Commentary on
by Amitai Etzioni (Yale University Press, 2007)

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Security FirstExport Security, Not Democracy
By Jonathan Rauch
National Journal, February 1, 2008

"Six years after September 11," wrote Krauthammer, "there is still no remotely plausible alternative to the Bush Doctrine for ultimately changing the culture from which jihadism arises."

If that ever was true, it ceased to be as of last summer. That was when Amitai Etzioni published an important book called Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy. A professor of international relations at George Washington University, Etzioni argues that the United States should export security, not democracy.

If you want to discuss foreign policy in the age of terrorism, try consulting an ex-terrorist. As a teenager in the 1940s, Etzioni was a fighter in the Palmach, a Jewish insurgent group that tried to bomb the British out of what was then Palestine. The group aimed at infrastructure, not people, but Etzioni says the experience gave him a lifelong appreciation of the awfulness of war and the centrality of security.

Today, pondering the presidential race, Etzioni sees ample criticism of Bush, but nothing resembling an overarching alternative to the Bush Doctrine. American foreign policy needs a positive vision with a moral basis. But exporting democracy, Etzioni says, isn't it...

Why not? First, the Bush Doctrine suffers from Multiple Realism Deficiency Disorder. Democracy grows gradually from within, by stages, and cannot be imposed from without. The Bush Doctrine thus promises what it can't deliver. In any case, Washington often has little practical choice but to cooperate with friendly authoritarian regimes, such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia; we can't expect cooperation from regimes we're working to overthrow.

All of that you have heard before. Etzioni's signature contribution is an intriguing second argument. Putting democratization at the center of U.S. foreign policy, he says, is counterproductive. It turns against America millions of the very people it needs to win over: illiberal moderates.

The Muslim world is full of people who aver support for democracy. But comparatively few mean liberal, secular democracy, which is what Americans mean. Instead, they mean a combination of democracy and theocracy that Americans would not recognize as liberal-democratic at all. For example, they tell pollsters they want democracy while also saying their governments should be more Islamic.

These people reject American-style social liberalization, such as equality for women, which Americans regard as a democratic linchpin. On the other hand, the great majority of them abhor violence. Thus, writes Etzioni, "major segments of the Muslim world are neither pro-liberal-democracy nor pro-violence."

These "illiberal moderates," he argues, are "a kind of global 'swing vote,' " far outnumbering both illiberal extremists (who support violence) and liberal moderates (who support Westernization). A democratization agenda that implies American-style liberalization strikes illiberal moderates as a threat to their religion, not a promise of freedom. No wonder the Bush Doctrine offends them in droves.

But most of them will gladly support an American foreign policy in which basic security heads the agenda. Note the word "basic." To provide basic security, in Etzioni's framework, a government need not have a spotless human-rights record, independent courts, or even elections. It must merely protect its own people from genocide and ethnic cleansing, and refrain from invading other countries, supporting international terrorism, and posing a nuclear threat. If a regime provides that much internal and external security, the United States should promise not to overthrow it -- even if it is unsavory or unfriendly in other respects.

Of course, the United States will still care about, and advocate, democratization and other core values. But top priority should go to basic security, on which everything else depends.

Realists insist that stability is the precondition for democracy; neocons, that democracy is the precondition for stability. Etzioni is saying that basic security is the precondition for both, a lesson stingingly learned in Iraq. "In Iraq our problem was that we did not focus on security," he says. "We focused on trying to build another America."

The template for Security First is Washington's handshake with Libya, a nasty regime that gave up weapons of mass destruction and terrorism and, in Etzioni's view, should have been more promptly rewarded for doing so. If Iran and North Korea were to follow Libya's example, they should get the same deal.

Shaking hands with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il for doing what any civilized regime should do is distasteful; but remember, exchanging peace for security is the beginning, not the end. Over time, governments that provide their people and the world with basic security furnish the soil in which civil society and, ultimately, democracy can take root.

Making security the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy sounds pretty minimalist. But, Etzioni argues, it is both more practical than trying to democratize the world and more moral than hard-bitten realism. After all, Security First rests on the deepest and most universal of moral foundations, respect for human life and repudiation of deadly violence. It would authorize, indeed require, international humanitarian intervention against genocide, which the United States would help organize but not necessarily lead.

Is "Provide basic security!" an idealistic enough mission for an America that likes to think of itself as a light unto nations? "Talk about peace instead of security and we're there," Etzioni replies. Dwight Eisenhower got terrific mileage, at home and abroad, by dedicating America to peace, which he promised to uphold in the face of the Communist threat.

Does Security First resolve all of the dilemmas that authoritarian governments and humanitarian crises pose? Hardly. The United States would still have problems dealing with a non-nuclear North Korea or a nonterroristic Iran. It would still need to walk a tightrope in dealing with friendly governments that torture (like Egypt) or provoke their neighbors (like Pakistan).

What Security First has going for it, however, is its congruity with so much of what U.S. foreign policy winds up doing anyway. Whatever the heady rhetoric of John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, or George W. Bush, for the most part Washington tolerates ugly regimes that provide basic security. It relies on Disney and consumer goods and the passage of time to do the rest.

Security First is realism with a caring face, idealism in sensible shoes. Maybe you need to be an ex-terrorist to think of it.



Survival Review
A publication of the International Institute for Strategic Studies
Vol 50, No 2, April/May 2008
(No author indicated)

The wide-ranging essays in [Security First] add up to a comprehensive strategy for the West informed by Etzioni’s ‘neo-communitarian’ perspective. At the heart of his approach is the notion of the ‘Primacy of Life.’ He makes a credible case that the right to physical security is the foundation of all other rights, not to mention a necessary precondition for the development of democracy. In a world where much of the ‘global public opinion’ is determined by moral and religious perceptions and fiercely resistant to…Western models, the United States should eschew counterproductive attempts at regime change, democratization, and ‘social engineering’ and base its foreign policy on the ethical (and practical) principle of ‘security first’…

[Etzioni] argues convincingly that declaring ‘either you are with us or with the terrorists’, and dividing the world – especially the Muslim world – into supporters for liberal democracy and the rest, serves to alienate the majority who do not wish to embrace Western political and social values but who oppose violence…The United States, according to Etzioni, should actively court (rather than waste its time trying to convert) the ‘global swing vote’ of ‘illiberal moderates’.... [Etzioni] has written a wise and stimulating book.


Contemporary Sociology Review
May 2008, Vol. 37, No 3
By Professor Meredith Kleykamp
University of Kansas            

In Security First, Amitai Etzioni presents an expansive argument advocating a U-turn in U.S. foreign policy: our international stance should be based not on the spread of democracy across the globe, but rather on ensuring basic physical security at home (from nuclear terrorism) and abroad (from murderous regimes).  The book tackles important, difficult questions that bear directly on American foreign policy in the coming years, among them: upon what moral foundation should our foreign policy rest; how effective are economic development and/or nation-building efforts in engineering democratization; does a “clash of civilizations” exist today; what promotes internal security in fragile states; what justifies military intervention in sovereign nations, and what do we do to manage threats to our own security if we admit to having less power than imagined.  He argues convincingly that efforts to engineer democracy through force are bound to fail.  Our efforts to enforce democratization abroad fail is because they often install a democratic process that elects leaders with undemocratic values (such as the election of Hamas in Palestinian elections).  They also fail those we intend to help by promising to re-engineer entire political, cultural, and social systems at once, expecting quick and positive results and achieving neither.

Etzioni’s arguments reflect a communitarian philosophy at several levels.  As a member of a global community, the U.S. has a moral obligation to ensure others’ freedom from physical harm, torture, and ethnic cleansing, using regime change only as a last resort (outlined explicitly in the chapter “Grounds for Intervention”).  But in rebuilding failing states, we must incorporate pre-existing internal communities, building from a base of shared norms and values, rather than obliterating them to recast the state in our image (articulated in the chapter “The Importance of Moral Culture”).  Increasing the likelihood of long-term stability in these regimes improves our security at home.  And, in pursuing a policy based on security for others, we can claim moral legitimacy in the international arena, thereby regaining some of our soft power lost in recent years.

Putting security first, Etzioni makes clear we often must make the difficult choice to support regimes that will ensure corporal security of residents but may not uphold the liberal values such as gender equality, freedom of speech, or the separation of religion and state affairs that we hold so dear.  The book clearly advocates a return to pragmatic foreign policy solutions, but pragmatism bound by principle, specifically the “primacy of life” principle.  His is not a call to prop up dictatorships to advance a political agenda as we did in Latin America and Asia.  Rather, it recognizes that threats from both nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and the combined threat of nuclear-armed terrorists often demand the least-bad and not the ideal (or idealistic) policy solutions to maintain safety and security at home and in other countries.

The final section of the book tackles the question of what to do first when our power is more limited than we imagined.  With limited power, nuclear deproliferation demands the most immediate attention.  While the majority of the book is clearly argued, well-organized, and logically connected, this argument feels slightly disconnected from the rest of the book.  It may stem partly from the shift from a focus on the security of others abroad to security on the home front and partly from the move to narrowly specified nuclear nonproliferation policy recommendations after a series of more philosophical policy arguments.  Still, the argument for a shift in homeland security policy away from “hardening targets” and preventing terrorist attacks, towards preventing terrorist access to nuclear materials is compelling.

Security First is an important book for scholars interested in contemporary foreign policy, political sociology, Middle East politics, or national security in the aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  The book is best suited for policy makers and analysts as well as concerned citizens, but it does have a place in the sociology classroom, particularly in courses on political sociology, the Middle East, or communities.  Although short on explicit discussion of sociological and political theory, which are buried in endnotes, it offers a wealth of testable assertions to scholars in these fields and exemplifies the application of theory to public policy.

Like many policy statements, Etzioni’s missive “briefs well,” but the devil is always in the details.  In covering so much territory, naturally a number of nuanced arguments may get short shrift.  The discussion of belief systems and the tendency of all belief systems to contain elements that support both coercion (violence) and persuasion (peace) could benefit from a more detailed analysis that embeds the use of violence in historical circumstance.  As with any work that attempts to chart a policy course for the future, the arguments rest on agreement with the antecedent assumptions, but these are well articulated for the reader to accept or reject.  This book may not offer a detailed solution to every foreign policy dilemma, but it need not do so to be successful.  Its strength lies in starting a much-needed dialogue about where our national foreign policy should go from here. 




The following appeared in the December 2007 issue of CHOICE:
45-2278       2007-3748 CIP
Etzioni, Amitai.  Security first: for a muscular, moral foreign policy.  Yale, 2007. 308p index afp


This book is well written, well organized, and a must read for decision makers and students of American foreign policy, although perhaps it should more properly be titled “First Things First.”  In laying out a case for a fact-based foreign policy, Etzioni (George Washington Univ.), a founder of the communitarian movement, delivers an indirect for devastating attack on the policies of the Bush administration.  The author argues that Americans must set the stage for building democracy by emphasizing in foreign policy what he calls the “primacy of life” as an essential prerequisite for civilized society.  Beyond making a case for the establishment of security within troubled states, Etzioni also outlines a realistic, constitutionally practical, and affordable program to prevent terrorism, relying again on the principles of “first things first.” He argues that the most dangerous threat by far to the US is nuclear attack, especially from a terrorist group or a failing state.  By this standard the most crucial focus of US national security should be Russia.  It makes sense then that instead of trying to build democracy in Iraq, the US should focus first on efforts to promote nuclear nonproliferation and the eventual end of the stockpiling of nuclear weapons.  Summing up: Essential.  General Readers, upper division undergraduates through practitioners. – D. P. Franklin, Georgia State University ________________________________________________________



Review by Stanley Crossick
Director and Founding Chairman of The European Policy Centre


That great Communitarian, Amitai Etzioni, compellingly argues that the first priority in foreign policy is to provide basic security, not to democratize (Security First, 2007, Yale University Press). He argues for a “muscular, moral foreign policy” for the United States. Security cannot, however, be mainly based on military forces, police and other methods of law enforcement. Security is based largely on values, on most people most of the time doing what must be done because they believe they ought to do it.           
When and where the right to security is violated, all other rights are violated as well. The prevention of genocide is a much more legitimate reason for intervening in the affairs of another country than, say, democratization.

Iraq has taught us that the provision of basic security is essential to the development of liberal-democratic institutions, not the other way round. Post-war Germany, Italy and Japan all followed this sequence.

The US saw, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, each democratic step – election, approval of constitution, meeting of parliament, approval of government – as a “turning point” or “critical juncture” upon the assumption that once the various conflicting interests enjoyed a political forum in which to work through their differences, the violence would subside.

Three reasons stand out why this was wrong. Security did not precede democratization but was meant to be driven by it; the US-promoted institutions were not well designed for the Afghans and the Iraqis; and these institutions were far too unitary, rather than federal or decentralised, in character.

Under a Security First scenario, occupying forces must make the ‘second worst’ decision to leave many of the elements of the old regime in place, and then slowly work to convert them, while allowing considerable time for new and more liberal forces to grow. Illiberal ideological or religious regimes must initially be tolerated, as long as the leadership in place helps maintain basic security. This is the course the US and its allies adopted in Nazi Germany after WWII.

Turning now to Islam, Etzioni rejects the Huntington Clash of Civilizations treatment of Islam as if it were one coherent, violent civilization, intent on permanent warfare with the West. There are many Americans and Europeans who do not believe that Islam and the West can coexist and that there will be an inevitable clash. Many believe that a moderate Muslim – and therefore an acceptable US ally – is only one who supports liberal democracy and human rights.

The author convincingly illustrates that, in the all important distinction between coercive and persuasive beliefs, Islam is not different from other belief systems. The Bible as well as the Koran contains paragraphs which can have both violent and peaceful interpretations.

Opinion polls across the Muslim world suggest that there is a strong rejection of violence but strong support for a greater role for Islam in national politics, and little active support for human rights or democracy. They also show that Muslim women do not appear to be in the forefront of demanding more liberal and less religious societies. Neither the hijab nor the burqa are apparently seen to any great extent as tools of oppression.

It is wrong to stress that democratization or declarations of human rights will restore social order. Law enforcement authority, backed by a moral culture, is the first step on the road to a stable and free social order. Put another way, effective compliance with the law cannot be engineered when there is no widespread, voluntary compliance with the law, based on the conviction that the law ought to be observed.

While we may not agree with the religious beliefs of moderate mullahs and imans, we must support them against those promoting violence and persecution. The only way to promote lasting democracy in the Middle East is to help it develop in accordance with its own culture and religious identity. It must be accepted that moderate clerics will be religious.

Etzioni does not address the problems which arise from Islamic migration to Europe. No European country has achieved the success of the US in absorbing immigrants. Neither the integrationist not multicultural models seem to have worked. This demands the attention of future posts.





Security First Review
by Michael Contarino, coordinator of the Politics and Society program University of New Hampshire at Manchester and an associate Professor of Political Science.

"Democracy is a beautiful flower, but it does not grow wherever its seed is cast. Both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists have been seduced by the idea that if we promote democracy, peace and security will follow. They have it backwards, according to Amitai Etzioni. He believes that establishing order and protecting people from violence, rather than exporting democracy, should be the first priority of US foreign policy. The house of democracy cannot be built from the attic down.

In the wake of the Iraq war, it is not too difficult to convince people that promoting democracy through war is a fool's errand. Political sociologists have understood for decades a lot about the social requisites of democracy - and it is not surprising that a distinguished sociologist like Etzioni would note the elemental unreality of the Bush policy of democracy-via-blitzkrieg. But Etzioni goes even further than this. He argues that protecting America in today's world requires that we step away from democracy promotion so that we can focus on the urgent need to protect human life, both that of others and our own, in a very violent world

Etzioni is a realist who understands the importance of power in keeping a nation secure. But to those who argue that realism and morality cannot go together, Etzioni shows that they must. He understands the importance of moral cohesion in constructing effective human societies and building efficacious political coalitions. He sees that the United States can protect its vital interests only if our foreign policy is grounded upon moral principles which will rally others to our side.

Uniting the world, especially the Islamic world, around a common moral agenda demands that we understand that that agenda cannot be the mere export of our own brand of politics. The world is filled with "illiberal moderates," who Etzioni says constitute a "global swing vote." These people will not follow us if we are waving the banner of western secular democracy, but they will side with us against Jihadism if our cause is peace and security.

Etzioni's moral vision is clear: people cannot enjoy democratic freedoms, or much else, if they are dead or living in fear. What nobler purpose than to protect people from violence? Etzioni believes that it would be a moral triumph for the US to lead the world against such horrors as genocide and nuclear terrorism -- even at the price of weakening traditional conceptions of national sovereignty.

Jonathan Rauch, in a recent review in Reason, summed up Security First as "realism with a caring face, idealism in sensible shoes." Indeed, for decades, Etzioni's work has escaped the usual ideological/theoretical categorizations, and this book is no exception. With Security First, Etzioni has presented the outlines of a realistic, morally-coherent foreign policy which both thoughtful liberals and thoughtful conservatives could support. For those of us who believe that politics should end at the water's edge, and are hopeful that the next administration will rediscover the strength that comes from a truly bipartisan foreign policy, Etzioni has made an important contribution to our urgent search for such a policy based upon values which all Americans share - among ourselves as well as with the allies we need around the world."





“Given the present debate in the US on withdrawal from Iraq, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the continuing determination of the Bush government to foster democracy in the region, this is an important and timely book.”
-John Bruton, a former Prime Minister of Ireland and current EU Ambassador to the United States


“As soon as I received Security First I put it on the top of my list of things to read.  Now that I have had a chance to delve into it, I can tell you it is an interesting book with a lot to say about current events, what we see going on in the world around us, and more importantly, what we should do about it.  I am greatly enjoying it.”

-Senator Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyoming)


"An important, must-read book for the rising leadership in the United States, as it prepares for the crucial 2008 elections, a time for a change from the status quo, and for America’s friends around the world."
-Shuja Nawaz, former Division Chief, International Monetary Fund, former Director, International Atomic Energy Agency, and author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan and its Army


"Etzioni offers a far ranging alternative perspective for the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Security First offers to be an outstanding and important work."
-James J. Wirtz, Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School


"Etzioni’s argument is a breath of fresh air in the current debate. Compared to most of his colleagues on the left, he is both more hard-headed about security and more understanding of the critical role of religion and moral culture in maintaining social order without violence. This book is a must read."
-Henry Nau, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University


“Amitai Etzioni’s uneven but thoughtful book was clearly written as a policy position for the 2008 Presidential hopefuls. To his credit, he prescribes a new, forward-looking American foreign policy for all 18 candidates from both parties. One of Richard Posner’s top 100 American intellectuals, Mr. Etzioni stresses that he wears neither party’s ideological cloak, and instead seeks a policy that’s at once moral and practical.”
-Matthew Cole is writing a book about the C.I.A. for Simon & Schust


"After foreign policy disasters from Rwanda to 9-11 to the Iraq War, alternatives to realist, liberal, and neoconservative shibboleths are desperately needed. Learned but accessible, sweeping yet detailed, Security First offers a distinctive approach that can help America forge a new path."
-Clifford Bob, author of The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism, Winner of the 2007 International Studies Best Book Award

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