The United States and Third World Dictatorships: A Case for Benign Detachment

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It is a central dilemma of contemporary American foreignpolicy that the world's leading capitalist democracy must confront an environment in which a majority of nations are neithercapitalist nor democratic. U.S. leaders have rarely exhibitedingenuity or grace in handling this delicate and often frustrating situation.

The current turmoil in Central America is illustrative ofa larger problem. American officials assert that this vitalregion is under assault from doctrinaire communist revolutionaries trained, funded, and controlled by the Soviet Union.Danger to the well-being of the United States is immediate andserious, administration spokesmen argue, and it is imperativethat the Marxist-Leninist tide be prevented from engulfing Central America. Accomplishing this objective requires a confrontational posture toward the communist beachhead (Nicaragua)combined with massive support for all "friendly" regimes, ranging from democratic Costa Rica to autocratic Guatemala. Washington's Central American policy displays in microcosm most ofthe faulty assumptions underlying America's approach to theentire Third World.

The current strategy of the United States betrays a virtual siege mentality. It was not always thus. Throughout thenineteenth century U.S. policymakers exuded confidence that therest of the world would emulate America's political and economicsystem, seeing the United States as a "beacon on the hill" guiding humanity to a better future.[1] As late as the 1940s, mostAmericans and their political representatives still believedthat democracy would triumph as a universal system. The prospective breakup of the European colonial empires throughoutAsia and Africa was generally viewed as an opportunity, not acalamity. Scores of new nations would emerge from that process,and Americans were confident that most would choose the path ofdemocracy and free enterprise, thus isolating the Soviet Unionand its coterie of Marxist-Leninist dictatorships in EasternEurope.

The actual results were acutely disappointing. No wave ofnew democracies occurred in this "Third World"; instead, decolonization produced a plethora of dictatorships, some of whichappeared distressingly friendly to Moscow. This developmentwas especially disturbing to Washington since it took place ata time when America's cold war confrontation with the USSR wasat its most virulent. The nature and magnitude of that struggle caused American leaders to view the Third World primarilyas another arena in the conflict. Consequently, the proliferation of left-wing revolutionary movements and governmentsseemed to undermine America's own security and well-being.