “value.” As such, Hook implicitly reduces it to something we, as Americans, put value on but others can legitimately have a different view about.

This of course would have been news to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who believed that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were universal rights and over which we fought a bloody civil war.

America’s attachment to liberalism and popular government isn’t something cooked up by Woodrow Wilson a hundred years ago but has been part of the country’s DNA from the start.

In contrast, Hook writes that, under the realist rubric, “Our diplomacy with other countries should focus primarily on their foreign policy behavior rather than on their domestic practices.” He then lines up a supporting cast of [Franklin] Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan as adherents.

In lining things up the way he does, Hook simplifies complex policy judgments and muddies the actual history in which considerable American resources went into building and sustaining democracies in the 1940s and 1950s.

Yes, at times, previous administrations have worked with autocratic allies, and in the case of Stalin during World War II, even with a brutal totalitarian regime. But being prudent about what might be thought necessary at times doesn’t mean one should turn those exceptions into a policy norm.

More often than not, a state’s foreign policy behavior is tied to its domestic practices. An autocrat’s interest in staying in power at home will almost certainly inform his actions with neighbors and the larger world.

Moreover, there is plenty of fact-based scholarship that shows liberal democracies are more peaceful toward each other, more likely to be better trade partners, and less likely to adopt policies that create the internal distortions that lead to civil wars, coups, and mass migrations.

In short, there are solid strategic (that is, realist) reasons to push for liberal democracy abroad.

Hook spends a good bit of his memo arguing that President Reagan adopted the more realist perspective that Hook lays out, quoting Reagan’s 1980 convention speech that “one takes the world as it is, and seeks to change it by leadership and example; not by harangue, harassment or wishful thinking.”

But faced with the fact that Reagan, as president, didn’t follow his own advice — helping to push out autocrats in South Korea, Chile and the Philippines — Hook can only say that Reagan’s administration “began to move in the direction of a more pointed pressure for liberalization.”

This understates just how direct the interference was. It also ignores any attempt to ask why candidate Reagan’s views changed as they did once he became president, or why, in perhaps his most famous speech, given before [members of ] the British Parliament in Westminster [Hall] in 1982, he called for boosting support for democratic change around the globe and a year later created the National Endowment for Democracy.

Hook tries to mitigate the shift in the Reagan administration’s thinking by arguing that one could push for change in South Korea, Chile, and the Philippines because it was understood that there were “viable democratic and pro-American forces” in each.

But that’s Monday Morning Quarterbacking. There were of course such forces, but just how dependable and viable they were was unclear. These are classic judgment calls, but ones which turned out as they did precisely because the administration was leaning forward when it came to promoting democracy and not sitting on its “realist” hands.

If Hook’s view had been the dominant view then, those decisions would never have been made.

Oddly, Hook then cites Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement” with the apartheid-ruling white-led regime of South Africa as an approach that “in the long run worked.” And while it can be cited as an example of Reagan not following through on his own democracy rhetoric, it can hardly be seen as policy approach that worked.

To the contrary, it was a policy that was put aside when Congress overrode a Reagan veto in 1986 and imposed more robust economic sanctions on South Africa. It was those sanctions, along with their tougher implementation from the follow-on Bush administration and increased hard pressure from the rest of the West, which finally led the South African government in 1991 to end apartheid.

Bringing his argument up to the present, Hook writes that “in the case of US allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines, the Administration is fully justified in emphasizing good relations for a variety of important reasons, including counter-terrorism, and in honestly facing up to the difficult tradeoffs with respect to human rights.”

That there are tradeoffs to be made between important goals and principles when making policy is true enough. But the thrust of Hook’s memo is that, as a realist, you actually don’t have to make those tradeoffs or reasoned assessments.

Essentially, Tillerson is being told, it’s okay to “leave well enough alone.”

Except, well enough may not be good enough in time. None of the three states Hook mentions are stable. One can hope that, when change does come, it will be in a direction favorable to the US.

But hope is not a policy. Who governs and how they govern is in America’s interest.

Hook concludes by arguing that, if democracy and human rights rhetoric has any place in this administration, it’s to be used as a tool in our competition with the likes of China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

“Pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure, and regain the initiative from them strategically.”

But of course there is a real price to be paid in downplaying or ignoring the flaws of partners while calling out those of adversaries.

It doesn’t make America look great, just hypocritical.

Gary Schmitt is the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI and the director of AEI’s Program on American Citizenship. He is a former staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He was executive director of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during President Ronald Reagan’s second term. His recent books include The Imperial Presidency and the Constitution (Rowman &Littlefield, 2017), Is Congress Broken? The Virtues and Defects of Partisanship and Gridlock (Brookings Institution Press, 2017), The Professions and Civic Life (Lexington Books, 2016), A Hard Look at Hard Power: Assessing the Defense Capabilities of Key US Allies and Security Partners (Strategic Studies Institute, 2015) and Trendsetting Charter Schools: Raising the Bar for Civic Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). He is also an author or contributing editor of Safety, Liberty and Islamist Terrorism: American and European Approaches to Domestic Counterterrorism (AEI Press, 2010); The Rise of China: Essays on the Future Competition (Encounter Books, May 2009); Of Men and Materiel: The Crisis in Military Resources (AEI Press, 2007);  Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence (Brassey’s, 2002); and U.S. Intelligence at the Crossroads: Agendas for Reform (Brassey’s, 1995).