Why advancing democracy matters


The crisis and ‘democratic deconsolidation’ in Venezuela is a glaring demonstration of the value and necessity of democracy promotion as a foreign policy objective, according to The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin.

“Everything we do to foster democracy in emerging states is an investment in national security,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told Rubin.

“Democracies make better partners for peace and prosperity. Renouncing our commitment to work for the values we hold dear would be a dangerous abdication of U.S. leadership, making our world less safe by destabilizing global security,” he added. “From the Arab Spring to Venezuela and Washington, we can’t forget the fight for democracy requires more than a Twitter account and the adoption of a few budgetary changes.”

Contrary to the mistaken conflation of democracy assistance with coercive forms of ‘regime change’, democracy promotion in the form of “pressure directed at undemocratic adversaries, support for those persecuted by undemocratic states and reinforcement for besieged pro-democratic leaders in struggling democracies — is an alternative to force, a key element of ‘soft power’,” says Rubin.

Providing assistance and practical solidarity to democrats striving to nurture democratic values and institutions does not amount to ‘exporting democracy’, argues Cliff May, who heads the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“I think it would be a great mistake for the U.S. government to give the appearance that it no longer values democracy. That should not be confused with harboring the conceit that we can export democracy.” He adds, “We should support democrats, those fighting for freedom and human rights. If we don’t, who will?”

Michael Abramowitz of Freedom House adds: “America should stand up for both its interests and its values. We will be safer and more prosperous if we live in a world governed by democracies, and we should make democracy support a central goal of our foreign policy.”

A foreign policy driven by ‘principled realism’ is still consistent with advancing democracy, Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams argues in a new book.

“Balancing ideals and interests are inescapable for any president. The U.S. government is not an NGO,” notes Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. But successful balancing requires a fair weighting for the value of America’s association with freedom, he wrote for Politico.

American International Nationalism?

While realism accepts the world as it is, thankfully Truman and Ronald Reagan did not think that way when they constructed the world they wanted, notes Henry R. Nau, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

For the first time since WW II, American nationalism figures prominently in US foreign policy. But American nationalism is not typical nationalism. It is republican not ethnocentric and embraces relative decline not empire, he writes for The American Interest.

Efforts to jettison democracy support as a foreign policy objective will be read by some analysts as confirming the United States’ retreat from global leadership. Last month, Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland delivered a remarkable address to that country’s Parliament. While Canada is “grateful” to its neighbor “for the outsized role it has played in the world,” she noted that American voters in last year’s presidential election were “animated in part by a desire to shrug off the burden of world leadership.” Consequently, US retrenchment required Canada to play a more pivotal role in defending and strengthening the international order from “strategic threats to the liberal democratic world.”

There remain powerful reasons to embrace and uphold the liberal international order, analyst Fareed Zakaria writes in a New York Times review of Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism:

Britain, a perennially Euro-skeptic country, has decided to leave the European Union. But that Union has grown from six to 28 over the past decades because dozens have clamored to join. And they have done so for a reason. Consider the latest aspirant, Ukraine. In 1990, around the time they were liberated from the Soviet empire, Ukraine and Poland had the same per capita GDP. Today the average Pole is over three times as rich as his counterpart in Ukraine, and Poland is secured economically, politically and militarily by the European Union and NATO. It is not just elites who benefit from the Western order; it is primarily ordinary people.

The US should adopt a new Truman Doctrine, a muscular approach to combatting authoritarianism, instead of neo-isolationism, some observers suggest.

The geopolitics of democracy promotion

President Harry S. Truman. WikiCommons

For 45 years, the Truman Doctrine and strategy of Containment guided U.S. foreign policy through the Cold War, notes Will Moreland, Senior Research Assistant and Associate Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

On July 19, 2017, the Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings hosted Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Senior Fellow Robert Kagan as part of long-deferred public conversation on U.S. strategic drift in the post-Cold War era and the U.S. role in the world. Following the senator’s remarks outlining a Truman Doctrine for the 21st century, Kaine and Kagan delved into a discussion of U.S. strategy for the challenges of the contemporary world, Moreland adds:

For Kagan, Kaine’s new Truman Doctrine, casting the United States as an “exemplary nation,” risked missing the critical military role of the United States “in both Europe and Asia [after] decades of conflict and a cycle, a sort of unending cycle of conflict…the United States after World War II essentially put a cork in both of those conflicts by becoming, in effect, a European power and an Asian power.” While recognizing the senator had voiced concerns surrounding U.S. activity in the “backyards” of authoritarian powers, Kagan asked how Washington could decrease its involvement when American allies such as the European Union or Japan exist in that same space?

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