Essays & Reviews

Tocqueville, Early American Foreign Policy, and Contemporary Chinese Politics

On Thursday, February 5, the Political Theory Institute at American University hosted a lecture by James W. Ceaser on “Tocqueville on America’s Two Foundings: Natural Rights and History.”

As we know, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America focused on America’s domestic institutions and morays, as a way of considering the future direction of politics and society in the Western world.  Tocqueville’s major observation on American foreign policy came in the form of an assertion that two men, Washington and Jefferson, had set its direction. Tocqueville quoted extensively from Washington’s Farewell Address (1796) and his great rule of conduct, which could be reduced to the following: “He succeeded in keeping his country at peace while all the rest of the world was at war, and he established it as fundamental doctrine that the true interest of America was never to take part in the internal quarrels of Europe.”  Tocqueville maintained that Jefferson went further still and introduced another maxim into American politics: “that the Americans should never ask for privileges from foreign nations, in order not to be obliged to grant any in return.”

According to Tocqueville, these principles “whose evident truths makes them easily grasped by the multitudes, have greatly simplified the foreign policy of the United States.”  Because the United States did not meddle in European affairs and because there were as yet no powerful neighbor in the Western Hemisphere, it had, so to speak, “no external interest at stake. . . . Detached by geography as well as by choice from the passions of the Old World, it neither needs to protect itself against them nor to espouse them.”  Free from hidden obligations, America could profit from the experience of Europe without having to deal with the “vast heritage of mixed glory and shame, national friendships and national hatreds, bequeathed by its ancestors.  Expectancy is the keynote of American foreign policy; it consists much more in abstaining than doing.”

Classic works of comparative government and political sociology, such as Democracy in America, can also provide insights into other nations and cultures (which of course was one of Tocqueville’s purposes).  Does this hold true for non-Western societies as well?  In 2010, Ceaser published a paper for the American Enterprise Institute’s Tocqueville on China Project. According to Ceaser, Tocqueville was one of the first thinkers to treat two of the great themes that have preoccupied modern scholars of China: modernization and transition. His writings on these themes were the forerunners of such classic works as James Bryce’s Modern Democracy (1921) and Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), and they thus indirectly help inform the wave of scholarship in comparative politics on “democratic transitions” that appeared after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Tocqueville had already identified something analogous to “transition” as the central practical issue of his time: “The organization and establishment of [liberal] democracy among Christians is the great political problem of our time.”  Ceaser observes that much the same concern preoccupies China scholars today, and he argues that Tocqueville treats the themes now central to comparative politics with a freshness that has been lost in the layering of subsequent scholarship, in which certain premises have come to be accepted without reflection.

Tocqueville is well known not only for his treatment of the kinds of political regimes that exist in the modern world, but also for his reflections on the types of political units he thought would hold the future destiny of the world in their hands. Already in his day, he identified that the commanding units in the not-too-distant future would no longer come from among the circle of the traditional European nation-states, which “had reached the limit that nature has drawn and appear to have nothing more to do than preserve themselves.”  The mantel of the great powers would instead pass to much larger entities — “superstates” – that would be of a dimension that filled much of a continent and possessed populations of a different scale.

Tocqueville famously named the two dominant powers of the future: the United States and Russia.  His real point in this passage was that where physical facts permitted, the modern world allowed states to be put together on a much vaster scale because of the weakening of secondary powers and the simplification of the principle of legitimacy around the notion of social equality.

According to Ceaser, it is evident that the distribution of power today has begun to approximate the picture Tocqueville sketched. The major players are the handful of “superstates,” with the United States and China being the two most important states. Each represents one of the two basic modes of rule possible for modernity: liberal democracy and authoritarianism. While all states have a set of fundamental interests that are influenced by their geographic position and history, many of their most important objectives are shaped by their form of government. The prospects for cooperation in the world, therefore, hinge in large part on the character of the political regimes of the major states. Tocqueville’s conception of the “great problem” of his day – the establishment of liberal democracy – best describes our own as well.

Is there anything in Tocqueville’s thought that speaks to the most plausible scenarios for the evolution of the Chinese polity – either a continuation of authoritarian government; or some sort of transition to liberal democracy?  From his general political science, according to Ceaser, Tocqueville spoke of the two chief regimes of modernity as liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Between these two, he saw no general force of history or natural process that operated decisively on behalf of either regime. While “democratic peoples have a natural taste for freedom,” they also have an even stronger attachment to equality, which can lead nations to embrace absolutism.  Tocqueville left the question of selection of regimes open.

When it came to the possibility of transition, he made clear that the mere taste or desire for a free regime was inadequate to sustain liberal democracy in the absence of a certain set of skills within the populace. Modern studies of transition that focus on predicting if and when there will be an attempt at change would thus seem incomplete without also considering the prospects of success. To apply Tocqueville’s approach to the menu of options for a country like China, it would be necessary to speak (in addition to the scenario of the stable state of continued authoritarian rule) of two possible outcomes, not one, under the category of transition: a change that achieves a “soft landing” of a functioning liberal democracy and a change that ends in failure.