Democracy, Human Rights, and American Foreign Policy

Project Expert

Elliott Abrams

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

About the Project

What role should the promotion of democracy and human rights play in U.S. foreign policy? Over the last decade, human rights groups have documented a decline in freedom around the world. In some countries, such as Venezuela and Egypt, elected leaders used democracy to get into power and then abused that power; in others, such as Russia, autocrats have simply acted more forcefully against their opponents. The United States must weigh the importance of promoting democracy and respect for human rights, and determine what tools are most effective in doing so.

In my experience, firm presidential leadership and pressure work better than the human rights and democracy promotion programs of USAID, the State Department, and other U.S. government bodies in affecting foreign governments' behavior. The nongovernmental and civil society organizations that Washington supports abroad seem to protest more effectively than they build. Strong democratic political parties are essential for advancing political change. How should the United States help democratic activists build them? Can it help protect such people while they work for democracy in dangerous settings? These are issues I address in occasional writings.

I am also beginning work on a book that will address the role that promotion of democracy and human rights has played in U.S. foreign policy since the American Revolution. The belief that foreign entanglements might endanger the American experiment with liberty has coexisted with the view that universal principles underlay our political system—and that the fate of democracy beyond the shores of the new nation mattered for its own security. Realpolitik and democratic principles often clashed, and views changed as the United States grew from endangered experiment into superpower. The book will begin with the views of the Founders and end with the current post-Cold-War period.