LIKE THE human-rights movement, democracy promotion is a radical project of social and political transformation whose adherents will not or cannot acknowledge either the ideological or the revolutionary character of their enterprise. In this, democracy promotion should be understood as a subset of contemporary liberalism—the only major modern ideology that denies it is an ideology at all. More precisely, it is the end state of human political organization after all the other ideologies have withered away, the future’s moral default position. To hear Western democracy-promotion activists tell it, when they work to “transition” states from a totalitarian or authoritarian social order to a liberal-democratic one, they are merely hastening the inevitable. George Soros’s formulation, derived from Karl Popper and serving as the ideological underpinning for his democracy-promotion entity, the Open Society Foundations, is expressed thus: “Opening up closed societies, making open societies more viable, and promoting a critical mode of thinking.” In this account, it is self-evident that history is moving in one direction—toward more freedom, more openness and more democracy. Thus, democracy promotion is best understood as embodying the main premise of Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 article “The End of History?,” which claimed that the West’s Cold War victory marked “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
There is irony in this proud assertion of openness to new ideas and dismissal of “closed,” undemocratic societies on the grounds that they, as Soros once complained, “claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth.” After all, this contemporary Western democratic-capitalist vision, of which the democracy-promotion and human-rights movements should be viewed as subsets, also claims a monopoly on social, ethical and political truth. Soros has reminisced that he knew communism was false because “it was a dogma.” But what could be more Manichaean and philosophically primitive than the blanket division of the entire world into open and closed societies? And what could be more dogmatic than Soros’s audacious claim that communism’s defeat “laid the groundwork for a universal open society”? For that matter, what could be more closed-minded than Fukuyama’s assertion that history’s only important remaining questions were how quickly and under what circumstances universalization of Western liberal capitalism would take place?
These claims may employ secular language to justify the conclusion that open societies are preferable to closed societies in large part because, again quoting Soros, “in an open society each citizen is not only allowed but required to think for himself.” But that cannot obscure their uncanny resemblance to both the familiar wartime claim that God is on one’s side and the Marxist idea that communism’s victory was inevitable. As Nikita Khrushchev boasted to a 1956 gathering of Western ambassadors in Warsaw, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side.” Then he added the celebrated line, “We will bury you.” It was an expression of historical determinism at its most vulgar. But it was no worse than Fukuyama’s insistence that the only entirely legitimate political order was a developed state with the rule of law and accountable government, combined “in a stable balance.” As John Gray rightly observed, this vision of the future amounted to little more than “an idealized version of American government.”
Whether this claim took the form of Soros’s Popperian universalism, Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelianism or the dogma of democracy promotion, it was defined by the conviction that it was not so much that the West was remaking the world in its own image as that this image of a globalized open society was the only one left intact. By contrast, Khrushchev looks like a philosophical pragmatist.
What is it about democracy promotion that drives otherwise hardheaded people to such extremes? What, for example, was President Bill Clinton thinking when he prophesied during his second inaugural address in 1997 that “the world’s greatest democracy will lead a whole world of democracies”? And did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton really believe, as she said in a 2012 speech, that countries closed to “change, to ideas, cultures and beliefs that are different from theirs, will quickly find that in our internet world they will be left behind”? Beyond the Silicon Valley technoutopianism and the Soros-lite boilerplate, did Clinton also believe that with the Western liberal-capitalist world mired in a deepening economic crisis, and with the United States now the greatest debtor nation in human history, she was really on solid ground in warning the Chinese that if they did not embrace the idea of an open society they would be consigned to the ash heap of history?
It is difficult to explain, other than perhaps in quasi-religious terms, how someone as intelligent and realistic as Secretary Clinton could say something so categorical with so little empirical evidence and so much familiar data that contradict her argument. But perhaps this is the essential point. The mainstream view of the American project from its founding has been marked by a mystical sense of mission, a belief in the redemptive role of the United States in global affairs, a missionary zeal in which remaking the world in America’s image seems not an act of hubris but the fulfillment of a moral duty. Viewed through the prism of American exceptionalism, the belief that the United States is the shining city on the hill, the last best hope of mankind, will always trump “mere” economic data or geostrategic trends. If God is on our side, then history must be too. To think otherwise is to betray the American project. Thus, Secretary Clinton’s speech was very much in the tradition of Khrushchev’s burial warning.
The language of Clinton’s speech may have been contemporary, particularly in its conflation of technology with liberty, but there was hardly anything new about it. The conviction that promoting democracy internationally is or should be an irreducible element of American foreign policy dates back at least to Woodrow Wilson and in some important ways to Abraham Lincoln. Even before that, journalist John L. O’Sullivan, who coined the term “Manifest Destiny” in 1845, asserted that the historic mission of the United States was “to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man.” This is not to say that the role of democracy promotion has not changed radically over the past hundred years. To the contrary, Wilson promised that U.S. entry into World War I would make the world “safe for democracy.” A generation later, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised that once dictatorship in Europe and Asia had been defeated (the dictatorship that was British and French colonialism got nary a mention), the global order would be refounded on the basis of what FDR called “the four freedoms”—in other words, democracy building as a sustained process, rather than a desired end state of a war. The idea of democracy building through military occupation came into its own when deployed by the United States during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, not as a lofty goal but as one of the most important nonmilitary methods of prosecuting that war.
IN THE 1950s and 1960s, this democracy-promotion project began modestly, largely taking the form of covert CIA funding for cultural projects channeled through philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation (usually without the knowledge of the writers and artists concerned). These included setting up highbrow magazines such as Encounter in Britain, Der Monat in Germany and Preuves in France. It also involved establishing the Congress for Cultural Freedom, designed to marshal the forces of the anticommunist and anti-Soviet Left against the Western European cultural elite (Picasso and Sartre, for example) that continued to either sympathize with communism or take a neutral stance. Painting was a particularly important battleground, and throughout the 1950s the CIA sponsored exhibitions of American abstract expressionist painters, the most important of whom were Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. The young Nelson Rockefeller, who helped organize many of these exhibitions through the Museum of Modern Art in New York, all but gave the game away when he called abstract expressionism “free enterprise painting.” And Tom Braden, head of the CIA’s International Organizations Division at the time, later recalled:
We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had.
Braden was not being boastful. Joseph Nye may have invented the term “soft power” in 1990 as shorthand for ways in which American power could be recalibrated to meet the challenges of the post–Cold War world. But democracy promotion appears to be the prototypical example of soft power almost a full half century before Nye’s coinage, and its success in turning the cultural tide is no mere figment of the hard Left’s imagination. This should not be surprising. The Cold War was precisely that, cold, and sustained military action took place almost exclusively at the periphery of the American and Soviet empires—Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, Central America, Congo and the Horn of Africa. Instead, it was fought largely through economic competition and in a global contest for hearts and minds in which the essential question was whether communism or liberal capitalism would be embraced by the emerging nations of the postcolonial world. How else should a war in which the two main belligerents were not shooting at each other be fought except with soft power—or, if one prefers the grander formulation, through ideas, literature and art? To paraphrase Clausewitz, in such a context culture is the continuation of war by other means.
However horrified many of the writers and artists were who had unknowingly been the beneficiaries of the CIA’s largesse (some were while others pretended to be), in Cold War terms this form of democracy promotion made a great deal of tactical sense. And in the 1970s and 1980s, with the appeal of Soviet-style communism almost entirely a thing of the past, American democracy promotion was increasingly focused on supporting political and cultural dissidents within the Warsaw Pact countries. This project, too, was immensely successful, and some of the most important Eastern bloc dissidents—including Vaclav Havel, the great Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and many more—were immensely grateful. The dissidents didn’t “create” the events of 1989, but they were its vanguard, to use an old Marxist term. American support helped Havel hang on until history confirmed his intuition that, as he would later put it, “seemingly unshakable totalitarian monoliths are in fact sometimes as cohesive as proverbial houses of cards, and fall just as quickly.” And the European experience demonstrated that democracy promotion could actually contribute to U.S. victories such as the Cold War.
Thus, for Washington to have failed to employ the strategy of democracy promotion would have been foolish in the extreme. Ronald Reagan characterized the early 1980s as ushering in a “worldwide democratic revolution,” and his administration in 1983 formalized these efforts with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its four subsidiary organizations: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Center for International Private Enterprise and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity. At this point, the actual term “democracy promotion” came into widespread use. None of this was particularly admirable. Indeed, some of the effects of this democracy promotion were unquestionably malign, others merely sordid. But war is a sordid business, and the rationale for the steady buildup of U.S. democracy-promotion efforts throughout the Cold War made perfect sense then and still makes sense in retrospect.
THE QUESTION today, however, is why, a full two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, American government agencies, major philanthropies and NGOs—notably the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the NED and its subsidiaries, Freedom House and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations—still push for democracy-promotion expansion.
And this expansion has been prodigious. Of USAID’s seven stated strategic goals, in 2011 it allocated $17 billion (or 55 percent of the total State Department and USAID foreign-assistance budget) to the third of these goals, which it defined as being to “expand and sustain the ranks of prosperous, stable and democratic states by promoting effective, accountable, democratic governance; respect for human rights; sustainable, broad-based economic growth; and well-being.”
Obviously, a great deal of this money went to economic development, global health and nutrition. Still, the substantial proportion committed to democracy promotion and the centrality that secretaries of state during the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations have given these efforts in U.S. foreign policy suggest that confidence in democracy promotion remains unshaken in Washington—despite the reverses this outlook has suffered in the battle spaces of the “long war” and the problems emanating from what George W. Bush liked to call the “global freedom agenda.”
Yet this powerful faith and commitment should not be accepted as dispositive. It is reasonable in 2012 to ask whether democracy promotion can legitimately be described as a coherent doctrine at all and to wonder whether it can ever recover from the shocks it has undergone since the heady days of the Berlin Wall’s fall. Most American policy makers and human-rights activists may believe that history is on their side, but for the first time since the Soviet collapse their efforts are encountering serious resistance not only from resurgent states such as Russia and emergent powers such as China but also from many nations in the Global South. For these countries, the democracy promoters’ claims sound more like moral flags of convenience to further U.S. interests than disinterested efforts in the name of the global public good.
After all, the George W. Bush administration used the democracy agenda to justify its Iraq invasion and the global prosecution of its long war against jihadis. The perception that the United States wasn’t exactly the paragon of the democratic norms it preached called into question the moral bona fides of the entire project. This questioning emerged even in the United States. But, even before these contradictions were widely perceived by American policy makers as constituting a potential threat, democracy promotion was becoming the victim of its own success. There is a business-school adage that the greatest danger a successful corporation faces is expanding too fast. That is what occurred with democracy promotion, for reasons that were as convincing at the time as they are foolish in retrospect. The collapse of the Soviet Union, though hardly as inevitable as commonly assumed, seemed to many intelligent people, including Washington policy makers, to confirm the rightness of the democracy agenda. This silly season of post–Cold War triumphalism endured through the Clinton administration and, more surprisingly, lingers on today, as seen clearly in the policy positions of Secretary Clinton’s State Department and the renewed emphasis on democracy promotion within USAID.
In fairness, how could the United States’ Cold War victory not have distorted people’s perceptions? Wasn’t this victory and America’s emergence as the globe’s sole superpower a vindication of its form of social organization? But the Iraqi disaster and the quagmire in Afghanistan would prove that, while in terms of military assets the United States was now unparalleled, it was nonetheless still incapable of shaping events in accordance with its wishes. Besides, the dysfunctionality of the American political system that began under George W. Bush and intensified under Barack Obama damaged the belief that American democracy was without equal in the world. Despite Secretary Clinton’s foolhardy statements, the success of authoritarian capitalism in China, particularly when contrasted with the Western financial crisis, has raised the question of whether the United States has either the means or the moral authority to engage in democracy promotion on a global scale.
But in the 1990s, all this was in the future. Then, it seemed perfectly reasonable to think that all nations would soon be liberal democracies and that the U.S. mission was to get them there as quickly as possible. To help facilitate this outcome, democracy promotion in the 1990s focused largely on what often were called transition initiatives—that is, the shepherding of formerly communist countries and the less ideologically defined dictatorships in the Global South toward Fukuyama’s promised land. Where successor regimes were not willing to sign on, the United States and certain private groups (notably the Soros Foundations in Georgia) threw their weight and money behind opposition figures eager to do just that. Not surprisingly, in an economically successful tyranny such as China or a politically effective tyranny such as Putin’s Russia, Washington’s idea of the democracy transition was viewed as “regime change.” It is difficult to say whether Washington was simply oblivious to these concerns or felt so confident it held the geopolitical whip hand that it did not need to heed them. Perhaps it simply was convinced, as reflected in confident statements by American politicians and democracy-promotion activists, that Russia and China too would simply have to join President Clinton’s “world of democracies.”
This hubris should not be surprising. To be sure, the 1990s are not usually regarded as a time of ideological fervor in the United States. Bill Clinton’s presidency is widely viewed as a time of comparative comity (leaving aside the impeachment crisis). But ideological fervor fueled the idea that we were all witnessing the birth of a world in which practically everyone on the planet would live under the same political and economic system. There certainly was no historical basis for such a vision. What emerged was what must be called a missionary zeal for the universalization of democracy curated by the United States. Democracy became as much a faith as a system, and in promoting it governments and NGOs were performing the secular equivalent of the Lord’s work. The force of the comparison between post–Cold War democracy promoters and Christian missionaries of old lies in their confidence that each of their systems—Christianity for the missionary, democratic capitalism for the democracy promoter—is not an answer but the answer.
Thus, Christianity was not some “idea” about which reasonable people could differ. The missionaries saw it as offering the truth, pure and simple. Proponents of democracy building, which itself is best viewed as one subset of the international human-rights movement, do not literally believe themselves to be preaching God’s word. But it was not for nothing that many people both within and outside the human-rights movement have described it as a secular religion. And this heady mixture of Fukuyama, Human Rights Watch and the Soros Foundations stirred in the democracy-promotion movement a moral confidence as robust as that of any member of the White Fathers order in Kenya or Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in China—that is, fallible perhaps on details but infallible on the essential dogma.
Such a comparison with missionary activity would be rejected by most contemporary democracy promoters, not least on the grounds that, as the mission statement of the NDI puts it on its website, the organization
does not presume to impose solutions on local partners. Nor does it believe that one democratic system can be replicated elsewhere. Rather, NDI shares experiences and offers a range of options, so that leaders and activists can select those practices and institutions that may work best in their own circumstances.
But there is something more than a little disingenuous about such an assertion. Indeed, it is somewhat reminiscent of the old Argentine joke about the dictator Juan Perón who, when informed about a particularly bitter and divisive political issue that was convulsing the country, observed that the rival groups, whatever their differences, were at least all Peronists. The NDI’s assertion that it holds no brief for any particular democratic system cannot be taken at face value. For either this means its leaders would accept a decision by a country to opt for a totalitarian regime such as China’s, in which case they are not in fact committed to promoting democracy, or they are saying that within the context of democratic capitalism, Western-style property rights and legal norms, and so on, they have no wish to take a stand on which variant is best suited for a particular country. In that case, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker’s line about the emotional range of Katherine Hepburn’s acting, they are open to the entire gamut of political possibilities . . . from A to B.
When the NDI says it is above politics, it really means party politics.1 But this amounts to making the claim that, while democracy may be the frame of politics, it is not political per se—a ludicrous claim in philosophical terms, however convenient.
IN ANY case, whether or not the advocates of democracy promotion within and outside of government recognize it, such claims to altruism ring hollow to many outside the United States. One of the most important trends of the past decade, largely unrecognized in Washington, is the renaissance of the strong state in countries of the Global South such as Rwanda, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka. In the 1980s and 1990s, freewheeling groups such as Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee could operate in many parts of the world almost entirely as they saw fit. But now, even in war zones and during refugee emergencies, local authorities largely have the upper hand. Thus, while Washington may complain that populist leaders such as Hugo Chávez or autocrats such as Vladimir Putin are resisting outside democracy-promotion efforts because such activities threaten their hold on power, the days are long gone when democracy promotion under Washington’s aegis enjoyed a tremendous amount of leeway.
The strongest example of this pushback occurred this September 19, when Russia ordered USAID to permanently halt all its operations and programs in the Russian Federation within ten days. The Putin regime’s justification for this de facto expulsion order, which appears to be the first of its kind in any major country, was, as the Russian foreign ministry’s statement put it, “because the work of the agency’s officials far from always responded to the stated goals of development and humanitarian cooperation. We are talking about attempts to influence political processes through its grants.”
The U.S. State Department’s outraged reaction to the news was a case study in the hypocrisy and confusion that have attended post–Cold War democracy promotion from the start. Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declared that the United States remained “committed to supporting democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.” She added defiantly that Washington looked forward to “continuing our close cooperation with Russian non-governmental organizations.”
It is perfectly legitimate for the Obama administration to oppose the Putin government and to favor dissident groups like Memorial, the election-monitoring NGO Golos and other organizations that oppose the Putin regime. But it is absurd to pretend that, in doing so, Washington is not meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. Vladimir Putin may be everything his adversaries in the democratic Russian opposition say he is, but the fact that he is bad does not mean he is wrong. USAID has been funding groups that would like to see a different and more democratic government in the Kremlin. For Washington to express indignation that this dictatorship is not prepared to let America continue underwriting its enemies really tells you all you need to know about the self-delusional sense of arrogant entitlement that pervades the democracy-building project.
SOONER OR later, Washington will recognize that the global rules of the game have changed, just as it already recognizes its inability to exert much influence over whether China democratizes. But American policy makers aren’t likely to reconsider their commitment to democracy. For now, democracy-promotion advocates are largely circling the wagons. The ablest of them, such as the brilliant Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment, readily concede the setbacks that democracy promotion has suffered. But they believe it can continue to be tremendously effective even in today’s far more difficult environment. It remains to be seen if this is correct. But American policy makers should be asking a different question: whether the U.S. government’s commitment to democracy promotion still makes sense in terms of national interest. We will never know if George Soros was correct when he claimed that in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse, there existed the possibility to bring a universal open society into being. But it is clear that this moment, if it ever existed, is now past. In a world where history has emphatically not ended, where there are a number of competing economic models that will have to coexist and there is no global democratic consensus, why does democracy promotion remain a major foreign-policy priority for the United States?
During the Cold War, the utility of democracy promotion was clear: it was a weapon in that conflict. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, it was possible to believe a new world order curated by the United States might actually come into being. Then, pursuing democracy promotion was an entirely rational decision for policy makers, for it would have strengthened that world order. But now, when the new world order has turned out to be a chimera, why continue to pursue a policy configured for other times and other conditions? It is true that, historically, the United States has had a revolutionary conception of its role in the world. But particularly given its straitened circumstances, is it wise for the United States to pursue the missionary agenda it has pushed at particular times in the past? Again, consider the Russian Federation. In some parts of the world, U.S. and Russian interests are at odds; in other parts of the world, they have interests in common. Under these circumstances, what is the national-interest rationale for supporting the internal opposition to the Putin regime and insisting that whatever happens, this support will continue? There is a term for that project: regime change. And the fact that it is being undertaken through peaceful means rather than military expeditions changes nothing about the desired end state of the democracy-building project.
The Russian case is certainly going to be only the first of many. Understandably, the rise of China and the relative decline of the United States have unsettled the American policy establishment. And Washington has no experience dealing with successful pushback to its democracy-building ambitions and doubtless is scrambling to figure out what to do. In times of uncertainty, people’s first instinct often is to carry on as if nothing has changed. If Washington’s continued reliance on democracy promotion is an emblem of this, it would be entirely understandable. But this does not make it any less unwise.
David Rieff is the author of eight books, including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2003) and At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
1 It is important to state here that in this sense, Republicans and Democrats in the United States, and Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and, most importantly, Eurocrats in Europe, are all small “l” liberals, whose disputes over democracy and human rights internationally, however bitterly engaged in, are more illustrations of Freud’s idea of the narcissism of small differences than they are of serious ideological conflict.