How To Handle Dictatorships
We're in an odd moment here in the West. After the cold war was won, we wound down, leading some to declare that we had reached the 'end of history'. That obviously wasn't true and we've now been at war for more than a dozen years. The odd thing is, despite many military victories, we have no idea how to actually win.
Foreign policy under Obama is, well, hard to define. It places a high value on international consensus. It avoids conflict, especially conflict that would put US troops on the ground. It cherishes 'soft power' approaches. And it really hasn't changed the world for the better.
Not that the Bush approach worked any better. The military did its part in conquering forces in the field but then things fell to pieces. Nations refused to be built and the world decided that the US was the bad guy. No one looks to the Bush years as a model on how to move forward.
So what do we do? Allow me to spitball some ideas.
Tie foreign aid to reforms. One of the reasons why the situation in so many poor countries is so helpless is because the political structure is rotten and corrupt. What if we made foreign aid conditional on reforms to fix those systems? We could attack bribery pretty easily. We could also include things like freedom of the press and other basic rights. Figure out the top priorities and very publicly tell the dictatorships that unless they clean up their acts, the money stops.
Pay dictators to retire. Another enduring problem is that once an autocrat takes power, they hang on to it until death. Sometimes, like in North Korea, that means the family takes over and there is little hope of peaceful regime change. On some level it's galling, but the world would be better off if some of these despots were given a pile of cash and the deed to a Mediterranean villa. One of the prime strengths of the Western world is that countries periodically trade power to other countries without bloodshed. We should do what we can to encourage that.
Threaten cultural retaliation. If you've read 'The Looming Tower' by Lawrence Wright (and you really should!), then you'll know that Al Qaeda and their spiritual brethren are motivated by the idea that non-Islamic ideas are decadent and will corrupt the soul. What would happen if we found a way to tell leaders of terrorist groups that we would use culture to retaliate to any attacks from them? What if we threatened to broadcast our most decadent channels, say Bravo and MTV, onto every TV in their country? What if every radio picked up station after station of pop music? Would that give them pause?
Outsource nation building. If we do find ourselves again in the awful place of having to force regime change, we should break it into two distinct phases. The US (and any probable coalition) can handle the military side. The big problems come after. The people there rightly fear imperialism and resent the foreign troops. So we call in someone else. Ask the UN to rebuild. That takes away the imperialism fear and allows the foreign troops to withdraw.
Confidently assert pluralistic values. If we really want a future world where conflicts over race, religion and creed are rare, then we need to show how that's done. We need to push examples of how different people can live comfortably together. This will mean less searching for specks in our own eyes and some bragging about the areas where we do a good job. It will mean standing up for principles like free speech without the depressing 'but' that so often follows. It will mean reasserting assimilation and the melting pot.
These may not work but our current ideas aren't so hot. They might be worth a try.