Democracy Promotion Reconsidered

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

CAMBRIDGE: President George W. Bush was famous for proclaiming the promotion of democracy a central focus of American foreign policy. He was not alone in this rhetoric. Most American presidents since Woodrow Wilson have made similar statements.

So it was striking when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified to Congress earlier this year about the “three D’s of American foreign policy – defense, diplomacy, and development. The “D of democracy was noticeable by its absence, suggesting a change in policy by Barack Obama’s administration.

Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush frequently referred to the beneficial effects of democracy on security. They cited social science studies that show that democracies rarely go to war with each other. But, more carefully stated, what scholars show is that liberal democracies almost never go to war with each other, and it may be that a liberal constitutional culture is more important than the mere fact of elections.

While elections are important, liberal democracy is more than “electocracy. Elections in the absence of constitutional and cultural constraints can produce violence, as in Bosnia or the Palestinian Authority. And illiberal democracies have fought each other, as Ecuador and Peru did in the 1990s.

In the eyes of many critics at home and abroad, the Bush administration’s excesses tarnished the idea of democracy promotion. Bush’s invocation of democracy to justify the invasion of Iraq implied that democracy could be imposed at the barrel of a gun. The word democracy came to be associated with its particular American variant, and took on an imperialist connotation.

Moreover, Bush’s exaggerated rhetoric was often at odds with his practice, giving rise to charges of hypocrisy. It was far easier for him to criticize Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Burma than Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and his initial criticism of Egypt was soon toned down.

There is a danger, however, in over-reacting to the failures of the Bush administration’s policies. The growth of democracy is not an American imposition, and it can take many forms. The desire for greater participation is widespread as economies develop and people adjust to modernization.

Democracy is not in retreat. Freedom House, a non-governmental organization, listed 86 free countries at the beginning of the Bush years, and a slight increase to 89 by the end of his term.

Democracy remains a worthy and widespread goal, but it is important to distinguish the goal from the means used to attain it. There is a difference between assertive promotion and more gentle support of democratization. Avoiding coercion, premature elections, and hypocritical rhetoric should not preclude a patient policy that relies on economic assistance, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and multilateral approaches to aid the development of civil society, the rule of law, and well-managed elections.

Equally important to the foreign-policy methods used to support democracy abroad are the ways in which we practice it at home. When we try to impose democracy, we tarnish it. When we live up to our own best traditions, we can stimulate emulation and create the soft power of attraction. This approach is what Ronald Reagan called the “shining city on the hill.

For example, many people both inside and outside the United States had become cynical about the American political system, arguing that it was dominated by money and closed to outsiders. The election of Barack Hussein Obama in 2008 did a great deal to restore the soft power of American democracy.

Another aspect of America’s domestic practice of liberal democracy that is currently being debated is how the US deals with the threat of terrorism. In the climate of extreme fear that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration engaged in tortured legal interpretations of international and domestic law that tarnished American democracy and diminished its soft power.

Fortunately, a free press, an independent judiciary, and a pluralist legislature helped to hold for such practices up public debate. Obama has proclaimed that he will close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility within a year, and he has declassified the legal memos that were used to justify what is now widely regarded as torture of detainees.

But the problem of how to deal with terrorism is not just a matter of history.

The threat remains alive, and it is important to remember that people in democracies want both liberty and security.

In moments of extreme fear, the pendulum of attitudes swings toward the security end of that spectrum. Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus – the principle that detainees are entitled to challenge their detention in a court of law – during the Civil War, and Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese-American citizens during the early days of World War II.

When some of the Bush administration’s more reasonable members are asked today how they could have taken the positions they did in 2002, they cite the anthrax attacks that followed 9/11, the intelligence reports of an impending attack with nuclear materials, and the widespread fear of a second attack against the American people. In such circumstances, liberal democracy and security are in tension.

Terrorism is a form of theatre. It invokes its effects not by sheer destruction, but by dramatizing atrocious acts against civilians. Terrorism is like Ju-jitsu.

The weaker adversary wins by leveraging the power of the stronger against itself.

Terrorists hope to create a climate of fear and insecurity that will provoke us to harm ourselves by undercutting the quality of our own liberal democracy.

Preventing new terrorist attacks while understanding and avoiding the mistakes of the past will be essential if we are to preserve and support liberal democracy both at home and abroad. That is the debate that the Obama administration is leading in the US today.

Joseph S. Nye, a professor at Harvard, was rated by a recent poll as the most influential scholar on American foreign policy. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, (

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