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Democracy Promotion as Policy

Discussants: Paul J. Saunders, and Morton H. Halperin
Updated: June 2, 2006


The Bush administration has put democracy promotion at the center of its foreign policy, linking the spread of freedom to the fight against terrorism. Democracy advocates applaud the emphasis on reform but fault the administration for inconsistency. Foreign policy "realists," meanwhile, say it is naïve and counterproductive to press crucial allies on reforms and risk harming relations that are essential to global stability.

Paul J. Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center, a former senior advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, and associate publisher of the National Interest; and Morton H. Halperin, director of U.S. Advocacy for the Open Society Institute, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a former high-level State Department and National Security Council official, discuss the merits of democracy promotion in U.S. policy in this CFR Online Debate.

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Morton Halperin Morton Halperin

June 2, 2006

There was much in Mr. Saunders' first posting that I agreed with and even more in his last, so let me conclude this exchange by both emphasizing the agreement and highlighting the disagreement as I understand it.

It is the task of outside analysts and activists to call for a consistent policy while recognizing that the activities of our government will inevitably be far from coherent and will reflect many interests. However, democracy promotion is most likely to have the central role it merits if we advocate for it rather than accepting the inevitability of compromise.

The United States does need to be careful about the verbal support it gives to those struggling for democracy. This is why here, as in other matters, we should be guided largely by the desires of the local civil society. Egyptians fighting for free elections and an independent judiciary are pleading for our support and urging us not to give the Egyptian government good marks. We should oblige. Iranian democrats, on the other hand, have quietly made it clear that our rhetoric about regime change is not helpful, and we should listen to those requests as well.

As regards to how we deal with Russia and China, I would draw a distinction between what we say about their own regimes and how we respond to their efforts to prevent us from supporting democracy movements in countries near them. It was the latter that I was referring to when I suggested that we can support democracy movements without it having a significant effect on Russia's willingness to cooperate on security matters. We should not conceal our hope that both countries, and indeed every nation in the world, will move towards democracy, but we should make clear that we accept existing governments and have no intention of trying to force change. At the same time, preferably through private American organizations with and without government funding, we should provide assistance openly and to the degree that it is lawful and desired to the civil society in both countries.

My reference to fear was to Mr. Saunders' warning about the danger of states starting on a path to democracy but not fully succeeding. We should have no fear of that. Not only because there is no evidence to support the alleged dangers, but because we owe this much to those struggling to establish democratic regimes. I agree that we should proceed with modesty and with the first goal of doing no harm. The problem is that it is not always easy to know what United States government actions will actually do no harm. I think the record is clear that we have done far more harm in the world by supporting "friendly" dictatorships than we have by providing support for those struggling to establish democracy. We should do more of the latter and less of the former.

Paul Saunders Paul Saunders

June 1, 2006

Mr. Halperin's response to the inconsistency of American democracy promotion efforts, like that of many other activists, is to say that U.S. policy should be more consistent in its application across countries. This is attractive as rhetoric, and even important as a general aspiration, but quite unlikely as policy. Who honestly expects that America's own unique democracy will ever produce a consistent and coherent foreign policy?

Increasing financial assistance to projects developing civil society and institutions essential for democracy would be constructive, as would giving more help to developing countries that make the right choices. Both approaches can make an important contribution to building democracy in countries that rely on U.S. aid. Verbal support can also be useful, if it does not recklessly encourage brave but vulnerable activists to count on Washington for more than we are prepared to deliver.

But not all countries need the United States. Regarding Russia, very few Americans would support giving Moscow a "free hand" anywhere. We should communicate our concerns about international conduct and domestic practices clearly. The same applies to China. But we must stay focused on achieving results rather than simply satisfying constituencies or making ourselves feel better about having "done something" that really does nothing. Our human rights dialogue with China has achieved more in private discussions than through megaphone diplomacy.

Major powers do base their decisions to cooperate with America on their interests—but the way we deal with them, and the way we talk about them, influences their view of whether they can cooperate successfully with Washington both on specific issues and in general. Also, while we share many broad interests with Russia and China—including in dealing with Iran and North Korea, and in the war on terror—our interests are not identical. Leaders who suspect that the U.S. wants to remove them from office are unlikely go one inch beyond what they themselves need, whether or not it is enough to satisfy us.

There are a variety of practical and effective ways to help build democracy and democratic institutions, both bilaterally and multilaterally, through training, exchanges, and other programs. It is neither practical nor effective to try to force change, and acknowledging as much is not giving in to fear—on the contrary, it demonstrates considerably more courage, morally, politically, and otherwise, to be honest with ourselves and others and to engage in this slow and patient work over the time necessary to succeed. It is that effort, not self-righteous rhetoric, that can change the world.

Morton HalperinMorton Halperin

May 31, 2006

Mr. Saunders puts his finger on exactly what we do wrong in democracy promotion. By focusing on the democratic shortcomings of states whose policies we do not like (such as Iran) and ignoring them in countries we are working with (such as Pakistan), we do undercut the credibility of our commitment to democracy promotion. The solution is not to reduce our commitment but to make it more consistent.

The United States can and should stand for democracy everywhere by providing the verbal and economic support that is wanted and needed by those struggling for democracy and by altering our development assistance funding so that we demonstrate a preference for supporting countries on the path to democracy.

It is precisely because those struggling for democracy face the brunt of the attack that we should be guided by what they ask us to do. When, as in Egypt, they urge us to speak out and to curtail assistance we should do so. When they urge silence and do not seek assistance we should respect that as well.

We should seek full cooperation with Russia in dealing with non-proliferation issues, but we do that by taking account of Russia's real security issues in Iran and elsewhere and not by refusing support to those struggling for democracy in Russia or in countries close to Russia. It is a mistake to think that we can buy Russian cooperation on Iran by giving them a free hand in what they consider to be their near abroad. It is a lesson we should have learned from the Cold War. The Kremlin did not cooperate in dealing with security issues unless it concluded that it was in its interest even though we did nothing to challenge its control in Central Europe.

The article Mr. Saunders cites from the National Interest simply gets it wrong. As I and my co-authors have shown in a recent book, The Democracy Advantage, democratizing states are, in fact, less likely to be engaged in wars of any kind than are autocratic states. (Among the many errors in that article is treating autocracies such Yugoslavia under Milosevic as a democratizing state.) If one uses objective measures of democracy and focuses on the recent past, the evidence is clear that democratizing states are better performers and contribute to international security. Complete success in the short run is never possible; the path to democracy will always be long and hard. It is never all or nothing, but we enhance our security by helping those in the struggle for democracy not by holding back in fear.

Paul SaundersPaul Saunders

May 30, 2006

The real question of democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy is not whether—the answer is yes—but when, how, and at what cost, both in absolute terms and relative to our other international priorities.

The United States cannot genuinely promote democracy everywhere at the same time. Thus we focus more on democratic shortcomings in some countries, like Iran, than others, like Pakistan. And officials try to make up for the cases they pass over with strong statements demonstrating our commitment to democracy elsewhere.

The problem is that other governments notice that despite our exaggerated rhetoric, we clearly make decisions based at least in part on other interests. Yet precisely because American officials justify so many aspects of our foreign policy in moralistic terms, others are left to wonder about our "real" motivations and to accuse the United States of hypocrisy and double standards.

U.S. treatment of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and current Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has certainly raised these kinds of questions in Moscow. Mr. Halperin may be right that we can accept the security risks of applying greater pressure on the Egyptian government, though some might dispute his assertion. But can the United States settle for less than full cooperation from Russia in combating nuclear proliferation, when the price of failure could be incalculable? And can the United States expect full cooperation from a government that increasingly views U.S. democracy promotion as deliberately hostile? A majority of Americans understand these trade-offs: A recent poll (PDF) by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 54 percent believed that "as a rule, U.S. foreign policy should pursue U.S. interests, which sometimes means promoting democracy and sometimes means supporting non-democratic governments."

Ultimately, as Mr. Halperin acknowledges, those living in undemocratic societies must be the principal agents of change and the proper American role is to offer patient support and encouragement. Moving beyond that—attempting to force change—often carries the greatest risks for those we are trying to help. Americans can decide to cut off Egypt, but Egyptians must shoulder the consequences. And anything short of complete success could be worse than the current status quo: According to a recent article in the National Interest, countries in incomplete transitions to democracy are involved in more civil and interstate wars than autocracies. Are we so sure that we can succeed? Can we make these decisions for others? If we want to build a road with our good intentions, we should be certain where it leads.

Morton HalperinMorton Halperin

May 30, 2006

Those who sought to impose democracy in Iraq, no less than those who sought democracy on the cheap in Russia, have unfortunately given democracy promotion a bad name. But we have learned the wrong lesson from these failures if we conclude that we cannot do better or that the United States should ratchet down its commitment to promoting democracy abroad.

The basic lessons we should take from the spectacular march of democracy since the end of World War II are that successful democracies are the most productive and cooperative states, and that each society must build its own democracy. We can assist this process if we are guided by those who are struggling to establish or advance democracy in their state—but we must, as Saunders suggests, be patient.

The most stunning success is in Europe, which saw first the consolidation of democracy in Western Europe and then, after the fall of communism, its consolidation in Central Europe. There is much more to be done before all of Europe is firmly democratic, but by continuing to offer a home in the European Union and NATO to those countries that make irreversible commitments to democracy we can strengthen the hand of democrats. As in Croatia, Serbia, and more recently Georgia and Ukraine, we can and should also provide, through a variety of mechanisms, the direct financial and other assistance that local civil society seeks.

Outside of Europe we need comparable mechanisms. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, which provides substantial aid to democracies that govern wisely, is an important step in this direction. The United States should be encouraging other donors, including the World Bank, to take a similar approach.

In the Middle East, as elsewhere in the developing world, the humility that Saunders rightly commends should lead us not to despair but rather to heed and support the growing number of democracy advocates in the region. We should stop providing assistance and legitimacy to authoritarian governments in the false belief that this will, even in the short run, increase our security or our prosperity. President Bush was right to proclaim that this bi-partisan American policy was misconceived and has failed. He was wrong to believe that invading Iraq would provide a magic bullet. A better place to have started would have been in Egypt, where democratic activists are struggling to end autocratic rule. It is not too late. We should curtail aid to the government until it institutes real democratic reform and we provide the support that the reformers seek from us—and we should be patient.

Paul SaundersPaul Saunders

May 26, 2006

Many proponents of democracy promotion seriously underestimate the ease with which we can promote democracy and overestimate the results we should expect.

This has led to a mismatch between our stated goals and the human, financial, and other resources committed to achieving them. It has also led to a focus on superficial elements of democracy at the expense of those that are more substantial and lasting. No one disagrees with the notion that in the long run, a world of democracies is desirable—but short-term miscalculations can be very damaging.

This is most painfully clear in Iraq, where Bush Administration officials appear to have massively misjudged the country's immediate post-war political environment with devastating consequences. In Russia, the goals-resources mismatch fuelled considerable disillusionment with democracy—which did not improve daily lives—and by extension with America. This skepticism only increased as a result Clinton Administration actions that undermined perceptions of our genuine support for democracy and human rights there.

Oversimplification of democracy's contribution to peace and prosperity also reinforces a tendency to see democracy as an end rather than a means to achieve even greater goals. Viewing democracy as an end in itself actually puts greater pressure on the U.S. government to deliver visible results, which in turn feeds the tendency to focus on events like elections rather than the process of building institutional machinery of democracy, which is far more important. But in ethnically, religiously, and politically fractured societies without strong institutions, like the former Yugoslavia (or Iraq), voting often empowers dividers rather than uniters, and can have explosive and bloody results.

This underlines the fact that while we know a great deal about how to organize political parties, print newspapers, and hold elections—and many American NGOs do this work quite well—we don't know (and sometimes don't want to know) the conditions in other countries well enough to understand the consequences of our actions. So we and those we are trying to help often face costly unintended consequences of uninformed decisions. A truly moral strategy to promote democracy should include a significant dose of humility and its own version of the Hippocratic Oath: first do no harm.

Promoting democracy is and should remain an important component of U.S. foreign policy. Ultimately, however, any administration's foreign policy success will be measured by two criteria: whether it makes Americans safer and whether it helps Americans and others lead better lives. Success will be judged by results, not rhetoric.

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