Brown University

The Pros and Cons of U.S. Democracy Promotion Abroad by Erin Brennan-Burke @ Brown University

The United States has historically viewed democracy promotion abroad as a foreign policy priority. From Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation to Congress in 1917 that “The world must be made safe for democracy” to Ronald Reagan’s reframing of global democracy promotion as a strategic national interest, there has been bipartisan support for the policy – especially since the 1980s. These efforts have primarily consisted of pro-democratic diplomacy in backsliding countries, more than $2.87 billion in financial assistance, and engagement with democracy-related multilateral organizations. On the ground, U.S.-funded agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy train political parties, observe elections, and push for independent media.

How has the Trump administration challenged this conventional wisdom on the importance of supporting global democracy? What are the pros and cons of the practice? How does the state of democracy in the U.S. affect our pro-democracy campaigns around the world? Ultimately, I argue that President Trump is correct to pull back because the worsening model of democracy at home means that the U.S. lacks the moral legitimacy to successfully promote democracy abroad.

The President’s “America first” rhetoric on the campaign trail has translated to a policy shift away from democracy promotion. The State Department is subject to deep budget cuts and intentional understaffing, and Secretary Rex Tillerson is considering removing the word “democracy” from its mission statement. President Trump has admired autocrats, shown a disinclination to condemn democratic abuses in places like the Philippines, and has stepped away from institutions such as the Organization of American States which promotes good governance in the Western Hemisphere. This reevaluation of foreign policy priorities requires an analysis of the competing arguments for and against democracy promotion.

The first argument in favor of American democracy promotion is value-based. If the U.S. cares about civil liberties and espouses democratic principles, the logic goes, then surely furthering democratization abroad is important. By enshrining democracy as a policy principle, America communicates an international norm to foreign citizens and regimes alike. The U.S. is often viewed by other countries as a trusted defender of human rights and opposer of authoritarian abuses, which elevates its global leadership.

But there is also a real-politik argument for democracy promotion abroad since the U.S. has vested interest in a politically and economically stable world. Transparent governments with minimal corruption and strong rule of law are preferable environments for foreign business investment. In addition, democratic institution-building in countries like Kenya strengthens regional counterterrorism efforts and decreases the necessity of direct U.S. military intervention. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis argued before members of Congress, cuts in State Department funding for development and democracy mean he “needs to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

Despite the conventional wisdom among U.S. officials that democracy promotion is a valuable foreign policy tool for moral and pragmatic reasons, there are multiple valid arguments against the practice. First, intervention in the governance structures of foreign countries may be neocolonial. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have recently coined “the democracy delusion” as this misguided belief that the U.S. can and should intervene abroad. President Bush’s nation-building wars in the Middle East and the CIA’s long history of covert interference in foreign elections have made many critics understandably wary of democracy promotion attempts.

As I discussed in a previous post about the 2017 Kenyan elections, democracy promotion can also cause more subversive forms of backsliding. Election observation has become a global norm and hallmark initiative of organizations like the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, but the practice often leads to strategic forms of manipulation such as opposition intimidation. Furthermore, international monitoring can legitimize undemocratic regimes because leaders like Vladimir Putin will actually invite observers to judge elections – partly out of the realization that refusal of such international scrutiny would be an admittance of fraud.

The final and most compelling argument against attempts to spread democratic norms is situational: the U.S. currently lacks the moral legitimacy to promote democracy abroad. Although America has a messy record of both promoting and dismantling democracy in foreign countries, the blatantly anti-democratic rhetoric of the Trump administration exposes the U.S. to a new level of hypocrisy. The President’s discreditation of the media as “an enemy of the American people,” unfounded belief in widespread election fraud, and attacks on the independent judiciary are used as a justification for anti-democratic behavior abroad. For example, the Libyan media has cited Donald Trump’s accusation of CNN as “fake news” to question the credibility of a recent report about migrant slave auctions in Tripoli. A spokesman for the Cambodian government has also used President Trump’s criticism of the media to threaten U.S.-financed radio stations ahead of the presidential election. As E. Gyimah-Boadi explains in the Journal of Democracy, illiberal policies in the U.S. give elected strongmen “easy justification for their own retreat from the principles and practices of democratic accountability.”

I disagree with the Trump administration’s belief that democracy promotion abroad must be sacrificed at the altar of “America first” priorities. In an ideal world, the U.S. would be active at encouraging global democratization and have the legitimacy to do so. But we must reckon with the reality that the worsening state of our democracy at home undermines our ability to successfully promote democracy abroad. Therefore, the decision to pull back from pro-democracy campaigns might be the best policy in our current climate.

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