Thomas Carothers is to be commended for having always been bearish about democracy promotion. While in earlier years he certainly hoped to see this system of government expand where it could, he never thought such transitions would be easy and was always concerned that quixotic efforts to force such promotions would come to grief.
That said, it is curious to see the extent to which Carothers understates the importance of democracy promotion in the Bush Doctrine. He presents "democratic regime change" as a tacked-on quality to the administration's approach to world affairs, not as the central priority it was in reality. He maintains that "the notion that democracy promotion plays a dominant role in Bush policy is a myth", finding instead that America was more motivated by a will to power (or an interest in oil) than by human-rights promotion. True enough, it was a bid for world supremacy that was basic to the invasion of Iraq, and this will to power camouflaged the administration's intentions admirably. From an early date, liberal internationalist rhetoric-including democratic-peace theory, democratic-transition theory and discussion of the term "sovereignty"-effectively stripped the Iraqi state of its legitimacy. The "realism" that Carothers evokes as the hallmark of Bush's agenda is more to be noted by its absence.
Carothers diminishes the role of democracy promotion in the substance of the Bush Doctrine with an appeal to timing. He suggests that the liberal elements of the doctrine emerged only as the legitimacy of the invasion of Iraq came to be doubted-once Weapons of Mass Destruction could not be found and domestic chaos and opposition greeted Operation Iraqi Freedom: "The democracy rationale took on paramount importance only in the months after the invasion, as the other rationales dropped away", he writes. Yet neoconservatives, who correctly claim authorship of the doctrine, were clear about the need for democratic regime change as early as the mid 1990s. And the doctrine itself, most notably spelled-out in the National Security Strategy of September 2002, was unequivocal in making worldwide democracy promotion a centerpiece of American foreign policy. Not only was American military superiority vaunted as adequate to wage the "Global War on Terrorism", but Washington also pretended that in fostering "market democracy", it had the recipe for reforming foreign states and drying up the wells of terrorist hatred of the United States. These elements of the Bush Doctrine did not follow the invasion of Iraq, but were securely in place in neoconservative thinking well before the attacks of 9/11-indeed, even before the election of George W. Bush to the presidency.
The academic debates in the 1990s yielded three important concepts that, when combined, created a doctrine of "progressive imperialism." The first, and by all odds the most important, was democratic-peace theory. This concept, which was verified by elaborate social-science methods, held that world peace could be best ensured by the spread of democratic governments. Democracies do not go to war with one another (especially when they have open markets), the theory maintained, and so there was a "Kantian moral imperative" to spread the benefits of the "zone of democratic peace" through an expansion of the "pacific union" against the Hobbesian world order, where war was commonplace.
But there was a problem for democratic-peace theory. Even if the expansion of this form of government was desirable, was it feasible? A second concept developed in the academy reassured liberal internationalists that it was. Democratic-transition theory argued that at certain historical moments great men possessed of great ideas could remake social orders. The 1990s was the decade of Pope John Paul II, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Kim Dae Jung and many other courageous democrats. What had happened after the fall of the Iron Curtain could be spread worldwide with far greater ease than an earlier generation of theorists of comparative politics had ever dared imagined.
And so a third concept was born of liberal internationalist jurists: that "sovereignty" should be redefined. Non-democratic states that amassed arms of mass destruction or engaged in systematic human-rights abuses were pariah regimes that could be attacked and, once conquered, reformed to correct their abuses. The so-called "right to intervene" became a "duty to intervene" or a "responsibility to protect."
In short, liberal internationalist arguments existed before the attack of 9/11 or the announcement of the Bush Doctrine that amounted to a "just war" argument for progressive imperialism. Liberal internationalism, or Wilsonianism, had "matured" during the heady days following the collapse of Soviet communism and now sought to bend the world to its ideals. The Democratic Party was as possessed of exponents of these ideas as the Republican Party was. The result today is that leading Democratic intellectuals remain as committed to most of the essential elements of the Bush Doctrine (American unilateralism excepted) as any neoconservative.
Carothers does not seem to have acknowledged these developments. To his credit, Carothers has always been more interested in examining cases of democratic transitions than trusting theory. But minimizing the importance of liberal thinking in Bush's foreign policy allows Carothers to remain optimistic about the staying power of the democracy appeal. Unfortunately, the reality is that human-rights and democracy concepts have been operationalized by billions of dollars from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy in a way that has discredited the entire enterprise as an effort to foist American power on other peoples, not to liberate them. The democratic project is failing to be as progressive as it once was, either in bringing about European union or in solving America's internal dilemmas. Moreover, the rise of alternative frameworks of government may eventually relegate liberal democracy to the sidelines to be replaced by some far more authoritarian blueprint, perhaps authored by the Chinese.
The liberal internationalist boat is sinking, and no amount of bailing it should be allowed to disguise this unfortunate fact. What we need is hard-headed thinking about how we made the mistakes we did so as not to make them again-not reassurances that all is in order.
Tony Smith is the Cornelia M. Jackson Professor of Political Science at Tufts University. He is the author of America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1994), and A Pact with the Devil: Washington's Bid for World Supremacy and the Betrayal of the American Promise (Routledge, 2007).