Democracy promotion: aim lower?



U.S. interests and values, particularly when it comes to transforming the governance and political institutions of other countries, are almost always at odds with one another, according to veteran foreign policy operatives Aaron David Miller and David Sokolsky. Not only does America lack the capacity to reconcile them, but it also may not always be prudent to try, they write for the American Interest:

First, American exceptionalism, particularly when it comes to exporting our values and way of life to others, stops at the water’s edge. The values we proclaim may well be universal in the abstract, but they are also a unique product of our history, geography, and political system. They are not made for export….

Second, this magical thinking—that either through persuasion or pressure the United States can shape or influence in any fundamental way how other governments treat their own citizens and minorities—also reflects a galactic misunderstanding of authoritarianism. Whether it’s the acquiescent authoritarians like those of Saudi Arabia or the adversarial ones such as those ruling Iran, the prime objective of the rulers is to guarantee their own tenure and literal survival. U.S.-fostered democracy promotion threatens the system that perpetuates their power and privileges. …

Third, human rights doctrines that seek to straitjacket the United States into behaving consistently deny a great power the flexibility it requires to deal with the world as it is. And foreign policy in that world is necessarily filled with inconsistencies and anomalies that can’t be reconciled with cookie-cutter slogans that don’t take into account diverse and singular U.S. interests….

Fourth, it is neither virtuous nor smart to articulate unrealistic doctrines or unattainable goals that allow the gap between our rhetoric on democracy and human rights and our actions to become so large that our credibility is swallowed by the void separating the two. … Given the extreme difficulty the United States has experienced in spreading democracy, the solution to closing this gap is not to double-down on our democracy commitments but to temper our ambitions and act with greater restraint.

The spread of democracy is in the U.S. interest,” they add:

Our values are ultimately our interests. But we need to promote them in more measured ways and with the lowest of expectations. As one democracy expert has observed, the most effective approach is to pursue “good enough governance,” which prioritizes security, the delivery of basic services, and economic growth over the promulgation of democratic practices, which the United States has zero chance of implementing.


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