No, this is not about the Russian spies. Not even the hot one.
During the Cold War the United States was willing to support almost any government that was willing to claim it was on our side or at least was willing to claim it would oppose our enemies. We were not very picking during this time period and backed some rather corrupt and repressive governments. We were also quite willing to support non-governmental actors, such as the folks in Afghanistan.
While this sort of support did help us succeed in the Cold War, we are now paying for these mistakes. To use two obvious examples, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be rather directly tied back to what we did during the Cold War. In the case of Afghanistan, we backed the groups who were attacking the Soviets but we failed to do anything positive in the region. Now were are in the role of the Russians and trying to bring order to the land.
Now we are in yet another war, this one against terror. As in the Cold War, we are willing to support governments who say they will help us. While this is not a bad thing, we are quite willing to purchase the support of the rulers by tolerating corruption, repression and undemocratic behavior. The best current examples of this are in Africa.
While it makes some sense to buy allies, the Cold War (and in particular Vietnam) should have taught us that supporting such “allies” can be a costly mistake. Also, there is the ethical concern: we speak of democracy, freedom and human rights, yet seem to be willing to look away when we think that “practical politics” demands that we do so. However, principles that are easily set aside for what seems convenient cannot be worth very much.
Since ethics gets little traction in politics, it makes sense to point out that supporting such governments does not support or expand democracy. Rather, it merely supports tyranny and corruption. Such support also seems to have a historical tendency to create more enemies for America rather than creating solid allies.
Of course, it can be argued that we need to deal with the corrupt and even evil rulers because our foes will be eager to do so. That is, it is better that the devil is on our payroll rather than on our enemies’. China, for example, is eager to do business with the rulers of Africa and they have no qualms about human rights, democracy or other such concerns. As such, if we are unwilling to look away while handing over guns and cash, China will be happy to do so. This is, of course, a great situation for the corrupt rulers and they do not have to worry much about the people-at least until the next coup attempt rolls around.
Ethically, this is rather questionable. After all, the fact that someone else will happily support evil is no justification for us doing so. However, the practical aspect of this is rather strong and perhaps it can be argued that while this approach is bad, it is better than the available alternatives.
This situation cannot, of course, be entirely laid at the door of America and China. The people of Africa allow their rulers to act the way they do and hence they bear some of the responsibility. If Africa had stable, democratic and non-corrupt states, then I believe the United States would be very happy to support them, as we support Germany, Japan, France and our other democratic allies.
While it might be tempting to try to engage in democracy building once again, we have seen how that tends to turn out. Democracy and effective government seems to be something that must be built from within rather than imposed from without. That said, we can do more to support honest, democratic and ethical leaders-providing we can find any there…or here.