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

                  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

                  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]

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