Is America so bad at promoting democracy?


If you’re a dedicated Wilsonian, the past quarter-century must have been pretty discouraging, argues Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Convinced liberal democracy was the only viable political formula for a globalizing world, the last three U.S. administrations embraced Wilsonian ideals and made democracy promotion a key element of U.S. foreign policy.

Unfortunately, a soon-to-be-published collection edited by Larry Diamond and Mark Plattner* suggests that these (and other) efforts at democracy promotion have not fared well, he writes for Foreign Policy:

Success stories like the recent end to military rule in Myanmar are balanced by the more numerous and visible failures in Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, the obvious backsliding in Turkey, Hungary, Russia, Poland, and elsewhere, and the democratic dysfunctions in the European Union and in the United States itself. As Diamond points out in his own contribution to the book, nearly a quarter of the world’s democracies have eroded or relapsed in the past 30 years.

Even so, there are good reasons for realists (and others) to favor democracy while remaining mindful of the dangers associated with democratic transitions, Walt contends:

Stable democracies have better long-term economic growth records (on average) and do much better in terms of protecting basic human rights. While not immune to various follies, democracies are less likely to kill vast numbers of their own citizens through famines or ill-planned acts of social engineering, mostly because corrective information is more readily accessible and officials can be held accountable. Democracies are as likely to start and fight wars as any other type of state, but there’s some (highly contested) evidence that they tend not to fight each other. On balance, therefore, I think it would be better for most human beings if the number of democracies in the world increased.

The question is, however: How should we try to bring that goal about?


Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, where he directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Marc F. Plattner is the vice president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. Plattner and Diamond are founding coeditors of the Journal of Democracy and co-chairs of the Research Council of the International Forum for Democratic Studies.

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