How To Make Revolution Work

I am a big fan of Walter Russell Mead, and his recent essay on “The Conservative Revolutionary" shows him in top form.  Mead is one of the few who understands that human history often unfolds through paradox, and that the United States is one of the most paradoxical countries in history.  As he says, America is at once the most revolutionary society on earth and the defender of the status quo, which is a tough balancing act (especially if our traditionally shortsighted political class is wearing a blindfold).

Mead understands America’s nature very well, and also our effect on the real world outside our borders: it’s not so much what we do as what we are:

American society is the most revolutionary force on the planet.  The Internet is more subversive than the CIA in its prime.  The dynamism of American society is constantly creating new businesses, new technologies, new ideas and new social models.  These innovations travel, and they make trouble when they do.  Saudi conservatives know that whatever geopolitical arrangements the Saudi princes make with the American government, the American people are busily undermining the core principles of Saudi society.  It’s not just our NGOs educating Saudi women and civil society activists; it’s not just the impact of American college life on the rising generation of the Saudi elite.  We change the world even when we aren’t thinking anything about global revolution — when Hollywood and rap musicians are just trying to make a buck, they are stoking the fires of change around the world.

So whatever any given president may wish to accomplish in foreign affairs, we can’t have durable alliances with tyrants, and foreign leaders opposed to freedom will inevitably attack us.  Remember the great discussion after 9/11, when the big question was “why do they hate us?”  Mead knows that the right answer was: because of what we are.  We are a fearsome engine of revolutionary turmoil.

It follows that efforts to conduct a conservative foreign policy, as the “realists” want, are doomed to failure, because we automatically unleash creative destruction on the world, whatever our leaders’ intentions may be.  “Stability” is a profoundly un-American mission.  We are revolutionaries by our very nature.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize those themes, which I’ve advanced for many years, and I’m glad to see that Mead–who hangs his thinking cap at the Council on Foreign Relations--agrees.  On the other hand, he knows that most democratic revolutions fail, and so he curses both the realists’ and the idealists’ advice to the policy makers:

The realists are wrong that despotic regimes can provide long term stability in the region; the idealists are wrong that the fall of the old despots will lead to liberal democratic states.

The realists wanted Obama to side with tyrants like Mubarak, and look like fools today.  The idealists, Mead says, promised that a few bombs would bring down Qadaffi, and they don't look very smart either.  Mead doesn't think that the Arab countries (oddly, Iran does not even make a cameo appearance) aren't likely candidates for successful democratic revolution, and reminds us that a large chunk of the Soviet Empire, including Mother Russia, accomplished regime change and then reverted to tyranny.

I think he overstates the difficulties facing a revolutionary/conservative foreign policy, and he does so because he sometimes reasons from first principles rather than looking at the specific historical moment.  In the case of failed democratic revolution in the old Soviet Empire, for example, we could have gotten a better outcome if we hadn't abandoned the democrats just at the moment they needed our embrace. I wrote a book about that shameful betrayal, carried out in the usual bipartisan pattern by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Mead's essay takes off from a very sharp analysis of the “Arab Spring,” in which he pronounces himself more cautious than optimistic about the eventual outcome.  Me too, but not because–or not simply because–most democratic revolutions fail.  It’s because of the phony, ignorant and weirdly anti-American leadership that afflicts us at this moment.