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Views from the Center


The White House’s updated National Security Strategy, released yesterday, offers an unapologetic if rose-tinted defense of Bush administration policies since September 2002, when the previous NSS appeared. Although most of the chapter headings are the same (“Champion Aspirations for Human Dignity,” “Expand the Circle of Development,” etc.), the new version goes well beyond broad declarations of unassailable principles: it seeks to marshal evidence of administration success in achieving these goals. While not always persuasive -- particularly when it comes to the effects of the Iraq war -- the revised NSS is a serious document that deserves to be taken seriously.
The most noteworthy change in the new NSS is the special emphasis it places on democracy, at two levels. First, the document describes effective, responsible democracies as the cornerstone of global peace and development. Second, the document calls for effective cooperation among the world’s democracies to address today’s transnational threats. As President Bush explains in his preface,

Our national security strategy is founded upon two pillars. The first pillar is promoting freedom, justice, and human dignity…. Free governments are accountable to their people, govern their territory and pursue economic and political policies that benefit their citizens. Free governments do not oppress their people or attack other free nations. Peace and international stability are most reliably built on a foundation of freedom. The second pillar of our strategy is confronting the challenges of our time by leading a growing community of democracies. Many of the problems we face – from the threat of pandemic disease, to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to terrorism, to human trafficking, to natural disasters – reach across borders. Effective multinational efforts are essential to solve these problems. Yet history has shown that only when we do our part will others do theirs. America must continue to lead.

These are reasonable propositions. The internal character of regimes does tend to determines their external behavior and internal performance. And the world is beset by new transnational challenges like organized crime and infectious diseases (many emanating from weak or poorly governed states) that cannot be resolved by the actions of any one state, no matter how powerful.
Putting these insights into practice, however, will not be easy. To begin with, it’s not clear that the United States has figured out how to nurture “effective democracy” from the outside, even in environments more benign than Iraq. For every Georgia or Ukraine, one can cite examples of stalled democratic transitions and backsliding toward authoritarianism (Russia), radical populism (Venezuela), and nationalist or religious extremism (Palestinian Territories). As today’s New York Times reports, skepticism about the realism and assumptions behind the administration’s democracy promotion agenda is arising among some prominent Republicans, from Senators Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar to former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.
To truly advance “effective democracy and responsible sovereignty” around the world, the Administration will need to develop a more serious strategy toward the world’s many fragile states. The NSS contains some of the necessary ingredients in such a policy, including “transformational diplomacy,” foreign assistance reform, expanded post-conflict nation building, and military cooperation with countries facing internal threats. Negotiating the tensions and trade-offs between short-term expediency (driven by political and security concerns) and the long-term imperatives of institution-building (guided by development considerations) will be a constant challenge in developing a more effective policy.
Second, it’s not clear that an effective and united community of democracies (an aspiration dating from the time of Woodrow Wilson) is within our grasp. Over the past several years, the Bush administration has clashed repeatedly with traditional democratic allies over Iraq, the GWOT, and the importance of multilateral institutions. The administration will need to work hard to rebuild its squandered international political capital if it wishes to recruit followers to its purposes.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.