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The Myth of Stability vs. Democracy in U.S. Foreign Policy

How is a historian supposed to get any work done when history is being made so profoundly today?  My unfinished book on Franklin D. Roosevelt's foreign policy calls me, but not as loudly as the news reports on the latest events in Egypt, the latest responses from Washington, and the latest interpretations from the pundits.  Torn between past and present, I finally realized that the most useful and interesting thing I could do was to put the two together.

The Obama administration faces an agonizing choice:  Should we prioritize stability or democracy?  Or so the U.S. mass media almost unanimously tells us.  But how did our foreign policy establishment and its media scribes come to view the events unfolding in Egypt—and indeed events around the world—in the now taken-for-granted paradigm of “stability versus democracy”?

The history of that frame is the most important link between past and present, because the assumptions that we take for granted, the ones that go uninterrogated, are always the most crucial.  They play the biggest role in shaping our responses to events.  It was during the Roosevelt era that the “stability versus democracy” paradigm, in the form so familiar to us, first crystallized.   For decades that paradigm has been a fundamental lens through which policymakers, pundits, and general public have viewed world events.

By now it is so pervasive, so deeply entrenched, so multifaceted, and so influential that it might well be called a mythic vision.  It’s not the only myth that shapes our discourse about foreign policy.  But when popular discontent threatens to overthrow a trusted ally like Hosni Mubarak, the “stability versus democracy” myth trumps all others in the American response—and thus limits the range of options that can be considered in shaping that response.

It’s been that way at least since 1943, when Roosevelt faced a situation something like today’s Egypt crisis.  U.S. troops invaded Italy and toppled Mussolini.  What would the president do?  Ten years earlier he had written in a private letter that he was “deeply impressed” by what Mussolini had accomplished in Italy, that fascism there might restore order and then democracy.  Now, a decade later, FDR told Churchill that rather than risk a power vacuum he would deal with any new ruler who could “best give us first disarmament and second assurance against chaos.”  Churchill, too, worried about “chaos, bolshevisation, or civil war.”

The choice soon fell on Mussolini’s former chief of staff, Pietro Badoglio.  Justifying what seemed to be a continuation of fascist rule, FDR told reporters that it was imperative “to avoid anarchy.  In a country that gets into a state of anarchy, it is a pretty difficult thing to deal with, because it would take an awful lot of troops,” and true self-determination was “a long-range thing.”  Yet Roosevelt wrote to Stalin that he was still worried about chaos:  “Badoglio may collapse and the whole of Italy pass into disorder.”

The same kind of fear shaped postwar planning for the whole world.  Roosevelt told British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden that they needed China as a great power, and “anarchy in China would be so grave a misfortune that Chiang Kai-Shek must be given the fullest support.”  Discussing the future of Germany with Roosevelt and Eden, the president's most trusted aide, Harry Hopkins, expressed a fear that “either Germany will go communist or an out and out anarchic state would set in; that indeed the same kind of thing might happen in any of the countries in Europe.”  He advocated planning with Britain and the Soviet Union to prevent anarchy.  According to Hopkins’ notes, “the president agreed that this procedure should be followed.”

As this anecdote suggests, Roosevelt's expressed fear of anarchy in Italy and elsewhere was not merely a euphemism for fear of communism.  Even in the early cold war years, the policymakers who wrote NSC-68 (the first U.S. charter for Cold War ideology) warned that if there were no communist threat, the world would still have to move toward “some kind of order, on somebody’s terms.”  All the hands involved in writing that document had served in or been educated by the Roosevelt administration.

It was not until the Eisenhower administration that the notions of order and stability became fully equated with (or subsumed by) the containment of communism.

Why this obsession in the 1940s with order, a value even higher than anti-communism and certainly higher than democracy, as the example of Italy showed?  Part of the answer is buried deep in U.S. history.  Long before FDR, elite policymakers had a cultural bias for stable, dependable, orderly structures.  That bias was embedded in the upper-class society in which Roosevelt was raised.  Many biographers have commented on his life-long yearning for the orderly, peaceful life he had known as a child in Hyde Park.

Of course the good neighbors of Hyde Park hardly expected that they would all be equal in power, social standing, or wealth.  But in FDR’s vision they all expected to be treated in a “decent” and “civilized” way—words that were prominent in his political discourse throughout his life.

While he was convalescing from his polio attack he composed “A Plan to Preserve World Peace.”  The document, with no apparent political intent, summed up the threat to peace:  The world had failed “to restore order in the economic and social processes of civilization.”  In some of our neighbors to the south, “disorder and bad government may require that a helping hand be given her citizens as a matter of temporary necessity to bring back order and stability.”  Thus was born the idea of the “Good Neighbor” policy.  FDR’s later call for the whole world to practice the virtue of “good neighbors” was, in effect, a call to globalize the orderly neighborhood he remembered from his youth.

In March 1939, Roosevelt directed his close aide Sumner Welles to draft a speech about the gathering world crisis, to warn of the growing “disregard of the basic principles upon which civilization is founded.”  “The conception of a world order … is being derided,” Welles wrote, summing up the president's views.  “Nowhere in the world today does any real feeling of security remain.”

A few months later FDR approved a message from his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, to the Japanese government with a similarly dire prophecy:  "International practice must envisage an orderly world based on law in which all can live; or else all peoples must resign themselves to the progressive destruction resulting from an international anarchy based on uncontrolled force."  In his Four Freedoms speech, FDR rejected the Nazi’s “new world order” and offered in its place the “the moral order” of the future, “the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.”  This kind of language was common throughout Roosevelt's private as well as public discourse.  Hull was as devoted as Roosevelt to the nineteenth century ideal of “civilized order.”

By the 1930s, though, when either of them used that language they were likely to link it to economic concerns.  FDR had hardly entered the White House when he called for “an end to economic chaos—order in place of chaos” and wrote to the King of England, urging economic reforms to “establish order in place of the present chaos.”  Later, to King Leopold, he praised Belgian efforts "to restore a more stable world order. … I feel strongly that the importance of economic equilibrium as an aid to world peace has often been underestimated.”  “To open up the trade channels of the world,” he told Congress, was “an indispensable part of the foundation of any stable and enduring peace.”

This was all in accord with Hull’s life-long aim to attain (in his words) “as much stability among nations as there is among persons, “because the withdrawal by any nation from orderly trade relations with the rest of the world” inevitably led to “regimentation of all phases of national life [and] the suppression of human rights.”  “Without expansion of international trade, based upon fair dealing and equal treatment for all, there can be no stability and security either within or among nations.”

Hull told British diplomats that a program of non-discriminatory trade would eventually “restore full and stable prosperity and conditions of permanent peace.”  If Britain would break out of its closed trading bloc “it would literally thrill … the forces of law, order, morality, and religion everywhere.”  The only alternative he could see was “further movement by all countries toward commercial anarchy.”

“We all go along with the Hull principles,” Roosevelt told a journalist, and the record shows that by and large he really meant it, even if (as he told the secretary of state) “every once in a while we have to modify a principle to meet a hard and disagreeable fact.”

On Roosevelt's watch, then, “order” and “stability” became code words in U.S. political discourse for a distinctive combination:  the values and tranquility of nineteenth century small-town America, as seen by the privileged class, plus a global system of what came to be called “free trade”; that is, freedom to buy, sell, and invest in every and any nation with a minimum of regulatory barriers—except, of course, for the barriers the U.S. erects to protect its own economy.  A foreign government would be considered “stable” if it could guarantee minimal economic barriers and a political environment predictable enough to reassure investors, who count on long-term returns.

During the Cold War years, as “order” became inextricably linked with the containment of communism, a third element was added to the equation:  a “stable” government was one allied with or compliant to the U.S. in geopolitical and diplomatic terms.  The resulting package was summed up in the phrase that now rolls so easily off of our tongues:  “peace and stability in the region.”

To what extent and in what ways does this coded meaning of “stability” influence decision-making in Obama’s Oval Office?  Historians may be able to answer those questions in twenty or thirty years, if they are lucky.  For now, we can only speculate on the basis of very fragmentary evidence.  

There can be no doubt, though, that when it comes to conversation about Egypt among the U.S. public, even the highly-informed public, the “democracy versus stability” myth reigns supreme.  That’s not to say every journalist, pundit, and headline writer who highlights concern about Egypt’s “stability” has the full coded meaning of the myth consciously in mind.  Myth does not work that way.  The ancient Greek peasants who cried out “Uh oh! Zeus is throwing his thunderbolts again!” may not have known the whole Homeric corpus in detail.  Maybe they didn’t know even the basic plots of the epics.

Stories attain mythic status when salient fragments of them, and keywords drawn from them, are repeated so often that they soak into the foundational structures of a society.  Their truth and importance becomes taken for granted even though, in the process, the larger context of those fragments and keywords is often distorted or even forgotten.

The unfolding events in Egypt remind us how narrowly our American public vision of and conversation about world affairs is channeled by the constant focus on “stability” and the assumption that democracy is somehow incompatible with public order.  The vast majority probably don’t know the history of this myth, so intertwined with economic and geopolitical concerns. All they “know”—that is, assume—is that there’s no point in thinking about an orderly democracy emerging in Egypt if the whole Mubarak regime quickly departs from the scene, as so many Egyptians demand.

U.S. foreign policy runs sizeable long-term risks if it remains deaf to that demand.  But U.S. public opinion cannot begin to weigh those risks against any countervailing benefits because it is essentially deaf to the demand for immediate democracy in Egypt.  The assumption that immediate democracy equals anarchy rules out any serious attention to the will of the Egyptian people.  Remaining trapped in that myth may some day prove to be a tragic mistake.

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