Beware the Perils of the Golden Theory

Lying at the heart of America’s relationship with the world is a paradox.

We have global reach, voluntarily assuming responsibility for preserving peace and order in much of the world and for the blessed charge of bettering the lives of its inhabitants. And yet we are simultaneously very distant from the world, stubbornly uninstructed by its ancient cynicism and preaching a confidence in the future that defies the constraints of the present.

This paradox—to massively engage the world while living on an autonomous island in the global sea—is made possible by our unprecedented power.

It’s a truism that power breeds arrogance. A far greater danger, however, stems from the self-delusion that is the more certain companion. For individuals and countries alike, power inevitably distorts perceptions of the world by insulating them in a soothing cocoon that is impervious to what scientists term "disconfirming evidence."

Burke’s Warning

Our power, then, has the grave liability of rendering our theories about the world immune from failure. But by becoming deaf to easily discerned warning signs, we may ignore long-term costs that result from our actions and dismiss reverses that should lead to a reexamination of our goals and means.

To illustrate my point, let me focus on the school of thought that has gained increasing prominence in our national debate, namely the assertion that our interests are best advanced by assigning a central place in the foreign policy of our nation to the worldwide promotion of democracy. I call this the Golden Theory.

I should state at the outset my own conviction that democracy and freedom are directly linked and that democracy has proven highly beneficial in those states where it has been securely established. But I take issue with those who argue that it is self-propagating and that it invariably produces beneficent results, for this view rests on a misinterpretation of cause and effect in our history.

Proponents rest much of their case on the triumph of democracy in post-World War II Europe and East Asia, focusing on the peace, stability and cooperation those war-torn regions have experienced in its aftermath. Certainly, democracy contributed enormously to these regions’ transformations, but I would argue that this outcome depended far more on the direct and long-term presence of American power.

Far from being inevitable prior to 1945, democracy had been virtually wiped out in Europe even before Hitler began his conquest. It had been de-legitimized in most of the continent, and authoritarian governments had become the norm. Democracy held on in Britain and in remnants elsewhere in Europe, but ultimately survived only because of U.S. intervention in the war.

Following the Allied victory, democracy was reintroduced on the continent in large part because the overwhelming U.S. presence made it possible, and virtually mandatory, throughout Western Europe.

From this beginning, we developed enormous resources toward enforcing order, promoting cooperation, defending against invasion, removing barriers, reviving economies, and a host of other unprecedented innovations. The resulting transformation is usually ascribed to the workings of democracy, but it is due far more to the impact of the long-term U.S. presence. And that role continues to this day, six decades later.

In regions where our presence extended over long periods, as in East Asia, the common result was peace, stability and cooperation with democracy as an added and reinforcing benefit. But few areas outside those fortunate lands have become stably democratic, with examples such as India being exceptions that are far too rare.

I note these cases because they are invariably cited by those who believe that similar transformations can be effected elsewhere by the magic elixir of democracy alone. But democracy is more than a single election or even a succession of them. It’s a way of life for a nation embracing its life and institutions in all their complexity, and embraced in turn by its people in their actions, thoughts and beliefs.

Viewed in its more complete historical context, implanting democracy in large areas would require that we possess an unbounded power and undertake an open-ended commitment of time and resources which we cannot and will not do. But without that long-term dominant American position, the odds of enduring success are long, indeed.

Fidelity to our ideals means that we have little choice but to support freedom around the world. No one with a heart or a head would wish it otherwise. But we also have a duty to ourselves and to our own interests, which may sometimes necessitate actions focused on more tangible returns than those of altruism.

We must also be cognizant of the fact that a broad and energetic promotion of democracy may produce not peace and stability but revolution. We can and have used democracy as a weapon to destabilize our enemies and we may do so again. But if we unleash revolutionary forces in the expectation that the result can only be beneficent, I believe we’re making a profound and perhaps uncorrectable mistake.

History teaches that revolutions are very dangerous things, more often destructive than benign, and uncontrollable by their very nature. Upending established order based on theory is far more likely to produce chaos than shining uplands. Edmund Burke’s prescient warning of the deadly progress of the French Revolution, a revolution guided by intoxicating theory and heedless of all warnings, endures.

There is no evidence that we or anyone can guide from afar revolutions we’ve set in motion. We can more easily destabilize friends and others and give life to chaos and to avowed enemies than ensure outcomes in service of our interests and security.

May I return to my original theme, namely that our enormous power allows us to maintain a highly theoretical approach to the world, one that draws so deeply from the universal truths embedded in our makeup as to be impervious to contrary evidence? I am not making an abstract point. We’re well advanced into an unformed era in which new and unfamiliar enemies are gathering forces, where a phalanx of aspiring competitors must inevitably constrain and focus our options.

In a world where the ratios of strength narrow, the consequences of miscalculation will become progressively more debilitating. The costs of golden theories will be paid for with the hard currency of our interests.

For some, the promotion of democracy promises an easy resolution to the many difficult problems we face, a guiding light on a dimly seen horizon. But I believe that great caution is warranted here. Without strong evidence to the contrary, we should not readily believe that without an enduring American presence democracy can be so easily implanted and nourished in societies where history and experience suggest it’s quite alien. It may, in fact, constitute an uncontrollable experiment with an outcome akin to that faced by the sorcerer’s apprentice.

A few brief years ago, history was proclaimed to be at an end, our victory engraved in unyielding stone, our preeminence garlanded with permanence. But we must remember that Britain’s majestic rule vanished in a few short years, undermined by unforeseen catastrophes and unimagined enemies that overwhelmed the impregnable palisades of the past.

We must not allow our enormous power to delude us into seeing the world as a passive thing to be remade in an image of our choosing. Instead, let us take guidance from the wisdom of our forebears, whose clear-eyed and sober-minded understanding of this world made possible the miracles of our country’s birth, its flourishing and its repeated triumphs.

This article is based on remarks delivered by Hyde when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared before the International Relations Committee on February 16.