The George W. Bush presidency dealt a severe blow to the U.S. policy of promoting democracy. The normative and the practical aspects of the policy are now both being contested, and pundits call for a thorough remodeling of the American “democracy bureaucracy.” The problem is much more complex, however, and reforming the democracy bureaucracy may be just a part of the solution. It is important to remember that the very democracy bureaucracy existing today has helped consolidate democratic regimes in former Soviet bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia for example.
After the Velvet Revolution, U.S. “democracy money” was helpful in fostering an elite of Czech and Slovak democrats and in introducing democratic practices to the wider public. The United States Information Agency (USIA) printed Czech-language brochures about the role of independent media and democratic governance; U.S. grant money was used to fill the practically inexistent political science libraries of universities and to found civil society organizations and think tanks – the necessary watchdogs of any democracy. In the lead-up to the revolution, Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America were an essential means for dissidents to organize amongst themselves and call for public demonstrations (similarly as the social media today).
The U.S. democracy promotion infrastructure was an important partner in the Czech transformation process and, in a way, still continues to be as the U.S. embassy in Prague sponsors numerous civil society initiatives. Although the Czech Republic may seem like a fully democratic state, the democracy assistance follow-up in a transformed country is equally important as democracy promotion in a yet-untransformed society. It will perhaps take another generation of Czechs before certain aspects of political culture that have prevailed from the communist era will be fully uprooted. But even though nostalgic memories about the merits of the old regime still exist – mainly among the older generation – the younger generation of Czechs is all the more vigilant about respecting democratic principles.
The recent expulsion of U.S. organizations promoting democracy and the rule of law in Egypt, Russia and even the United Arab Emirates is the symptom of a very negative trend – something that has come to be labeled as democratic backlash. This has implications not only for the development of democracy in the respective countries, but more so for U.S. soft power. The workings of USAID, NED and the international branches of the Republican and Democratic Party are perceived as meddling into the internal affairs of sovereign states; they are being labeled as spy agencies and accused of attempting to subvert the standing regime. This all nourishes government propaganda, which can “legitimately” be anti-American.
Nevertheless, the anti-American sentiments in Egypt or Russia that facilitated the decision to expel U.S. NGOs cannot be blamed solely on government propaganda. For over forty years, the thinking and the mindset of Czechoslovaks was fed by aggressive anti-American (“anti-imperialist”) propaganda. Yet, after the revolution, the vast majority of the population clearly envisioned where their country should be heading. The primary goal of Czech foreign policy was to “return to the West” – join the NATO community and become a member of the EU. Once these goals were achieved – some commentators argue – Czech foreign policy lost its guiding principle.
So why did Eastern European countries readily accept democracy assistance from the United States while elsewhere it is a problem? Was this because U.S. soft power was at its apex in the 1990s and the American model seemed so lucrative? If yes, was it causation or mere correlation of U.S. democracy promotion efforts? Or was it purely because the countries wanted to drift as far away from Moscow as possible?
Simply put, the Czechs explicitly sought to adopt liberal democracy and capitalism and thereby met John Stuart Mill’s prerequisites for representative government: “One, that the people should be willing to receive it; two, that they should be willing and able to do what is necessary for its preservation; three, that they should be willing and able to fulfill the duties and discharge the functions which it imposes on them.”
Are such conditions being met in Egypt, Russia and other countries where American initiatives promote democracy? Certainly not as explicitly as in the Czech Republic and other countries from behind the Iron Curtain. In the 1990s, the ouster of U.S. pro-democracy organizations from Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic) would be unthinkable since the public would understand this step as a reminder of the communist anti-Western stance.
A prosaic argument can be drawn from this: Democracy promotion works most effectively in countries where, prior to transition, the majority of the population unequivocally seeks the prospects of joining the Western democratic community – either because of security concerns or economic benefit, but it must also feel welcome to join. Otherwise, democracy promotion can backfire and serve as an instrument of anti-Americanism.
Hence, before future U.S. administrations lies an extremely difficult choice where American soft power is at stake. If democracy promotion initiatives cause, in some countries, democratic backlash, which in turn damages U.S. soft power, is it better to cease the pro-democracy efforts and allocate the funds and efforts elsewhere? But then, without the democracy aid, would all prospects for a democratic breakthrough in the given country be lost? How many missed opportunities for democratization would such a decision generate? In a similar vein, one can ask: What would Czech democracy look like today in a parallel universe, where the United States provided no support for democracy before and after the Velvet Revolution? Unfortunately, one can only speculate about the answers to these questions.
Democracy promotion has become a vicious circle and the only way to step out of it is to sacrifice certain moral principles and values that have guided the policy throughout the twentieth century. In other words, become more selective in democratic assistance. It would be instrumental to curtail support in countries where the general populace is hostile toward the United States and devote most effort to places like Myanmar or perhaps South Sudan. This may seem like a cynical approach, but in the end, it may have better results. American soft power may have more chances to regain the momentum it had in the 1990s, but lost (and continues to lose) during the war on terror.
Chinese soft power is still nowhere near that of The United States, but this may be slowly changing - in parts of Africa for example. As democracy is intrinsically connected in many minds with the United States, democratic backlash is also an expression of opposition to the U.S. (and the West), and consequently damages American soft power. This should be kept in mind for all U.S. engagements in the world, because U.S. decline starts not when China beats the United States in GDP, but when Beijing beats Washington in soft power. Moral hubris is thus the most dangerous threat facing the United States, albeit a threat it can fully control.
Jan Hornát is a Ph.D. candidate at Charles University in Prague and a Robinson-Martin Security Scholar at the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI).