America Between the Wars: The Future of Democracy Promotion

America Between the Wars: The Future of Democracy Promotion

One theme running throughout America Between the Wars is constant debate and struggle regarding the proper role of democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy. A tension over pushing democratic reform has long existed within both American liberalism and conservatism, and pervades each presidential administration discussed in the book. My question is: where will the next president take it?

Chollet and Goldgeier tell, for example, of neo-conservative dissatisfaction with George H.W. Bush’s lack of emphasis on spreading democracy, and of candidate Bill Clinton foreign policy adviser Tony Lake’s efforts to elevate the issue on Clinton’s agenda. Both administrations, like the current one, featured both idealist democratization-hawks and pragmatic realists competing for influence.

After talking during the 2000 campaign in terms of narrow national interest, the George W. Bush Administration ultimately made democracy-promotion a major pillar of its foreign policy. The view that terrorist extremism prospered amidst failed or autocratic states and the failure to substantiate pre-war claims about WMD or al Qaida links (leaving tyranny rollback as a remaining war justification) pushed democracy promotion to the fore of the White House’s agenda.

America Between the Wars tells of an “ABC” or “anything but Clinton” rampage in 2001 by the incoming George W. Bush Administration. Will democracy share a similar fate, tossed out with dirty bath water? Unlikely, but its advocates are back on their heels a bit.

With Iraqi and Afghan democracy teetering, Lebanon facing internal clashes, Hamas scoring electoral victories, politically-backsliding Russia reasserting influence over its former republics, and high oil prices propping up fossil fuel-rich dictators, democracy promotion faces a tough road. There is reportedly a competition for influence within the McCain campaign between neocon and realist advisers, though McCain has pitched the idea of a “League of Democracies” to both defend and advance shared values and interests. Obama talks of using an array of tools, including foreign assistance and public diplomacy, to promote democratic values and institutions — “We do need to stand for democracy” – but democracy promotion hasn’t featured prominently in his foreign policy platform. Either new president’s commitment to a democracy agenda may be tested quickly if, for example, Pakistan’s new civilian leadership doesn’t get its border regions under control.

I hope that a lesson drawn from the George W. Bush years is not that democracy promotion is hopeless or counterproductive but that it must start with a realistic assessment of American influence over foreign internal politics, and with leadership by example. It also requires focusing less on pushing elections and more on building transparent civic institutions, political parties and middle classes – all things for which traditional tools of U.S. statecraft are not sufficiently well-suited.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Democracy promotion smacks of the “civilizing mission” of the colonial period. Underneath were battles for resources etc which seemed to be the essential battleground. Chinese indifference to democracy in states where we would seek to export (or grow) democracy would seem to doom any such efforts over the next 20-30 years. The oligarchs have little incentive to do business with us as opposed to them. Of course, if we want to continue an authoritarian bent with coerced democracy approaches, we have to match resources with such an effort – something sorely lacking at this time.