Realism and Democracy

American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring

A personal story of the development of U.S. human rights policy in the last forty years and an argument, both "realist" and principled, for supporting the expansion of democracy in the Middle East.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Read an excerpt from Realism and Democracy.

Foreign Affairs

Setbacks to political liberalization in the Arab world have caused the United States to turn away from support for democrats there in favor of “pragmatic” deals with tyrants in order to defeat violent Islamist extremism, explains Elliott Abrams. In his new book, Abrams warns that this strategy is dangerously shortsighted: “Our own interests are best served by Arab governments that are legitimate, decent, and stable and are able to combat extremism effectively.”

In Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring, Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, advocates for an American foreign policy that combines both practical politics and idealism in supporting those struggling for democracy and human rights in the Arab world. He argues that governments that rule through brute force, without any legitimacy in the eyes of their own population, are ultimately unstable and unreliable allies for the United States.

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Middle East and North Africa

U.S. Foreign Policy


Abrams, who has over four decades of experience as an American official in several administrations, examines the United States’ record of democracy promotion in the region and beyond, from the Cold War to the Barack Obama years. He makes several recommendations to U.S. policymakers:

  • Put promoting democracy and defending human rights back near the heart of U.S. foreign policy.
  • Ensure that the president and secretary of state, not career diplomats or lower-ranking officials, are seen as the primary sources of diplomatic statements and actions to make clear that support for human rights and democracy starts at the top.
  • Refrain from supporting and strengthening illegitimate regimes, and press for gradual but real political openings in Arab states that repress liberal, moderate, and democratic voices—forces that are a main bulwark against Islamist extremist ideas.
  • Recognize that assistance programs for nongovernmental organizations and “civil society” cannot substitute for top-level American political support and efforts to open political space for real competition.
  • Remember that a global belief in U.S. support for freedom remains an invaluable asset for the country.
Powerful and persuasive.
Joseph Lieberman

“Our principles and our security interests both suggest that we should be giving repression and tyranny far more effective opposition, and freedom and democracy far more effective support,” Abrams concludes.

A Council on Foreign Relations Book

Educators: Access Teaching Notes for Realism and Democracy.

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Reviews and Endorsements

[Abrams] has written a study of idealism vs. realism in American foreign policy from the Cold War through the end of the Obama years. The book is also, more specifically and more pointedly, a summary of the current debate over the proper role of democracy-building in U.S. policy in the Middle East. . . . Mr. Trump should read.

Wall Street Journal

In the fascinating introduction to this book, Abrams traces his intellectual development and explores the roots of his worldview. . . . Abrams forcefully rejects the argument that the so-called war on terror compels Washington to countenance Arab autocracies that join in the fight.

Foreign Affairs

What makes especially edifying anything that Elliott Abrams writes on foreign policy—in addition to his insight, intellect, and wit—is that thanks to his Democrat-turned-Republican political pedigree, he has been involved in almost all of these fierce debates since the early 1970s. . . . His account reflects an insider’s sensitivity, nuance, and appreciation of the human motivations that drove leaders at critical moments. . . . Despite his career as a bare-knuckled activist, Abrams’s history of human rights and democracy in modern American foreign policy is rigorously analytical and passionately dispassionate: a true tour de force.

Mosaic magazine

Elliott Abrams makes a powerful argument.

Jewish Press

Both a useful assessment of Arab Spring and what came next, and an insightful commentary on the nature of a world power and those who serve it.

Jerusalem Post

A convincing case not only that democracy can succeed in Arab nations, but also that the United States has a crucial role to play in making that happen.

Atlanta Jewish Times

Elliott Abrams has done the country another important service. This outstanding book reminds us that the enduring power of America is that, at our best, we see our interests as our values, and our values as our interests. Now more than ever, Americans and their leaders need to understand that support for human rights has been, and should remain, a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy. This book could not be more timely or more significant.

Senator John McCain

Elliott Abrams gives us a brilliant review of the fight for freedom, showing with clarity what works and what does not. But even more, he highlights the possibilities for progress that may be gained from a determined, long-term strategy advocating democracy and human rights.

The Honorable George P. Shultz

Elliott Abrams' Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Police after the Arab Spring is both a useful assessment of Arab Spring and what came next, and an insightful commentary on the nature of a world power and those who serve it. . . . The value of Abrams' book is his personal and professional honesty. He reports a convoluted journey on several sides of political issues, and shows his willingness to report the ambivalence/contradictions in the policies of the governments he served.

San Diego Jewish World

Drawing on his experience as a maker and an observer of American foreign policy over many decades and presidential administrations, Elliott Abrams offers a powerful and timely case for why the United States should continue working to advance democracy, human rights, and universal values in the Middle East—not just for instrumental reasons, but also as ends in and of themselves.

Senator Marco Rubio

A powerful and persuasive argument that realism as well as American ideals should lead us to support the struggle for freedom.

Joseph Lieberman, Former U.S. Senator from Connecticut and Senior Counsel, Kasowitz, Benson and Torres

Since the 1980s, no U.S. official has done more to advance the cause of democracy and human rights than Elliott Abrams. Here bringing his vast experience to bear on American policy in the Middle East, he makes a powerful, pragmatic case for promoting democratic reform in Egypt and other Arab autocracies. Sure to be controversial in the best sense—his arguments cannot be ignored.

Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, and author of The World America Made

America’s greatest asset in world politics is its association with freedom. Elliott Abrams brings unique experience as an American official who understood the power of freedom—and realized that an American strategy to advance democracy advances American interests. Here he explains how men like Scoop Jackson, George Shultz, and Ronald Reagan worked to support liberty and democracy—and how to build on their legacy today, including in the Arab world. Every official in the State Department should be required to read this book.

Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, human rights activist, and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union

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