Iran’s Protests: What Would John Quincy Adams Do?

Iran has been roiled by protests this week, with at least twenty dead and hundreds arrested. The protests took many analysts by surprise – they appear to center on young, working-class men, ethnic minorities like the Kurds, and rural people. As Gissou Nia writes in Politico, these are not the kind of folks to whom analysts are typically connected:

Many of these Iran watchers are Tehran-centric and deal mainly with upper-middle class Iranian professionals and intellectuals. They just don’t have access to who’s protesting. So far, the crowds seem to be made up of working-class people in cities like Mashhad, Arak and Kermanshah—the kinds of people who don’t tweet about their suffering in English or call up foreign journalists to share their experiences.

Indeed, even many in Iran are struggling to understand what’s going on. It’s hard not to draw parallels to the sudden rise of Donald Trump here in the United States or the Brexit referendum in Britain. It should inspire humility. Many of you reading this are future foreign service officers, intelligence analysts, scholars, pundits…always remember to think about what you’re not seeing, what you’re not looking at. The world is very, very complicated, and nobody has all the information.

But what should America do? Should we voice support – or even lend assistance? Should we stay silent, lest we allow the regime to paint its opponents as American pawns?

John Quincy Adams himself actually confronted challenges quite similar to this. Latin America was rebelling against the Spanish empire; the rebels spoke of establishing republics like our own. Yet the rebels were not always successful, and Spain would be furious if an outside power began supporting the rebels.

This challenge inspired Adams’ famed warning against going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” But that speech was not a mere warning against entanglements abroad: it offered an approach for realizing America’s values abroad. Adams proudly declared that America had “respected the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own” and “abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.” At the same time, Adams argued, America should speak up for its values: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be….She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” How can we bring noninterference into harmony with these other ideals? By refraining from directinvolvement in these disputes. “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Adams’ approach had two sources. First, he felt that a people had to bring about freedom for itself. It wasn’t something given by wise men abroad. Second, he was humble about America’s ability to come in as an outsider, sort out who the good guys and bad guys are, and put things right, all while remaining true to its ideals.

In fact, he warned, it’s risky for outsiders to pick winners in contests abroad. Those we favor might be hoodwinking us – maybe they’re simply branding themselves as democratic in order to win support. We might be hoodwinking ourselves – in this case, the deep and largely rightful distaste we have for Iran’s government might make us eager to see any of its foes as good and effective. And, because states tend to serve their own interests, especially in important matters, we might not behave as altruistically as we think we will. Thus, America “well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force….She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

For Adams, then, America’s voice was its most powerful tool in defending human rights and supporting democracy. Our other tools may seem stronger, but the risk of mistakes and the temptation to abuse them are stronger, too.

This essay is drawn from this week’s JQA Society newsletter. You can sign up here.