"Democracy is a beautiful flower, but it does not grow wherever its seed is cast. Both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists have been seduced by the idea that if we promote democracy, peace and security will follow. They have it backwards, according to Amitai Etzioni. He believes that establishing order and protecting people from violence, rather than exporting democracy, should be the first priority of US foreign policy. The house of democracy cannot be built from the attic down.
In the wake of the Iraq war, it is not too difficult to convince people that promoting democracy through war is a fool's errand. Political sociologists have understood for decades a lot about the social requisites of democracy - and it is not surprising that a distinguished sociologist like Etzioni would note the elemental unreality of the Bush policy of democracy-via-blitzkrieg. But Etzioni goes even further than this. He argues that protecting America in today's world requires that we step away from democracy promotion so that we can focus on the urgent need to protect human life, both that of others and our own, in a very violent world.
Etzioni is a realist who understands the importance of power in keeping a nation secure. But to those who argue that realism and morality cannot go together, Etzioni shows that they must. He understands the importance of moral cohesion in constructing effective human societies and building efficacious political coalitions. He sees that the United States can protect its vital interests only if our foreign policy is grounded upon moral principles which will rally others to our side.
Uniting the world, especially the Islamic world, around a common moral agenda demands that we understand that that agenda cannot be the mere export of our own brand of politics. The world is filled with "illiberal moderates," who Etzioni says constitute a "global swing vote." These people will not follow us if we are waving the banner of western secular democracy, but they will side with us against Jihadism if our cause is peace and security.
Etzioni's moral vision is clear: people cannot enjoy democratic freedoms, or much else, if they are dead or living in fear. What nobler purpose than to protect people from violence? Etzioni believes that it would be a moral triumph for the US to lead the world against such horrors as genocide and nuclear terrorism -- even at the price of weakening traditional conceptions of national sovereignty.
Jonathan Rauch, in a recent review in Reason, summed up Security First as "realism with a caring face, idealism in sensible shoes." Indeed, for decades, Etzioni's work has escaped the usual ideological/theoretical categorizations, and this book is no exception. With Security First, Etzioni has presented the outlines of a realistic, morally-coherent foreign policy which both thoughtful liberals and thoughtful conservatives could support. For those of us who believe that politics should end at the water's edge, and are hopeful that the next administration will rediscover the strength that comes from a truly bipartisan foreign policy, Etzioni has made an important contribution to our urgent search for such a policy based upon values which all Americans share - among ourselves as well as with the allies we need around the world."
Michael Contarino is coordinator of the Politics and Society program University of New Hampshire at Manchester and an associate professor of political science.