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Promoting Democracy: The Whys and Hows for the United States and the International Community

A Markets and Democracy Brief

Author: Mark P. Lagon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights
February 2011

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Markets and Democracy Briefs are published by CFR’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy initiative. They are designed to offer readers a concise snapshot of current thinking on critical issues surrounding democracy and economic development in the world today.

Stakes in Democracy

Furthering democracy is often dismissed as moralism distinct from U.S. interests or mere lip service to build support for strategic policies. Yet there are tangible stakes for the United States and indeed the world in the spread of democracy—namely, greater peace, prosperity, and pluralism. Controversial means for promoting democracy and frequent mismatches between deeds and words have clouded appreciation of this truth.

Democracies often have conflicting priorities, and democracy promotion is not a panacea. Yet one of the few truly robust findings in international relations is that established democracies never go to war with one another. Foreign policy “realists” advocate working with other governments on the basis of interests, irrespective of character, and suggest that this approach best preserves stability in the world. However, durable stability flows from a domestic politics built on consensus and peaceful competition, which more often than not promotes similar international conduct for governments.

There has long been controversy about whether democracy enhances economic development. The dramatic growth of China certainly challenges this notion. Still, history will likely show that democracy yields the most prosperity. Notwithstanding the global financial turbulence of the past three years, democracy’s elements facilitate long-term economic growth. These elements include above all freedom of expression and learning to promote innovation, and rule of law to foster predictability for investors and stop corruption from stunting growth. It is for that reason that the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the 2002 UN Financing for Development Conference in Monterey, Mexico, embraced good governance as the enabler of development. These elements have unleashed new emerging powers such as India and Brazil and raised the quality of life for impoverished peoples. Those who argue that economic development will eventually yield political freedoms may be reversing the order of influences—or at least discounting the reciprocal relationship between political and economic liberalization.

Finally, democracy affords all groups equal access to justice—and equal opportunity to shine as assets in a country’s economy. Democracy’s support for pluralism prevents human assets—including religious and ethnic minorities, women, and migrants—from being squandered. Indeed, a shortage of economic opportunities and outlets for grievances has contributed significantly to the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East. Pluralism is also precisely what is needed to stop violent extremism from wreaking havoc on the world.

Evolving U.S. Policy

To say there are major interests in democracy’s “enlargement”—that central concept in both national security strategy blueprints of the Clinton presidency—does not settle what role the United States should play and what policy tools are appropriate. These are the questions not of why but of how. A look at waves of U.S. policy since World War II offers apt lessons.

After World War II, the United States played a significant role in deepening and widening democracy in Western Europe. The United States encouraged European integration to stabilize the West European democracies, and NATO was a bulwark within which Italy, West Germany, Portugal, and Spain democratized. Later, after the Cold War, the twin institutions of NATO and an integrated Europe together created powerful incentives for emerging East European democracies to join Western multilateral institutions.

Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, however, frequently led the United States to support illiberal governments. (President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s revealing quip about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza—“He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard”—too often became U.S. policy during the Cold War years.) Eventually, a consensus emerged in the 1980s—arguably President Ronald Reagan’s greatest legacy—that the United States had strategic interests in urging its autocratic Latin American and East Asian allies toward democracy. And so, in the 1980s, the United States supported land reforms in El Salvador that were deeply unpopular among ruling elites; facilitated the departure of General Augusto Pinochet as Chile’s leader; and pushed Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines in the direction of veritable electoral democracy.

After 9/11, President George W. Bush elevated democratization in the Middle East as a strategic priority. This apt aim, however, was undermined by several factors: the association of democracy promotion with military intervention in Iraq (which did not yield democracy with ease); the use of harsh counterterrorism measures that undercut the symbolism of freedom; the tendency to flinch when likely winners of elections were worrisome (such as in the Palestinian territories); and the failure to meet democracy rhetoric with action in places like Egypt and Pakistan.

The protests sweeping the Middle East in early 2011, which have so far caused  the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and rocked the government of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, are now confronting President Barack Obama with a familiar challenge. In Egypt, the United States appears to face a classic dilemma: how to handle the potential demise of a friendly autocrat in a strategically important country. On the one hand, President Obama is under pressure to offer more vocal support to those demanding democracy on the streets of Cairo and call for an early change of leadership. On the other, many argue that President Mubarak has protected American interests in the Middle East for thirty years, and there is no guarantee that a new democratic government in Egypt would do the same if the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood should be elected.

President Obama’s struggle to reconcile these pressures comes after he began his term distancing himself from Washington’s mixed democracy-promotion legacy. His failure to embrace Iran’s inspiring Green Movement in the summer of 2009—presumably to keep a door open for dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program—was a clear indication of the Obama administration’s more realist turn. Now several signals indicate greater comfort with the bipartisan democracy consensus of the Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush presidencies. These include President Obama’s 2009 Nobel Laureate address; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s unveiling of another U.S. fund to help besieged human rights defenders; and President Obama’s 2010 address to the UN General Assembly, where he said, “There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny.” A record of implementation now needs to follow these public statements, whether in Egypt or any number of countries where democracy is absent or at risk—and where long-term U.S. interests are abundantly at stake.

Questions of Means

These historical legacies help highlight the central questions of how to promote democracy. First, is democracy most legitimately and effectively achieved through U.S. or multilateral action? At times, this might prove to be a false choice. If the action of the United States (or another power) is truly in the service of the consent of the governed, rule of law, and fundamental freedoms as understood in the UN Charter, then it ought not be rejected out of hand. Yet multilateral action has more perceived legitimacy.

Second, is the use of military force or covert action justified to promote democracy? Sometimes military action may be necessary not just to facilitate or restore democracy, but to end a particularly inhumane form of autocracy. Military intervention in Rwanda in 1994 to prevent or stop genocide would have been just such a case. However, intervention should be a truly last resort.

As for covert activity, the United States conducted secret operations to help forces of democracy in Western Europe early in the Cold War and in Eastern Europe later. Some covert action was justified as promoting democracy when it was merely promoting anti-Soviet actors. Using transparent means to support democratization is best whenever possible.

One effective alternative to direct intervention that the United States has pursued is to engage and support civil society around the world. For a quarter-century, operated separately from the U.S. government and working through affiliates of the Democratic Party, Republican Party, Chamber of Commerce, and AFL-CIO, the National Endowment for Democracy has assisted civil society actors to establish or consolidate democracy all over the world. In addition, private foundations, often in partnership with government, have funded grass-roots organizations to help build civil societies globally as well. Support for indigenous, locally led movements is better than direct U.S. government action, whether civilian, military, or covert.

In the past five years, the United Nations has gone farther in actively promoting civil society.  In 2006, Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan launched the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF) to support an array of civil society organizations. Eighty-five percent of the funds are required to go to nongovernmental organizations rather than UN agencies or governments as implementers. Prior to UNDEF, a great deal of dialogue occurred in the UN about the importance of civil society to economic development and human rights, but the rhetoric was unmatched by empowering programming. UNDEF is beginning to change that. To date, its four rounds of grants have wisely funded a broad range of democracy's building blocks, including women's empowerment, civic education, and
anticorruption measures. Although UNDEF remains underfunded, it is a step in the right direction. President Obama was right to note in his 2010 address to the UN General Assembly that “it's time for every Member State . . . to increase the UN Democracy Fund.”

U.S. enthusiasm for democracy promotion has been shaken in recent years due to a number of political and economic setbacks. These include the turmoil in post-invasion Iraq, election results favoring extremists, growing doubts about the neoliberal economic model, and the rise of an alternative Chinese statist model. Yet the need for democracy is as great as ever, and the most effective means to encourage it are in plain sight.

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