In 1983, President Ronald Reagan delivered his “Evil Empire” speech, which immediately offended Soviet leaders and the foreign policy establishment. (Reagan must have been equally pleased by both.) “I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written,” he said. “I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man.”
In a Siberian jail, Russian dissident Natan Sharansky read the speech and secretly spread the news to his fellow prisoners. According to Sharansky, “The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”
That was a long time ago — Reagan’s speech was about as close to World War II as we are to Reagan’s speech — and it sounds strangely quaint to modern ears. But this was more than rhetorical fluff. The speech embodied a strategic insight — that the hope of oppressed people for lives and dignity and freedom is eventually favorable to the community of free nations.
It was hard power — tanks and missiles — that kept the Cold War from being lost. It was soft power — the superiority of a spiritual ideal of freedom to a materialistic vision of historical forces — that allowed the Cold War to be won.
Is the world now fundamentally different? Is the spiritual ideal now outdated or overmatched by distorted but powerful appeals of nationalism and religious fundamentalism?
It is the theory of “America First” foreign policy that this ideal is outdated. The urgency of defeating terrorism, in this view, requires the active cooperation of Middle Eastern leaders, and it matters little or nothing how oppressive they are at home. “We are not here to lecture,” President Trump said in Saudi Arabia. “We are not here to tell other people how to live.” Trump has extended this approach, in various forms, to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt (doing a “fantastic job”), to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and to President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines (doing an “unbelievable job”).
Some of this warmth for strongmen is surely due to Trump’s personal fascination with authoritarianism. But this is also proposed as a strategy — as a way to maximize American interests in a dangerous world. And here it is less realistic than simplistic.
The main problem is not moral but temporal. This foreign policy approach assumes that the current order in oppressive countries can be indefinitely preserved — as long it is not destabilized by meddling outsiders. In reality, the instability of oppressive governments emerges from within. They prevent the diffusion of choice and power, which is the source of economic and social success in the modern world. Monopolizing power encourages cronyism, corruption, resentment and discontent. Strongmen can succeed for a time by feeding hatred of enemies, real and imagined. But this is the path of arrogance, mediocrity and insurrection.
In such societies, a few eyes and mouths open — often resulting in imprisonment or house arrest. These are the dissidents that Trump seems intent on betraying and discouraging. The message is thereby sent that America values the good opinion of strongmen more than the dignity and liberty of the people they rule. This is resented, and remembered.
The Middle East is no exception to this rule. In Egypt, for example, decades of military rule resulted in a mismanaged, dysfunctional economy while weakening all forms of political authority and organization outside the radical mosque. When the revolution came, democratic institutions and attitudes were too weak to consolidate a new, more democratic order. America did not determine the timing of Egypt’s revolution, and will not control the timing of the next one. The question a realist must ask: What is America doing now to encourage the reforms, ideals and institutions that will make Egypt’s transition successful rather than abortive? Our levers, of course, are limited. But it is those who think that Sissi-ism is permanent who are living in a dream world.
A more sophisticated version of foreign policy realism requires living with a tension. America must find common interests on a daily basis with governments that it finds oppressive and unjust. But it is also in our national interest to hold up an ideal that speaks to current dissidents and future leaders — who are often one in the same.