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America & the World
Promoting Democracy
What role does this play in the US global agenda?

Support for democratic values and human rights have been prominent features of the US global agenda for decades, and properly so, according to a group of experts who discussed democracy promotion at the recent Stanley Foundation Strategy for Peace Conference. The following discussion summary is by Tod Lindberg, research fellow and editor, Policy Review, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; David Shorr, program officer, the Stanley Foundation; and Richard Weitz, senior fellow and director, Program Management, Hudson Institute.

Efforts to promote democracy around the world are yet another element of foreign policy made more difficult by the Iraq war. Bringing liberal democracy to Iraq was not the main objective of the military intervention in 2003, but it subsequently became a rationale for the continued US occupation.

Now, the ongoing violence and instability in Iraq and other aspects of the war on terror have tarnished the image of the United States abroad. And at home, the American people have grown cool to promoting democracy.

However, democracy promotion and military intervention need to be delinked. Placing the focus on military action to achieve democracy promotion is to argue from the most extreme and unusual case.

Principled Stands

Participants recognized democracy promotion must be weighed against high-priority strategic and security interests, tailoring the approach to suit different countries and situations. However, they also said that American officials should be able to faithfully adhere to three key precepts when dealing with nondemocratic regimes.

  • The United States should never break faith with its concerns about the undemocratic practices of foreign governments even as it engages those governments in pursuit of other objectives. Many concessions can be made to gain the concurrence of autocratic leaders; whitewashing their record on democracy and human rights is not one of them.
  • The United States should never be silent about its concerns. Democracy and human rights issues can be raised publicly or quietly, depending on the severity of the problem and what else is at stake in the relationship, but they should always be on the bilateral agenda.
  • Bilateral relations should not be conducted exclusively with national governments. The need for a full range of relationships in another country is one of the basics of diplomacy, but maintaining communication with democracy advocates and human rights groups is particularly vital in undemocratic countries. Such people can give insight into the problems as well as options for trying to improve the situation.

Some argue that pressing these issues jeopardizes bilateral relations and national security concerns, but most conference participants rejected that argument. The historical record shows that the US government can promote democratic principles in a country without excluding cooperation on other objectives of mutual interest.

Other Tools in the Toolbox

To underscore the point that forcible regime change is the most extreme means of trying to spread democracy, participants made an inventory of several less aggressive approaches. Current and future policymakers have a range of tools at their disposal for democracy promotion, both with regard to nondemocracies and emerging democracies. Some of the most prominent include:

  • Providing a positive example in America’s own democratic system.
  • Exchanges of students, scholars, and other citizens.
  • Technical training programs and other engagement with and support of key sectors (women, labor unions, legislators, civilian and military defense managers).
  • Expressing an interest in individuals who have been detained and otherwise harassed.
  • Material support for democratic elements (taking our cues from these people themselves).
  • Admission of new democracies into multilateral institutions that offer concrete benefits.
  • Strengthening cooperation and coordination with allies that are already established democracies.
  • Public and private diplomacy.
  • Reports and other periodic assessments to highlight exemplary countries and programs as well as identify continuing problems.
  • New conceptual frames for issues of democratization.

As an example of the last point, participants highlighted the Islamic concept of justice as an underexplored cultural value related to democracy and legitimacy.

Working With Others

Allies can help with democracy promotion. By pooling resources and drawing on unique advantages, countries supporting democratic principles can help shore up existing democracies and encourage the emergence of new ones. In other words, the United States can most effectively promote democracy when it acts in concert with other democracies.

US policymakers have the option of working through several different multilateral institutions to help promote democracy. Depending on their geographic focus and political-security-economic purposes, these intergovernmental organizations can offer very useful diplomatic avenues for democracy promotion. For instance, the African Union and Association of Southeast Asian Nations have recently given greater emphasis to upholding prodemocratic norms.

The United Nations, as the premier universal institution, with a long history of addressing human rights and democratic values, has certain advantages but also some liabilities in this regard. The recent establishment of the UN Democracy Fund underscores the organization’s operational capacity and role in solidifying international norms.

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The Spring 2017 issue of Courier provides insight and perspective on different global policy areas, including mass atrocity prevention in the Gambia and climate change agricultural innovation in Morocco. This issue also features a special look at the global order by Stanley Foundation president, Keith Porter; a feature on the struggle of a Somalian refugee hoping to resettle in the US; and a Q&A from our latest explorer award winner. The full Spring 2017 issue. PDF (1,151K) Subscribe for FREE.

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