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Democracy, Realistically

Democracy, Realistically

by Author(s): John M. Owen IV

Is America's national interest served by the spread of democracy? Realist critics have repeatedly chastised the Bush Administration for its "utopianism", arguing that, in using American power to spread political liberty around the world, the president is at best wasting America's resources and at worst wooing disaster. These sentiments were clearly on display in the essay by Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson in the Fall 2005 issue of The National Interest and in the symposium that followed in the Winter issue. Many of the critics subscribe to the proposition that the promotion of democracy and the preservation of American power are contradictory goals; that the choice is either to embrace principle by promoting democracy (and paying a huge cost as a result) or to follow a self-interested policy and let other countries work out their domestic affairs with no guidance or interference from the United States.

In contrast, those who define themselves as "principled realists" (or "pragmatic idealists") believe that there is a close connection between the growth of American power and the spread of democracy. The United States reaps what economists term "efficiency gains" from the extension of democratic capitalism around the globe. Democracies conduct their affairs with a greater degree of transparency and reliability, making them more predictable partners for the United States. Because settled democracies do not fight wars against one another, America ends up with fewer enemies. As countries open up their economies, the United States gains more trading and investment partners. New democracies--particularly those in unstable regions of the world or those who find themselves located near powerful authoritarian neighbors--tend to forge much closer links with the United States.

The expansion of the zone of democracies since the 1980s is due in part to America's victory in the Cold War. The same expansion has in turn helped sustain American hegemony in the post-Cold War world. The consequences of the link between democracy and American power are profound. Realists must realize that preserving American power requires some democracy promotion. A democratic crusade--using force to bring liberty and justice to all without regard to cost--is never prudent, and indeed democracy promotion alone is insufficient grounds for a war. But the spread of free institutions has a rightful place among U.S. foreign policy goals, not least because it can serve the pre-eminent goals of national security and prosperity. This is why the United States has declared democracy promotion to be official policy since June 1982, when President Ronald Reagan announced to the British House of Commons, "The objective I propose is quite simple to state: 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."

Critics of democracy promotion are correct that, as Hamas's recent victory in Palestinian elections shows, abrupt free elections in authoritarian societies may produce anti-American governments. But stable democracy consists of institutions and culture, not simply an election certified by Jimmy Carter. And it is true that some advocates of vigorous American democracy promotion fail to appreciate that some countries lack so many prerequisites for liberal democracy that even the world's sole superpower cannot democratize them at acceptable cost. Indeed, although sometimes democracy can be promoted by force of arms, in most cases such methods appear imperialistic and lead potential democrats in the target country to resist the promoter. But critics of democracy promotion go too far when they imply an inescapable trade-off between doing good--promoting liberty--and doing well--safeguarding U.S. interests. Sometimes good things do go together.

Yet the link between democracy and American interest implies another dynamic that all sides of the debate must come to grips with. States anxious to limit or roll back American power and influence in the world understand this link. Not surprisingly, these countries are not helping the United States promote democracy in Iraq. Indeed, their number includes some of America's fellow democracies, who have been put in the awkward position of opposing the overthrow of dictatorial regimes they abhor. Stable, secure democracies do not need U.S. help and are less pro-American than new democracies whose regimes are more threatened internally or externally. Precisely because more democracies mean more American power and influence, democracy promotion will often be a unilateral U.S. action.

Overall, the expansion of democracy over the past three decades has been a net gain not only for the United States but also for the world as a whole.

The near absence of wars among mature liberal democracies--perhaps the most robust finding in international relations research today--means that democratic states need not prepare for war against one another. This allows them to invest resources elsewhere that might have been used on such preparations.

Democracies reap other efficiency gains as well. They are evidently more likely to trade with and invest in one another, which tends to raise their rates of productivity growth. More generally, their institutions make them relatively transparent and constrained, which in turn allows them to reach more efficient bargains with one another, with less hedging than afflicts relations among non-democracies. Thus they are more likely voluntarily to join and abide by international agreements than other types of states, and to form and maintain effective regional organizations that pool power. The most successful international organizations tend to be the ones that comprise liberal democracies: the EU, NATO, the OSCE and the OECD.

Taken together, these advantages mean that, broadly speaking, the more democracies there are in the world, the better off is each democracy. Of course, as Adrian Karatnycky argued in these pages in 2004, the fact that democracies form a sort of club, and a powerful and successful one at that, threatens authoritarian states to some degree. The non-democracies may respond by increasing their own military spending, forming alliances or otherwise threatening the democracies, and hence driving back up the costs of being democratic. But the expansion of the zone of democracy lessens the overall potential of non-democracies to harm democracies. Moreover, even an authoritarian state like China benefits, because the Chinese economy today depends so heavily on the prosperity of democracies (including the United States). Thus a "peace dividend" followed the collapse of the Soviet empire, allowing U.S. military spending to decline by more than 20 percent from 1986 to 1994.

So the United States gains each time a country becomes democratic. But there are tangible benefits beyond increases in economic well-being and decreases in security expenditures. The expansion of democracy over the past several decades has increased the number of American allies throughout the world. Most strikingly, the states of Central Europe, once freed from communism, quickly sought membership in NATO. Even democracies that do not seek a military alliance with the United States and that worry about unipolarity are unwilling to mount much of a challenge to it. Since most Latin American countries have embraced liberal democracy in recent decades, the United States has had few security concerns in that region (and, tellingly, it is only with left-authoritarian Cuba and Venezuela that U.S. relations are truly hostile). In Africa and Asia, U.S. relations with the democracies--including regional powers South Africa and India--remain cordial.

Essay Types: Essay