How to Promote Democracy without Demoting U.S. Interests

December 22, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: Donald TrumpDemocracyInterventionismDefenseIraq

How to Promote Democracy without Demoting U.S. Interests

Conflating democracy with security was doomed to fail.


DURING THE 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump declared that many of America’s foreign-policy problems began with the “dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy.” As on a number of other issues, the president-elect’s dramatic statement broke from not only establishment views within his own party, but the dominant perspective of America’s political and foreign-policy elites. But what does Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism toward democracy promotion mean in practice? Should the United States abandon democracy as an element of its foreign policy? Or are there better ways to do the job?

The modern origins of America’s democracy-promotion efforts can be traced to Ronald Reagan’s 1982 speech to the British Parliament, in which he proposed a comprehensive effort 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.” A year later, Congress passed legislation establishing the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to implement this vision. All of this occurred during a peak period in U.S.-Soviet competition, when the NED was not merely a humanitarian project, but a weapon in America’s war of ideas against Communism.


When the Cold War ended, Francis Fukuyama and others argued that democracy had “won” the war of ideas and appeared to expect gradual democratization everywhere—the so-called “end of history.” Boosting democracy rapidly evolved into an instrument of American security policy. As President Bill Clinton remarked in his 1994 State of the Union address, “Democracies don’t attack each other. They make better trading partners and partners in diplomacy.” His successor, George W. Bush, went even further in his second inaugural address, asserting, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

They were mistaken. For one thing, conflating democracy with security was doomed to fail because ordinary Americans have never seen promoting democracy as a high priority—a quick review of annual surveys by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs makes this clear—and because the U.S. government could not and cannot quickly build foreign democracies. This week’s party building or media training will not prevent next week’s terrorist attack. The politicians and pundits who made such inflated claims did a disservice to the practitioners in the field, who know that building democracy can contribute to security, but takes generations to do so. Lorne Craner, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration and was twice president of the International Republican Institute, has observed that if a country is so troubled internally as to pose significant security challenges for America, it is probably not a good candidate for successful democracy-building programs.

Those justifying democracy promotion on security grounds likewise undermined support for useful—and peaceful—democracy programs elsewhere by linking them to unsuccessful and thus unpopular wars for freedom. A mere 17 percent of Americans surveyed by the Chicago Council in 2014 considered promoting democracy a “very important” goal of U.S. foreign policy—a precipitous drop from the 34 percent who expressed this view in 2002. This placed democracy promotion in fifteenth place among public foreign-policy priorities.

No less important, promoting democracy worldwide is, in fact, neither necessary nor sufficient for American security, prosperity or freedom. It is useful and preferable, but not essential, something demonstrated by over two hundred years of world history, since American independence. Moreover, America will be most effective at promoting democracy and enhancing its own security when U.S. officials do not link these two goals too tightly.

Recent experiences suggest that applying tremendous military, political and financial resources to accelerate democratic development hasn’t succeeded and may contribute to other dangerous problems. Occupying Iraq and holding elections hardly produced the glorious results advocates predicted. Instead, it led to unsurprising efforts by majority Shia to dominate Iraq’s politics, and equally unsurprising Sunni backlash.

Rhetorical and moral support, while satisfying, can carry not only security risks, but moral ones as well. In Syria, U.S. public support may have encouraged a small group of regime opponents sufficiently numerous to destabilize the country, but not to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, much less rebuild a stable and democratic country afterward. What many Washington establishmentarians don’t seem to understand is that when oppressive regimes break down and return to a Hobbesian “state of nature,” it is not the enlightened pro-Western democrats who rise to the top, but less savory types. This is especially dangerous where civil-society institutions are lacking.

Washington could also pay a price if U.S. leaders forget that democracies are not automatically peaceful or, for that matter, friendly to the United States. President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-American populism demonstrates the latter point. Given the rise of populism in some of the West’s strongest and most institutionalized democracies, including the United States, can policymakers expect that newer or transitional democracies will be immune from nationalist sentiment? Would a more democratic Pakistan be a closer U.S. ally?

Another reason to be quite cautious in placing democracy at the center of U.S. security policy, even rhetorically, is that nondemocratic major powers like China and Russia pay attention to what American leaders say. As a result, they view U.S. efforts to promote democracy not as benevolent global social work, but as an effort to enhance American security through the encouragement and exploitation of political tensions at their expense. Any American president who publicly asserts that the United States is promoting democracy in order to improve U.S. security will likely cause these powers to resist democracy promotion for exactly that reason. Russia’s 2016 “Foreign Policy Concept,” an official statement of Moscow’s international objectives, demonstrates this.

Of course, defending democracy is quite different from promoting it. Most notably, the collapse of friendly democratic political systems, especially in allied nations, could be quite damaging to U.S. interests. Washington should respond accordingly if it sees such threats. Likewise, establishing democracy promotion as a central element of U.S. national-security strategy, or a core component of America’s foreign policy, is quite different from taking practical steps to promote democratic governance in a manner consistent with broader policy priorities and available resources. The latter is fully appropriate and justified.

Why should America promote democracy? One reason is moral: many in the West believe that it can help others to achieve better lives. Even for Americans, democracy is a means, not an end in itself. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution states this explicitly, declaring the purpose of the document “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” There are good reasons to think that democracy can contribute to realizing the same aspirations elsewhere.

Another reason to promote democracy is strategic: while global democracy doesn’t guarantee security, particularly not in any absolute sense, some elements of democracy—especially the rule of law, separation of powers and accountability—can constrain the ability of foreign governments to use force and therefore contribute to international stability. Within states, the consent of the governed is a counterintuitive constraint on societies, in that it generally contains antigovernment sentiments within legally accepted parameters. Democracy’s “messy” political processes are, from this perspective, more ordered than they appear; they may not prevent terrorism or other political violence, but they do limit their attraction by providing other means to express grievances and seek redress.

THE REAL question is: How can the United States effectively promote democracy? I propose the following principles for consideration. First, for both moral and pragmatic reasons, America’s democracy promotion should concentrate effort where success is most likely. The moral implications inherent in inserting the U.S. government into another society’s internal affairs, processes and conflicts mean that America can justify such action only if it works or, at least, is unlikely to do damage. The potential costs and consequences of failed efforts at promoting democracy likewise argue against quixotic efforts. Conversely, reliably delivering what U.S. leaders promise to their own citizens, to the affected societies and to others observing American words and deeds will strengthen America’s international leadership and moral authority.

Concentrating on those countries in which democracy is most likely to advance has policy-relevant consequences. Among these is the second principle: promoting democracy without the active cooperation of national governments in the countries the United States seeks to democratize is inherently less likely to succeed and, as a result, should generally have lower priority than similar efforts in places where governments welcome U.S. involvement.

In practice, weak governments may tolerate American support for internal forces seeking their eventual ouster, which is what promoting democracy means for most authoritarian regimes. They are most likely to do so if opposition forces are also weak and the U.S. investment is insufficient to endanger regime survival. Stronger governments won’t readily accept external interference, however, and will see it as a hostile act. Accordingly, they will typically find ways to retaliate against domestic opponents (something quite common), U.S. or other international groups conducting this work (as in Egypt, for example) and wider U.S. interests (usually only an option for regional or major powers, like Iran or Russia), depending on their capabilities.