Feature 01.18.2019 3 minutes

What Democracy Requires

Your best teacher is your last mistake written on note

The hard lessons of neoconservative foreign policy's failure.

Hindsight is easy; foresight is difficult. The deeper principles and purposes embedded in the reality of human nature bridge the gap.

In The Death of The Weekly Standard, we invited participants to comment on the demise of the flagship neoconservative publication of the last two decades. Now we present commentary on the lessons learned from the failure of the signature policy of the late neoconservative movement: an interventionist foreign policy based on a faulty understanding of human nature and human governance. Any honest evaluation of the wreckage of contemporary American foreign policy leads us back to the current failings of our own regime.

The drive to remake the world in our democratic image is not conservative, but a progressive interpretation of America and the world that is long past its sell-by date. The idea that a nation can “export” democracy assumes democracy can be treated as a material commodity. Such a notion bypasses serious analysis of human nature and the shared habits that shape our thoughts and actions. Further, it hubristically assumes that democracy, and perhaps any form of government, can be created by means of the bureaucracy of our bloated administrative state. But our technocratic, managerial elite cannot simply “build” or “develop” democracy using procedural instructions, treating the various peoples of the world as if they were the pieces of a Lego set.

The blinkered modus operandi of both the Bush and Obama presidencies reveals as much about the depth of the problems in contemporary America politics life as it does about the difficulty of foreign affairs. Dan McCarthy instructs us that a central lesson of our history of mistakes in the Middle East is that democracy requires a leadership class that “must be for the people and their interests, not just elected by the people…and in a cultural sense it must be of the people.” This should be obvious, and yet it is ignored or even denied by American elites in respect to American politics, never mind in the fractured Middle East.

While the Declaration of Independence points to the universal truth that human beings are equal by nature, this does not mean, as Darren Beattie points out, that human nature is a blank slate: “thriving democratic institutions” cannot be established like a McDonald’s on an empty lot.” Conversely, those who disagree with American principles and purpose—for instance, those who deny the fundamental principle of American equality and seek to destroy our way of life—ought not be automatically granted acceptance into American borders. And if we profoundly disagree among ourselves about what human nature is, and therefore how human governance ought to operate, we ought not be eager to “export” the very regime form we are currently vociferously disputing here at home.

A grounding in the original American understanding of human nature and governance, as it existed before the last liberal century, can help us move past the flawed contemporary extremes of isolation and intervention. Matthew Peterson explains why Claremont Institute scholars warned from the start that neoconservative policy was bound for failure at home and abroad. Claremont’s considered and consistent analysis is still too little known, but it must be recalled if we are to seize the opportunity to revive a sensible and distinctly American foreign policy.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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