By Ivan Eland
After Russia’s parliamentary election, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bluntly advocated “a full investigation of all credible reports of electoral fraud and manipulation.” She then asserted, “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted.” Needless to say, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was not happy with such remarks and pushed back, claiming that protesters in Russia were acting at the behest of the U.S. State Department.
When the United States haughtily tells other countries how to manage their affairs, one should not be surprised when foreign leaders attempt to rally their countrymen around the flag. Thus, the Russian protesters—seeing as radioactive the public support of an adversarial superpower perceived as arrogant—might prefer that the secretary shut up.
Instead, Clinton doubled down and responded to Putin’s remarks by saying that the United States has a “strong commitment to democracy and human rights. It’s part of who we are; it’s our values. And we expressed concerns that we thought were well-founded about the election.” And not only that, the U.S. government and its allies have been funding political groups in Russia, giving some credence to Putin’s assertion of foreign meddling in Russia’s elections.
Don’t get me wrong: the proliferation of democracy and human rights in the world is a great thing, but the arrogant belief that America should be the aggressive, high-profile guardian of the spread of such laudable beliefs is not. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the attack on Libya, all done at least ostensibly to usher in democracy and human rights, have further sullied the already shaky reputation of America’s forceful push for such causes around the world. In practice, the divergence of U.S. foreign policy from rhetoric promoting democracy and human rights makes other nations and peoples suspicious of American intentions. Historically, the United States would rather have a friendly foreign government than a democratic one. For example, the United States helped overthrow democratically elected governments in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, the Congo in 1960, the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1973 to achieve political goals it regarded as more important.
Even in the cases in which the U.S. was genuinely interested in promoting democracy and human rights, foreign countries that meddle constantly in other nations’ business usually don’t get the benefit of the doubt among the locals. And who can blame them? America has restrictions against foreign involvement in U.S. elections, but that doesn’t stop the United States from funding political groups in Russia and other countries. Such hypocrisy doesn’t do America, the local political groups, or the promotion of democracy and human rights any favors.
Although he meant well, President Jimmy Carter’s very public campaign by the U.S. government to promote human rights around the world backfired. China and other countries bristled at public American pressure and clamped down on dissidents. It may be constructive for the U.S. government to privately let countries know that the United States is monitoring their treatment of opposition figures or groups, but public scolding just seems to increase the “rally around the flag” effect locally.
More important, in comporting more with the American founders’ vision of leading by example and staying out of other countries’ business, the United States could best show the world the way by remedying problems in its own system first—for example, repealing the USA PATRIOT Act, which used fear of possible post-9/11 terrorism to usurp many traditional American civil liberties.
“American exceptionalism” does exist, but not in the neoconservative or Wilsonian liberal sense of a superpower aggressively promoting democracy and human rights in foreign countries. America is exceptional because it has one of the best domestic political and economic systems the world has ever seen. This genuine form of American exceptionalism is sullied and undermined by the faux version. So let’s get rid of preaching to, meddling in, and even attacking and invading other countries to spread our values and go back to the founders’ vision of leading by example.