How to Promote Democracy without Demoting U.S. Interests

A U.S. Navy Corpsman gives medical care to an Iraqi child in the Al Anbar province. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Marine Corps

Conflating democracy with security was doomed to fail.

January-February 2017

DURING THE 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump declared that many of America’s foreign-policy problems began with the “dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy.” As on a number of other issues, the president-elect’s dramatic statement broke from not only establishment views within his own party, but the dominant perspective of America’s political and foreign-policy elites. But what does Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism toward democracy promotion mean in practice? Should the United States abandon democracy as an element of its foreign policy? Or are there better ways to do the job?

The modern origins of America’s democracy-promotion efforts can be traced to Ronald Reagan’s 1982 speech to the British Parliament, in which he proposed a comprehensive effort to “foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” A year later, Congress passed legislation establishing the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to implement this vision. All of this occurred during a peak period in U.S.-Soviet competition, when the NED was not merely a humanitarian project, but a weapon in America’s war of ideas against Communism.

When the Cold War ended, Francis Fukuyama and others argued that democracy had “won” the war of ideas and appeared to expect gradual democratization everywhere—the so-called “end of history.” Boosting democracy rapidly evolved into an instrument of American security policy. As President Bill Clinton remarked in his 1994 State of the Union address, “Democracies don’t attack each other. They make better trading partners and partners in diplomacy.” His successor, George W. Bush, went even further in his second inaugural address, asserting, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

They were mistaken. For one thing, conflating democracy with security was doomed to fail because ordinary Americans have never seen promoting democracy as a high priority—a quick review of annual surveys by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs makes this clear—and because the U.S. government could not and cannot quickly build foreign democracies. This week’s party building or media training will not prevent next week’s terrorist attack. The politicians and pundits who made such inflated claims did a disservice to the practitioners in the field, who know that building democracy can contribute to security, but takes generations to do so. Lorne Craner, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration and was twice president of the International Republican Institute, has observed that if a country is so troubled internally as to pose significant security challenges for America, it is probably not a good candidate for successful democracy-building programs.

Those justifying democracy promotion on security grounds likewise undermined support for useful—and peaceful—democracy programs elsewhere by linking them to unsuccessful and thus unpopular wars for freedom. A mere 17 percent of Americans surveyed by the Chicago Council in 2014 considered promoting democracy a “very important” goal of U.S. foreign policy—a precipitous drop from the 34 percent who expressed this view in 2002. This placed democracy promotion in fifteenth place among public foreign-policy priorities.

No less important, promoting democracy worldwide is, in fact, neither necessary nor sufficient for American security, prosperity or freedom. It is useful and preferable, but not essential, something demonstrated by over two hundred years of world history, since American independence. Moreover, America will be most effective at promoting democracy and enhancing its own security when U.S. officials do not link these two goals too tightly.

Recent experiences suggest that applying tremendous military, political and financial resources to accelerate democratic development hasn’t succeeded and may contribute to other dangerous problems. Occupying Iraq and holding elections hardly produced the glorious results advocates predicted. Instead, it led to unsurprising efforts by majority Shia to dominate Iraq’s politics, and equally unsurprising Sunni backlash.

Rhetorical and moral support, while satisfying, can carry not only security risks, but moral ones as well. In Syria, U.S. public support may have encouraged a small group of regime opponents sufficiently numerous to destabilize the country, but not to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, much less rebuild a stable and democratic country afterward. What many Washington establishmentarians don’t seem to understand is that when oppressive regimes break down and return to a Hobbesian “state of nature,” it is not the enlightened pro-Western democrats who rise to the top, but less savory types. This is especially dangerous where civil-society institutions are lacking.