Franco Still Dead.

            Back in the day, “Saturday Night Live” had a long-running gag about a news anchor reporting that “Spanish dictator Francisco Franco is still dead.”  Wasn’t funny then (unless you were high) and it’s meaningless now.  The reference offers the chance to think about an important issue.  Is the chief objective of American foreign policy to defend American democracy or to create a democratic world? 

            In a straight fight between two countries, allies don’t matter.  The wars of the 20th Century spread far outside such boundaries.  They were most commonly wars of coalitions: the First World War (1914-1918), the Second World War (1939-1945), and the Cold War (1945-1990).  An entire century convulsed over issues of national independence, representative government, and human rights.  In the end, the champions of democracy triumphed over the champions of authoritarianism. 

            Yet it wasn’t that simple.  In the First World War, the parliamentary governments of France and Britain made common cause with Russian autocracy and the Italian and Japanese monarchies.  In the Second World War, the United States and Britain joined with the Soviet Union and Kuomintang China to form a “Grand Alliance.”  During the Cold War, America’s allies included some very undemocratic countries: Greece under occasional dictatorships, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran for a time, South Vietnam, and many African and Latin American countries.  The reasons for these alliances were pragmatic: America needed allies, but many countries were not democratic.[1] 

            Now the Biden Administration is being criticized for taking a more puritanical view.[2]  President Joe Biden talks a lot about a global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.  Well, the democracy is all on one side in the twilight struggles with China and Russia, but there’s authoritarianism on both sides.  The catalogue of authoritarian states not aligned with Russia or China is long: in Africa there are Angola, Nigeria, and Ethiopia; in Southeast Asia there are Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar; in South Asia there are India, Indonesia, Malaya, and Sri Lanka; and in Central Asia and the Middle East there are a host of unfree countries. 

            Is democratic government a natural and inevitable stage of social, political, and economic development?  If it is, then it can be held back for a time by a dictator or monarch, but it also can be swiftly brought into being by toppling the dictator, provided the country is sufficiently “developed.”[3]  Or is each country or civilization the unique product of historical developments in government and culture?  If it is, then democratic countries will have to tolerate diversity and practice inclusiveness while seeking common ground in shared real interests.  Failing that, a country could wall off sin by aligning with and trading with only real democracies. 

            Conservative “realist” critics of the Biden foreign policy see it pushing an advanced and extended one-size-fits-all view of Democracy.  This alarms or alienates potential allies whose real interest lies in countering the rise of Russian and Chinese power.  Many observers can’t help but notice current American weakness.  So, the old plan may be the best plan. 

[1] “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least find a few kind words to say about the Devil.”—Winston Churchill. 

[2] Walter Russell Mead, “The Cost of Biden’s ‘Democracy’ Fixation,” WSJ, 4 April 2023. 

[3] As in Iraq in 2003. 


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