Promoting Democracy or Hypocrisy?

The Bush Administration's checkered legacy of democracy promotion has called into question its future role in U.S. foreign policy.

"So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Thus spoke President George Bush on January 20, 2005, with words that would have brought a smile to the Woodrow Wilson's stoic face. Democracy promotion has a long history in American foreign policy, but during the Bush Administration its importance has reached unprecedented levels. Or has it?

Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment and Paul Saunders, executive director of The Nixon Center, discussed the role of democracy promotion in American foreign policy in the past, present and future on Thursday in a discussion sponsored by The National Interest and The Nixon Center. National Interest editor Nikolas Gvosdev moderated.

Saunders, building on his piece "Learning to Appreciate France" in the March/April issue of The National Interest, began by addressing the common linkage of aggressive democracy promotion and American national security.

"These linkages have been grossly oversimplified in a way that misleads the American public", he said. "We're taking out all of the qualifiers and all of the nuances. Giving people the right to vote doesn't solve the [national security] problem."

He challenged the notion that common systems of governance translate to shared foreign policy interests and priorities, calling specific attention to Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) recently announced plan for a League of Democracies. For example, while many have praised the budding relationship between the world's oldest democracy-the United States-and the world's largest democracy-India-Saunders noted recent Congressional complaints to Prime Minister Singh in reference to Delhi's increasing ties to Iran. Furthermore, India is generally apathetic towards promoting democracy beyond its borders. Despite sharing democratic values and a desire to keep Tehran out of the nuclear club, there is not a shared perception of the Iranian threat and the correct approach to handling it.

Saunders challenged the existence of moral absolutes in promoting democracy.

"Platitudes about democracy or freedom might sell very well, but they don't really inform us", he said. Democracy engineering, such as in Iraq, involves accepting "awesome" moral responsibility for the consequences, which must be taken far more seriously.

Carothers focused on the Bush Administration's policies' impact on the democracy promotion discourse. Democracy promotion has played a major role in the administration's rhetorical framework, with Iraq acting as the centerpiece, but whether democratization was the underlying rationale for invading Iraq remains unclear. Carothers also questioned the administration's commitment to democracy given the inadequate resources devoted to it. From 2003 to 2005, when the administration lobbied hardest for democratic reforms in the Middle East, the central focus of its policy, Congress allocated just $40 million per year to the Middle East Partnership Initiative, its flagship pro-democracy program in the region.

"Can we really argue that this is a central thrust of American foreign policy?" Carothers asked rhetorically, citing American policy towards undemocratic China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

Moreover, Carothers argued, in the last year to18 months, Bush has backed away from democratization in the Middle East, where pressure on the Egyptian government to democratize has largely subsided. The only places where American pressure has remained firm are in countries that represent no economic or security interests, such as Burma and Zimbabwe.

Today, American democracy promotion is associated with the Iraq War and, more broadly, the assertion of American interests in the world, engendering a backlash against the idea of democracy promotion and the NGOs engaged in it, Carothers said.

It is the worst of both worlds, with the global tide turning against disingenuous claims of democracy promotion despite no real effort to bolster democratization efforts around the world, he said.

Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest