Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy
by Amitai Etzioni
List Price: $27.00
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publish Date: July 5, 2007
New in Print
Democratization is a very hard proposition to argue against. Can one really
argue that people in other countries should not be given the same basic and
fundamental freedoms so prized in the United States? Our fundamental freedoms
have given us the most successful economy in the world. (Economic freedom has
actually been found to be the deciding factor in successful economic
development, though political freedom is never a drag on economic development.)
There are problems, however, with active democratization around the world,
problems particularly apparent recently. At least in its promotion, the United
States comes out looking like it is trying to change other governments for
American convenience alone. We look unconcerned with the people we are
democratizing. We present ourselves as thinking we are the sole judge of what
is good for other people. We look hypocritical complaining when an election
does not come out the way we like – Hamas’s victory in Palestinian elections,
for example. We look out and out silly backtracking even before an election,
when it looks like our opponents are going to win. The United States wanted to
delay elections in Iraq when the Shiites seemed a little too happy with the
basic idea of majority rule.
Arguing against people having democratic freedoms is hard. However, an
alternative has been presented, a way of blending real American and foreign
national interests. This is the concept Amitai Etzioni calls “security first.”
Security First has several core assumptions. Democracy requires basic
foundations, the primary of which is security. Voting under physical threat,
for example, as in Iraq is highly complimentary to the voters who risk their
lives – not to mention what it says about Americans, half of home rarely bother
to vote. But this is a short term risk, amenable to short term security. Day to
day operations of democratic government, of economic development, and of
everyday life, require continuing security.
Security First does not by any means imply full-fledged dictatorship.
Security means freedom from arbitrary arrest, seizure of property and other
realities of the full lack of freedom. But security also means freedom from
being blown up by terrorist bombs in a market. Security First does not
mean stable autocracy over full fledged American style democracy. Security
First, however, buys time for full fledged and stable American style
democracy to emerge and develop.
Security First ties in with our own history. The Declaration of
Independence, our fundamental national document, was written in June of 1776.
The Declaration lists “life” as an inalienable right before “liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness.” It took until 1964, however, with the 24th Amendment to
the Constitution banning a poll tax, and 1965 with the Voting Rights Act, to
fully implement equal political rights in the United States.
Continuing personal security establishes the foundation for improving political
security. Etzioni argues that a reforming autocracy, as long as the reforms
were clear, real and consistent, as long as life could be seen to be getting
better, might be better for the long term democratic future of a country than a
violent, unstable, Iraq-style democracy. But the reforms, the slow, careful
democratization has to be real. Unfulfilled expectations can easily cause a
Proponents of active democratization point to Germany and Japan after the end
of World War Two to back up their case. Even their opponents will have to admit
that the political systems in both these nations in 1955 were drastically
different, as different as they could possibly be, then ten years earlier. Nazi
German and Imperial Japan had become stable democracies. Etzioni points out
several unique factors about both these nations. They had each been defeated in
a long, expensive and bloody war. They had surrendered and submitted to
occupation. Eztioni does not stress it, but we had no choice but to change the
systems so expensive to defeat. The Cold War made it necessary to restore some
form of functioning government to Japan and Germany, particularly the latter,
to help resist the Soviet Union.
The two countries were homogonous, with little chance of an ethnic civil war,
and had strong senses of national unity. We aided the process in Japan by
allowing the Emperor to remain on the throne, though with even less practical
power than he had before August 1945. Both nations have sufficient competent
government personal, relatively untainted by active participation in the
previous regimes’ aggressive and criminal behavior, available. And we were
willing to spend the money. Thirteen percent of the United States federal
budget went to foreign aid during the late 1940s. We spend less than one
There was no real tradition of democracy in Germany and Japan to work with,
though, but this was overcome by the positive factors discussed above.
Traditions of stable at least semi-democracy might help explain the interesting
results in Eastern Europe, nearly twenty years after the end of the Cold War.
Outside of the former Yugoslavia, the nations of the so-called “outer empire”,
such as Poland, seems to have done much better in creating stable democracies
than those of the inner empire, such as Ukraine, and Russia itself.
One might question some of Etzioni’s details, and some of the information he
cites or does not cite – such as not focusing on the fact that Cold War
realities and the effort required to win World War Two gave the United States
no choice but to “make it work” in Germany and Japan. His theory might seem a
little cynical, seeming to make such points that autocracy might be better, in
the short term, for some countries than full fledged democracy. But he does not
support dictatorship. He does not support the Cold War system, which brought
the United States so much criticism, of supporting full fledged dictatorships,
such as Pinochet in Chile, just because they were anti-Communist. Etzioni
points out the need for autocracies, no matter how stable, to democraticize at
a reasonable rate or otherwise they might not remain stable.
Etzioni points out that democracy needs a foundation, and this foundation
starts with personal security, the inalienable right to life. If we are so
gung-ho to promote our system of government in other countries, in itself not a
bad thing, we should remember how and why it worked here.
Just as he does not agree with some of Etzioni’s details, this writer confesses
the possibility, though not the strong possibility, that he is reporting some
of the details incorrectly. But one can argue that the core function of a book
of ideas is to make people think about the ideas, add to the ideas, adapt , and
even alter, the ideas. The basic idea of Security First is that before
people are able to take the time to decide how they are going to live, they
have to be sure they are going to stay alive. Just as the hard power of
American arms requiring planning and appropriate application, the soft power of
American ideas requiring planning and appropriate application. Readers may not
agree with this book, and its ideas, but it is worth taking a look.
Copyright © 2008 Bruce L. Brager.
Written by Bruce L. Brager.