Democracy promotion: a strategic interest or ‘a four-letter word’?


Democracy promotion in one form or another has long been part of U.S. foreign policy, notes Adam Garfinkle, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. As American power waxed, its leaders’ capacity for idealist indulgence waxed with it, boiling to a crowning froth with Woodrow Wilson at Vera Cruz and then Versailles. The same impulses grew anew with the opportunities anticipated from victory in World War II, after which the democracy promotion plank became part and parcel of “the diplomatic theology of containment,” in William Inboden’s apt phrase, pointing to the culmination of democratic peace theory beyond the success of containment, he contends.

But for some decision-makers, democracy promotion is still a four-letter word, argues Brookings analyst Thomas M. Hill.

In its new strategy documents, the Trump administration identifies America’s central security challenge as the re-emergence of great power competition, according to Richard Fontaine and Daniel Twining, presidents of the Center for a New American Security and the International Republican Institute, respectively.

The National Defense Strategy highlights the loss of America’s competitive edge in every military domain, as great power rivals continue making major investments in power projection. But our country’s response to the great power challenge must go beyond building a stronger military. It also requires doubling down on America’s support for democracy in the world, they write for Foreign Policy:

Today the dangers to many countries’ sovereignty and security come not from a United States that spent the last decade retrenching, but from what the National Endowment for Democracy calls “sharp power” — foreign influence operations designed to subvert democratic institutions for strategic advantage. Effectively contesting the new world of great power competition requires the United States to work with a panoply of strong and confident foreign partners. Active U.S. support for better governance makes countries more resilient in the face of pressure from revisionist powers.

“The administration’s National Security Strategy, released in December, rightly highlights that failing states can destabilize entire regions,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Democracy programming is the United States’ best tool for strengthening its own security and economy by helping build vibrant, stable partners. Democracy programs, which make up only 0.05 percent of the federal budget, are cost-effective investments toward the administration’s goal of promoting peace and prosperity.”

U.S. strategic interests are advanced by reducing vulnerability to Russian aggression and malign influence; strengthening market economies and trade opportunities, independent media and democratic institutions; and promoting anticorruption and energy-independence, USAID contends.

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