Imposing Our 'Values' by Force

Robert F. Ellsworth and Dimitri K. Simes*

The following article appeared in the Wednesday, December 29, 1999, issue of The Washington Post, page A27. Mr. Ellsworth is a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Humanities Institute.

Though we have no connection with the McCain campaign, we take exception to The Post's editorial attack [Dec. 14] on Sen. John McCain's national-interests-based foreign policy. The editorial appears to align The Post with one or both of two new elite ideologies--neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism--each of which expresses eagerness to promote its own conception of American virtue around the world through any means necessary, including force.

Though increasingly reflected in the media, these ideologies are not shared by the majority of the American people, as numerous public opinion polls indicate. Moreover, they are dangerous, not only to important U.S. national interests but to America's fundamental values.

The United States cannot effectively preserve its global leadership--let alone maintain key alliances, fight terrorism or control the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction--if it is constantly seen as too ready to interfere in the affairs of others. America is uniquely positioned for international leadership as a benign superpower, but if it appears to be a threatening hegemon, insensitive to the interests and perspectives of other nations, that leadership will likely be both excessively costly and short-lived.

The warnings of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan about a global backlash against U.S. values and the bitter divisions within the U.N. Security Council illustrate that the international legitimacy of both American interests and values is already in question.

Moreover, contrary to what The Post's editorial suggests, military intervention in the name of democracy is highly questionable from a moral standpoint. The ends do not justify the means. The fact that America is indeed a shining example of freedom and prosperity does not mean we should expect other nations to accept the United States as an unquestioned authority on their internal affairs. Military intervention to promote democracy in other countries may appear to the rest of mankind to be a form of salvation without representation.

President Clinton's humanitarian interventions have to some extent reduced refugee flows (as in Haiti) and stopped ethnic cleansing (in Bosnia and Kosovo), but they have not moved their targets much closer to democracy. The beneficiaries of our humanitarian interventions are, in fact, basket cases, American protectorates, or both.

The problem is that not even the United States has sufficient power to impose democracy on reluctant populations. If a society's culture and other circumstances are not suitable, democracy will not grow.

America would not be true to itself if our nation did not stand up whenever possible to naked aggression and genocide. Beyond that, however, how do we decide exactly which of the "American democratic and humanitarian values" The Post mentions should be promoted with American military might? Who will define them? Through what process? Who will establish the relative priority of, for example, efforts by some to curb abortion worldwide and others' attempts to protect the environment?

In today's political context, when the administration is preoccupied with domestic concerns and Congress (in the absence of leadership from the White House) is also more responsive to domestic pressures, how will we ensure that force is actually used to promote democracy rather than in response to domestic interest groups?

The values advocated by The Post are important but not vital, and should not be advanced or defended with military force. The assumption that our values are universal is false because it is demonstrably untrue; immoral because of what would be necessary to make non-Western peoples adopt Western institutions and culture; and dangerous because it could lead to war.

The United States has an opportunity to provide global leadership in the 21st century. That opportunity includes using American military force decisively and even ruthlessly if necessary. But arrogantly attempting to reshape the world in our own image--and appearing as an aspiring hegemon rather than a benign superpower in the process--is contrary to America's essential mission.

Robert F. Ellsworth is vice president of the International Institute of Strategic Studies and a former deputy secretary of Defense, ambassador to NATO, and member of Congress. Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Nixon Center.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

*Robert F. Ellsworth is vice president of the International Institute of Strategic Studies and a former deputy secretary of Defense, ambassador to NATO, and member of Congress.

Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Nixon Center. [Back]

Updated 1 July 2023