Everyone knows that since the days of George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda”, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the failures in the “Arab Spring,” Americans no longer support the promotion of democracy abroad. It’s too expensive, may mire us in foreign conflicts, and won’t work anyway, so there is no support for promoting democracy and human rights overseas.
Everyone knows this, but it isn’t true. That’s the remarkable conclusion of a new poll sponsored jointly by the George W. Bush Institute, Freedom House, and the Penn Biden Center. The poll studies Americans’ views of democracy within the United States, and support for it overseas.
Here are some of the findings:
The American public’s allegiance to the concept of democracy carries over into a belief that the United States should do what it can to support democracy and human rights abroad. Overall, 71 percent of respondents favor the U.S. government taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries [against 24 percent opposed]. By a 2–1 margin, 36–18 percent, Americans would prefer to increase rather than decrease U.S. government efforts to support democracy and human rights abroad.
Why this support?
Overall, respondents signaled much stronger agreement with arguments in favor of U.S. support for democracy and human rights abroad than with those against. A moral argument generated the most consensus. A 91 percent majority agrees that “we can’t control what happens in the world, but we have a moral obligation to speak up and do what we can when people are victims of genocide, violence, and severe human rights abuses.”
There were other bases for support as well:
Two other arguments received strong endorsements. An 84 percent majority agrees that “when other countries become democratic, it contributes to our own well-being.” And a 67–22 percent majority believes that “when other countries are democratic, rather than dictatorships, it often helps make the U.S. a little safer”—rejecting the alternative statement that “there is no impact on U.S. security when other countries move away from dictatorship and become democracies.”
There is even stronger support among college-educated voters: 80-17 percent rather than 71-24. That’s a narrower gap than many might have anticipated, and a 71-24 margin is very large.
I’ll admit that these results surprised me, but they are not anomalous. A Pew poll from 2009 was entitled “Historically, Public Has Given Low Priority to Promoting Democracy Overseas” but that is not how I would describe its findings. As Pew noted then, “The public does not oppose the goal of attempting to bring democracy to other nations. In July 2005, 60% said the United States should work to promote democracy around the world; 31% said the United States should not do this.” The reason for the headline was that Pew asked what Americans’ “top priorities” were for U.S. foreign policy. Unsurprisingly things like “protect against terror attacks,” “protect jobs of Americans,” and “stop spread of WMD” headed the list.
It was surprising to me that 21 percent of Americans actually called “promoting democracy abroad” a “top priority.” And in the Pew poll, as noted, 60 percent favored promoting democracy, just as in the 2018 study 71 percent favored it.
What’s the bottom line? These results show that a strong majority of Americans realize promoting democracy is good for the United States—even if they do not think it is our most pressing foreign policy goal. This means the key is leadership. A president can make promoting the spread of democracy a top foreign policy priority for his administration, as George W. Bush did, or he can largely neglect it as President Obama did and the Trump administration is too often doing. The American public has not soured on promoting democracy or forgotten that the United States benefits when there are more democratic countries.