The Democracy Crusade Myth

The Democracy Crusade Myth

Although it is unquestionably true that U.S. foreign policy is due for a serious recalibration, the notion that democracy promotion plays a dominant role in Bush policy is a myth.

Much more broadly, the administration has sought to support democratization in many countries that over the last few decades have experienced political openings and are now either wavering in their paths or moving shakily ahead. These include Ukraine, Georgia, El Salvador, Peru, Guatemala, Nepal, Mozambique, Ghana, Macedonia and others, especially in Latin America, the western side of the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. Such support usually consists of a mix of diplomatic advice and nudging, democracy-assistance programs and some pro-reform economic incentives. It draws on and furthers the institutionalization of a democracy-building capacity within and around the U.S. foreign-policy bureaucracy that has taken place since the early 1980s. Such efforts, though numerous and valuable, are generally very modest in scale and at best a helping hand, not a guiding force, in the political life of the countries they reach.

One noteworthy new arrow in the U.S. democracy-promotion quiver is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). By giving out substantial dollops of dollars to poor countries on the basis of their performance on a set of social, economic and political indicators, the MCC seeks to be a strong positive incentive for good policy performance. The pro-democratic content of the indicator set is limited, and some non-democracies have managed to become eligible for MCC aid, such as Morocco and Jordan. Nevertheless, the political indicators are part of the mix and do carry some weight.

The pro-democracy components of Bush's foreign policy are thus multiple and real. Yet they are subordinate parts of a broader policy largely structured along realist lines, giving the overall whole what could be called a semi-realist character. With a few exceptions, the pro-democracy components concern countries of lesser importance to the United States and basically entail a continuation of programs and policies put into motion by previous administrations.

Given the circumscribed role that democracy promotion plays in President Bush's foreign policy, why is the perception common in the United States that his policy represents democracy promotion on steroids? Of course the soaring rhetoric distracts some, who assume that if the president says something often enough it must be at least somewhat true. The main reason, however, is Iraq. For many people debating foreign policy in the United States, looking at Iraq is akin to looking at the sun-nothing else is visible. Although the administration's original motives for going into Iraq are still debated, the intervention as a whole is often discussed in the terms of the democracy-promotion framework in which the administration has wrapped it.

The rest of the world, in contrast, does not generally view Bush's policy as a democracy-promotion binge. Profound skepticism about America's stated pro-democratic intentions reigns widely. The many cases of the United States's embracing friendly autocrats-the fulsome praise for President Musharraf, the hand-holding with Saudi leaders, the toasts for President Nazarbayev-starkly undercut a U.S. rhetorical line that in other societies sounds transparently self-serving and profoundly hypocritical. America's own recent violations of the rule of law and human rights only complete this picture.

The sad, mildly ironic reality of the Bush approach to democracy promotion is that it may represent the worst of both worlds: It has soured people all around the globe, and many in the United States as well, on the very legitimacy and value of U.S. democracy promotion, despite having involved only a limited engagement in actual democracy promotion. The growing calls for a realist corrective, involving a backing away from democracy promotion, are misguided. Needed instead is a searching debate about how the United States can get back on track with what-until this administration-was the gradual development over twenty years of a U.S. approach to supporting democracy abroad, that while far from perfect and flecked with inconsistencies, nevertheless commanded bipartisan support at home and growing legitimacy around the world.

Thomas Carothers is the vice president for studies-international politics and governance at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is Confronting The Weakest Link: Aiding Political Parties in New Democracies (2006).