The idea, stated forcefully by President Bush in his second inaugural, that the United States would henceforth support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture "with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world" is by any yardstick an important declaration. A foreign policy doctrine, however, it is not. This is not to suggest that democracy doesn't matter. There is, for example, considerable evidence suggesting that mature democracies tend not to make war on one another. Today's Europe best illustrates this phenomenon.
Promoting democracy can also be useful as one component of the campaign against terrorism. Young men and women who are more involved in their societies and less alienated from their governments might see more reason to live for their causes than to kill and die for them. With luck, they might choose to become teachers rather than terrorists.
(Jason Reed -- Reuters)
But there are more reasons to conclude that it is neither desirable nor practical to make democracy promotion the dominant feature of American foreign policy. The bottom line is that while the nature of other societies should always be a foreign policy consideration, it cannot and should not always be the foreign policy priority.
To begin with, democracies are not always peaceful. Immature democracies -- those that hold elections but lack many of the checks and balances characteristic of a true democracy -- are particularly vulnerable to being hijacked by popular passions. Post-communist Serbia is but one illustration of the reality that such countries do go to war.
It is also difficult to spread democracy. It is one thing to oust a regime, quite another to put something better in its place. Prolonged occupation of the sort the United States carried out in Japan and West Germany after World War II is the only surefire way to build democratic institutions and instill democratic culture. But as Iraq demonstrates, the rise of modern nationalism and modern methods of resistance means that such opportunities will be rare, costly and uncertain to succeed, despite an investment of billions of dollars and thousands of lives.
Prospects for the democratic improvement of a society can prove even worse absent occupation. Those who rejoiced 25 years ago in the overthrow of the shah of Iran should reflect on the fact that unattractive regimes can be replaced by something far worse. We thus need to be measured in what pressures we place on such countries as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Here as elsewhere it is important to observe the Hippocratic oath and first do no harm. Time is a factor in another sense. There is no realistic way that democracy will arrive in either North Korea or Iran before nuclear weapons do. And even if "freedom" were somehow to come to Tehran, it is almost certain that free Iranians would be as enthusiastic as the mullahs are about possessing nuclear weapons owing to the political popularity of these weapons and their strategic rationale given Iran's neighborhood.
Trade-offs for the United States are unavoidable. President Bush's statement Thursday that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one" doesn't hold up to careful scrutiny. The United States has a vital interest in China helping to eliminate the North Korean nuclear program, in Russia helping to eliminate the Iranian one, in Pakistan going after al Qaeda, in Israelis and Palestinians making peace. We may prefer that China, Russia, Pakistan and Palestine also be democratic, but a preference is something markedly less than a vital interest. The United States simply cannot afford to allow promoting democracy to trump cooperation on what is truly essential.
The Palestinian issue raises yet another complication with a democracy-first foreign policy. Palestinian elections were and will remain a useful tool to legitimize a post-Arafat leadership. But requiring that Palestine be a working democracy before Israel can be expected to return territory, an idea Bush broached in his Nov. 12 news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is neither necessary nor desirable. Israel maintains peaceful relations with Egypt and Jordan, neither of which could be mistaken for a democracy. The United States similarly maintains peaceful and often productive relations with non-democracies.
What is critical is that the new Palestinian leaders do everything in their power to shut down terrorists. Holding off final-status negotiations until the residents of Nablus and Hebron are reading the Federalist Papers in Arabic will only frustrate young men and women and prompt them to give up on traditional politics and turn to terrorism.
Again, none of this is meant to suggest that the United States should conduct an amoral foreign policy that ignores what governments are doing to their citizens. We should encourage the rule of law, human rights, and meaningful economic and political participation. But as President Bush acknowledged, "The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations." In the interim, the United States needs a foreign policy that deals with the world as it is.
The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was director of policy planning for the State Department from 2001 to June 2003. His book "The Opportunity" will be published this spring.