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Strategic interests and paternalism

GB Geo-Blog

Strategic interests and paternalism

For the past couple of weeks I have watched in awe the developments first in Tunisia and now in Egypt. I applaud the courage of the people who risk their lives to fight for a better future for themselves and their families, and for the freedoms that we take for granted in the West. The loss of life is tragic, but unfortunately inevitable in most revolutions. Hopefully the losses will be limited and democracy and dignity will prevail. Perhaps, the winds of change will blow strongly not only through the Arab world but through every corner of the world where kleptocrats rule through fear and repression. Whether this happens will depend critically on the West – the US and the EU in particular.

While Western leaders have long talked eloquently about democracy, human rights and freedom, their actions have differed starkly from their oratory. There is a saying in economics: Talk is cheap. And people around the world have seen through the hypocrisy of the West. Some Middle East experts have pointed out: In the Arab world, American words may not matter because American deeds, whatever the words, have been pretty consistent.

Why is it so difficult for the US to follow the advice of Mohamed ElBaradei who told CBS’s Face the Nation: “you (the United States) have to stop the life support to the dictator and root for the people”?

The answer is always the same, as emphasized in a New York Times editorial this past weekend: “All of which leaves Washington in a quandary, trying to balance national security concerns and its moral responsibility to stand with those who have the courage to oppose authoritarian rulers.”

In other words, strategic interests trump human rights, freedom and democracy. But what exactly are these strategic interests?

To answer this question, I believe that we have to start in the post-World War II era. At that time, Russia and Communism were the evil empire. The US tolerated any dictator who sided with the West. The US State Department assumed that the US would be in a stronger political and military position the more countries they had on their side. The Vietnam War was all about stopping the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.

The MAD strategy of building up nuclear stockpiles that assured both sides could destroy each other many times over should have been sufficient to ensure a military stalemate.  The battle should have focused on the people – convincing them that the freedom and economic prosperity of the West were superior, and helping them realize the goal of improving their lives.

The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the State Department’s 40 year pursuit of strategic interests. The US and the West however, would have been in a much stronger position if they had had the moral fortitude to support democracy and oppose all tyrannical despots.

Following the overthrow of the Shah in Iran and the rise of a theocratic dictatorship, Islamic Fundamentalists appeared to slowly replace the Soviet Union as the new evil empire. The new strategic interests in supporting corrupt regimes throughout the Muslim world became stability, the fear of replays of Iran and oil.

Steven Hurst of the Associated Press summarized, in a weekend column,  the dilemma facing the US: “As with Iran 30 years ago, American leaders again are wrestling with the moral conflict between Washington’s demands for democracy among its friends and strategic coziness with dictatorial regimes seen as key to stability in an increasingly complex world”.

However, this concern with stability and other strategic interests really reflects the paternalist mindset of the foreign policy elite who have driven the West to abandon their support for human rights and democracy. That is, this elite, like all elites, have had no confidence in the intelligence of the people to decide what is in their own best interests. The elite fear that if they leave the choice to the people, radical or anti-US groups might rise to power. If this proves to be the case, it will be because the people have seen through the hypocrisy of the West, and the West has failed to demonstrate the superiority of its political and economic systems.

I may be naive and simplistic, but I do believe that most everyone has the same objective: a better life. With external support, they will make the changes necessary to achieve this goal, and this will be driven mostly by the youth who have most to lose with the status quo.

In June 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke the following words at the American University in Cairo: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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