by Gordon M. Hahn
The recent disclosures regarding the Clintons’ sleazy trading of political favors and business deals with Russia (as well as Kazakhstan and Canadian interests) are a revelation for those less familiar with Washington, D.C. nowadays. It is widely known that Russia is rampant with corruption. our media and government highlight this point far more frequently than they do with regard to far worse conditions in many other countries, including some of our close allies. But the Uranium One highlights our own country’s mounting corruption which is tightening its grip on all of our most cherished institutions: democratic government, the media, academia, and business. Equally as important, the Uranium One scandal – the worst involving high-placed American politicians in many decades – deprives the U.S. of much of the moral high-ground that might justify our insistence on democratization and democracy in other countries, our often destabilizing democracy-promotion policies, and our support for revolutionary regime transformations.
The Clintons and other adherents to the Washington consensus reserve for our country the right to preach to other countries the values and the imperative of democracy. In the name of protecting political, civil and human rights, combating corruption, and establishing the rule of law, the U.S. government lectures, condemns, sanctions, and wittingly or unwittingly destabilizes and facilitates the overthrow of regimes we deem unworthy of survival.
Such practices have characterized U.S. policy not only in harsh authoritarian and totalitarian regimes but also in and around Russia; countries that for the most part have relatively soft authoritarian regimes. Through several ‘color revolutions’ in region and the ongoing Ukraine crisis, we have moved to a ‘war of values with Russia.’ Certainly, our own corruption and weakening democracy — and simply prudent policy — dictate more modest democracy-promotion practices.
Domestically, eternal incumbency in Congress, executive fiat in the presidency, political correctness in media and academia, and the massive feeding trough that the U.S. government has become for all manner of special interests and a fat, sanctimonious elite is corrupting American democracy to the core. Democracy-deterioration in U.S. governance under the Barack Obama administration has led to many of the very same excesses used by authoritarian regimes we seek to transform: broad spying on citizens (NSA), bugging, threatening and violating the rights of journalists (e.g., Barry Rosen, Sharyl Attkison, among others); using tax collection agencies to punish political opponents (IRS scandal); deploying the police to punish political opponents (Wisconsin); selectively applying the law to punish or benefit certain groups (immigration and Black Panthers’ voter intimidation); coverups of official wrongdoing and negligence in the Benghazi, Clinton server and numerous other cases; executive branch usurpation of legislative powers (President Obama’s use of the ‘pen’ on illegal immigration amnesty); and now taking what were essentially bribes in return for business deals with impunity (Uranium One). Perhaps that ‘war’ needs to be turned on the deteriorating state of American democracy.
Massive corruption (monetary, moral, and intellectual), careerism, crass hubris have rendered Washington and the American and Western elites incapable of carrying out a purposeful, reasonable or effective policy that weakens and limits the number of our enemies and serves American, Western, and international security interests while it avoids creating new, accidental enemies and stepping needlessly on the toes of other more neutral or friendly states.
Promoting democracy, corruption and the rule of law have been the hallmark of the US State department, USAID, the EU Eastern Partnership program and all sundry of other democracy-promotion and human rights IGOs, national and private institutions and think tanks. The Washington think tank community, dependent on government grants for survival and garnering private contributions, has become all too subservient to government policy, squelching even moderately alternative views on foreign policy matters. Democracy-promotion, in short, has become an industry and one like all the others that lobbies the government and spins reality to support its lobbying efforts. Like government in general, as this government industry grows so does corruption.
This would be tolerable if the goal of serving US foreign policy and national security interests were still being served. Unfortunately, personal and institutional financial gain, career promotion, and political campaigning now trump the national interest on K Street.
The ‘War of Values with Russia’
I have long questioned the wisdom and motives of the both indiscriminate nature and broad scale of the U.S. and Western ‘democracy-promotion’ practices. Now the open decadence of our own governance signals to foreign powers that democracy is at best a lie and at worst a mechanism for prolonging American hegemony and subordinating the sovereignty of other states in the international system. The blanket democratization agenda that targets Russia and its allies is particularly dangerous for Western and international security, not to mention Russian and Eurasian security. Washington and Brussels to one degree or another have helped produce or otherwise supported ‘color revolutions’ in at least five countries that were neighbors and/or allies of Russia since the end of the Cold War: once in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Syria and twice in tow of Moscow’s fellow Slavic states, Serbia and Ukraine. Nevertheless, one can argue reasonably, even if ultimately incorrectly that democracy-promotion and the overthrow of authoritarian regimes efforts are well-intended. After all, democracies are more stable, prospeperous, humane, and peaceful abroad.
As relations with Russia have deteriorated in the new century, Russians are more inclined to view America’s ‘revolutionism’ with cynicism and fear, either as an exercise in wresting arms, energy and other markets from others and/or as a smokescreen behind which to expand NATO, ‘encircle Russia’, and ultimately weaken it and destroy it. Recent developments – Ukraine, Uranium One – will only reinforce the Russians’ most cynical and paranoid views, but they must raise suspicions among sober and patriotic Americans that something has gone seriously wrong in Washington.
Especially disconcerting is the self-interest that often lies behind often careless American revolutionism — unreserved support for revolutionaries, the instigation of dangerous revolutionary situations, and support for violent revolutionary seizures of power, despite the great risks and costs such revolutions pose to the lives and prosperity of the citizens residing in the states ‘fortunate’ enough to become an object of such ‘support.’ If democracy is the issue where is the criticism of the Saudi authoritarianism, which far exceeds Russia’s relatively soft authoritarian regime?
Signs were exceptionally clear that something is gravely amiss in DC when after the already disturbing rebellion in Kiev in which Washington and Brussels accepted the illegal seizure of power by a coalition featuring a strong neo-fascist element, despite an agreement between the leaders mostly from Kiev’s more moderate parties and Viktor Yanukovich brokered by the German, French, and Polish foreign minsters and a representative of Russia. The violation of the agreement was ignored and the illegal seizure of power was hailed in Western capitols as a democratic revolution. All the democracy-promotion groups lined up for more goodies ready to help Kiev build democracy and and win the “war of values with Putin’s Russia.” Soon came the appointment of Vice President Joseph Biden’s son and Secretary of State John Kerry’s nephew to the board of an Ukrainian energy company with connections to the new regime. This was followed by the appointment of a Ukrainian-American former State Department official as Ukraine’s Finance Minister. Natalya Jaresko was the beneficiary of State Department grants immediately after leaving State for developing her own firm that helped build a coterie of free market converts and business people – material for the creation of a critical mass of pro-American middle class revolutionaries. Lost in the picture as USAID and Jaresko did their work was the post-Orange Revolution rise of ultra-nationalism and neo-fascism under U.S.-backed, anti-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko from 2005-2010.
Now we have the latest of so many Clinton scandals touching on the core foreign policy issue of relations with Russia. Aside from the arrogant hubris in taking the security risk of selling one-fifth of our uranium reserves to any foreign country, what sense did it make to this with Russia, a country with which we had shaky relations that could easily become antagonistic and with which we were stealthily competing with over Ukraine and risking a major geopolitical conflict?
One gets the impression of policy-making and policy implementation made chaotic by private interest trumping the national interest. On the one hand, U.S. policy at the time that the deals were struck was to ‘reset’ relations with Russia in a positive direction. On the other, State, USAID and the organizations they funded were providing financial and other assistance not just to democrats but to revolutionaries, committed to a second Orange Revolution. On yet a third hand, there is the donations-for-uranium deals.
Moreover, former Secretary of State Hillary’s State Department and for President Bill’s ‘foundation’ were instrumental in the deal that gave Russia control over Kazakhstani uranium reserves. This while the U.S. has been endeavoring since the end of the Cold War to reduce Russia’s leverage over its post-Soviet neighbors, with constant charges of neo-imperialism thrown at Moscow. Now, it turns out, we were helping Moscow increase its leverage over the second most crucial post-Soviet state after Ukraine in the post-Soviet space, where Moscow quite logically seeks a sphere of influence.
The hypocrisy of all this boggles the mind by American and Western standards. So does the damage done to our ability to sell democratization. The Russian government and far worse authoritarians will only become more cynical about our democracy-promotion efforts. They will be confidently deemed as cover for not just protecting but expanding American interests and maximizing American power.
Problems of Democracy-Promotion: What Is To Be Done?
Democracy-promotion and revolutionism need revision. Precision in the former and caution in the latter should be the watch words. Even when possessing sufficient moral superiority, democratic systems and ‘communities of democracies’ do not have the right to risk destabilizing other states and entire regions. The imprecise use of democracy-promotion funding and other assistance is too blunt at present to avoid that risk and needs reform. America’s positive experience with revolution and the messianic vision of its founding fathers has transmuted into a cult of revolutionism in which almost any revolutionary against an authoritarian regime that conducts an independent foreign policy or one that is at all detrimental to maintaining and expanding American hegemony is immediately greeted as pro-democratic and something deserving of US backing.
A more discriminating approach is needed. Only revolutions against the most aggressive and totalitarian regimes should be considered. In addition, government bodies need to conduct detailed analyses of potential and kinetic revolutionary movements. Focus should be on the complex internal politics of revolutionary coalitions, the strength of democratic forces within such coalitions, and other factors that determine the likelihood of democratic outcomes for each of the different modes of regime transformation (violent and non-violent, revolution from above and from below, imposed and negotiated transitions).
Financial and perhaps other forms of direct assistance to opposition groups significantly involved in revolutionary politics, especially violent revolution, should be avoided. It can lead to assistance going to anti-democratic forces and end in the rise of even more authoritarian regime than the ancient regime that is replaced.
The Internet makes direct financial and other assistance for the purposes of democracy-promotion unnecessary and superfluous. Opposition movements in almost every authoritarian state can acquire any information they require for improving their understanding of democracy, election campaigning, political mobilization and organizing, legal defense mechanisms, and journalistic practice. Direct involvement of foreigners in such activity raises the suspicions of authoritarian leaders and discredits the opposition in the eyes of some who would otherwise support their calls for democratization.
The primacy of culture in regime transformations and the consolidation of democracies has been neglected. Without at least some of the prerequisites for democratic development, any particular revolution is unlikely to produce a democratic outcome regardless of how much democracy assistance it receives from the West. Many of the societies where current regime transformation movements have appeared and future ones are most likely to appear are not civil societies but rather communalist ones – dominated by ethno-national and religious values and conflicts that tend to undermine democratization efforts.
The record of American administrations’ forecasts about the consequences of major foreign-policy choices in regime transformational situations is dismal and should serve as a bright warning light. President Woodrow Wilson welcomed the 1917 Russian revolution only to see it hijacked by the Bolsheviks. When the USSR collapsed, a teleological ‘transitology’ emerged that telegraphed a certain transition to democracy and focused on processes such as elections rather than on the post-Soviet states’ less than democratic political cultures and less than capitalist economic cultures and on what assistance, institutional design, and foreign policy steps could ensure democratic outcomes.
When George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq and replace Saddam Hussein’s regime with a democratically elected one, he believed that this would, as he said, “serve as a powerful example of liberty and freedom in a part of the world that is desperate for liberty and freedom.” He and his team held firmly to this conviction, despite numerous warnings that war would fragment the country along tribal, ethnic and religious lines, that any elected government in Baghdad would be Shia-dominated and oppress Sunnis, and that Iran would be the principal beneficiary from a weakened Iraq. Democracy-building is proceeding just as miserably in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration supported the Muslim Brotherhood-led revolution in Egypt, which was promptly countered, bringing the rule of the Egyptian military back, with thousands of casualties going for naught. The U.S. joined Britain and France in a major air campaign in Libya to remove Muammar el-Qaddafi. The consequent chaos contributed to the killings of a U.S. ambassador and other American diplomats and to the creation of a haven for Islamic extremists more threatening than Qaddafi’s Libya to its neighbors and to America. In Syria, at the outset of the civil war, the Obama administration demanded the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, even though he never posed a direct threat to America. Neither the Obama administration nor members of Congress took seriously predictions that Islamic extremists would dominate the Syrian opposition rather than more moderate forces-and that Assad would not be easy to displace.
The disastrous record of destabilization that has been the result of democracy-promotion and regime change orthodoxy has been especially problematic in the former Soviet Union. In both the Ukrainian and Georgian cases, these respective revolutions’ promises of democracy, rule of law, battling corruption, and the like have not been fulfilled entirely. The 2005 Orange Revolution required yet another correcting revolution less than a decade later. The recent Maidan revolution is going in an ultra-nationalist rather than a democratic direction. The failure of the West and the U.S. to call Georgian Rose Revolution leader Mikheil Saakashvili to account for less than democratic presidential elections at times, crackdowns on demonstrators, and more recently released evidence of widespread torture in his prisons led to disenchantment with America and growing suspicions within the Georgian opposition of American ‘double standards’ when it comes to supporting democracy. Kyrgyzstan’s ‘Tulip Revolution’ in 2007 produced few results, forcing a second.
The demonstration effect of these destabilizing and at least partially failed ‘colored revolutions’ has resonated perhaps most loudly in Moscow, where the Kremlin has used the threat of a foreign-sponsored ‘birch revolution’ to justify laws and policies restricting political rights, in particular foreign and domestic NGO activity. The West’s, or at least Washington’s, regime change revolutionism, when combined with the policy of NATO expansion, has played no small role in Russia’s turn away from democracy and the West. In future, U.S. and Western policymakers must resolve that the stakes should be very high before approving the inherently risky policy of supporting colored revolutions. Several factors should condition such a decision.
First, Western support for ‘colored revolutions’ should only be forthcoming when the cessation of large-scale, brutal regime violence or at least the gross violation of civil and human rights is at stake. The West should be careful in supporting opposition movements whose only substantive grievance is the violation of political rights under a soft authoritarian regime. In many such cases, it is but a small coterie of opposition activists whose rights are violated. Unless there is deep, countrywide support for the overthrow of a regime and that regime is particularly brutal in its authoritarianism should policymakers support peaceful (and perhaps violent) revolution from below.
Second, in considering whether and to what degree such support should be rendered, the value of any existing regime to American and Western interests and the effect on regional or international security should be taken into account. In cases involving a regime that is brutally authoritarian/totalitarian and a threat to U.S. Western, and/or international security interests, making the call in support for a colored revolution is an easy one. In cases where neither of these conditions is met, decision-making is much more difficult. When only the first condition is present, the moral imperative is there, but the imperative of realpolitik is not, making support for a colored revolution a bad bet. When only the second condition is present, the realpolitik urges action against the regime, but the soft nature of the authoritarian order poses grave risks for America’s reputation. Charges of foreign and Western meddling get a better reception among the local populace, and failure of the colored revolution will therefore guarantee an even harder line against the meddling foreign states. That is to say that in cases where rights’ violations are not grievous and American interests and global stability are vested in continuing survival of a particular regime, the support of ‘orangism’ and even the aggressive assertion of democratization support should be reconsidered. If adopted as policy, aid should be coordinated with the authorities as much as possible and otherwise rendered sparingly and fashioned carefully such that it cannot be tainted by charges of undue foreign meddling in the internal affairs of a foreign state.
Finally, criteria codified in an international convention or treaty regarding foreign involvement in the domestic politics of states might be useful. By regulating democracy-promotion and/or other activities of a distinctly political nature that can be carried out by one state in relation to another, it might be possible to limit the foreign promotion of destructive revolutionary activity such that it does not devolve into interference by one state in the domestic politics and internal affairs of another. Standards of minimal levels of democracy or soft authoritarianism could be established as a criteria, so that harsh authoritarian and totalitarian regimes would be ineligible to be participants in the convention, which could perhaps be first applied to OSCE states in line with the Helsinki Final Act’s prohibition against member-states’ interference in other member-states’ internal politics.
There is always a danger that a righteous idea will be corrupted by unchallenged power. As the saying goes: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The U.S. victory in the Cold War and its assumption of ‘sole superpower status’ together with troubling domestic decay has fundamentally corrupted Washington. Domestically, focusing on domestic reforms such as term limits and replacing the revolving between government service and lobbyist work with an iron wall are the order of the day.Other wise, the implications of American democracy’s decay for global stability and democracy will be even more profound than they are today. Abroad, revolutionism needs to be overthrown and replaced with judicious and well-targeted democracy-promotion. The US could take the lead in establishing principles under which democracy-promotion activities can be regulated so as to prevent the interference by states in the politics of others.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.