Why junking democracy promotion would be ‘a grave mistake’


Democracy promotion has become associated with some of America’s greatest foreign policy failures of the 21st century, and it is increasingly seen as an unaffordable luxury in a dangerous world, argues Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Meanwhile, the return of a more competitive geopolitical environment, rife with great-power conflict and rivalry involving China and Russia, has generated concerns that promoting American political ideals constitutes a sort of strategic profligacy that Washington must now avoid, he writes for the Sydney Morning Herald.

But junking the promotion of democracy and human rights would be a grave mistake. The US will nonetheless need an updated and more modest approach to these issues – one based on three key principles, argues Brands, author of American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump:

  • First, promoting human rights and democracy need not entail armed nation-building. Those missions are the most visible, costly and unpopular manifestations of Wilsonianism; but in reality, they represent only the 10 per cent of the democracy-promotion iceberg above the water’s surface. The other 90 per cent involves support for election-monitoring missions, diplomatic engagement on issues such as human trafficking and other human rights abuses, economic and political support for civil society, and other seemingly mundane measures. These initiatives cost relatively little, but they have been vital in promoting and sustaining democratic breakthroughs in countries from Chile to South Korea to Ukraine over the years. They remain valuable tools today.
  • Second, as important as these measures are, US policymakers must also selectively temper their Wilsonian urges in dealing with certain states on the frontlines of America’s geopolitical competitions….To altogether abandon support for democracy and human rights would represent unilateral ideological disarmament in dealing with authoritarian powers – namely Russia and China – that are increasingly touting the virtues of their own illiberal systems. But because pushing these issues too strongly can cause severe near-term strains in dealing with some of America’s own allies, some degree of circumspection is essential….
  • Third, the best way of promoting liberal values over the long run is to sustain a broader international system in which democracies, rather than hostile autocracies, are geopolitically dominant – even if that requires working with friendly authoritarians in the short run. When Woodrow Wilson spoke of making the world safe for democracy during World War I, he was not calling for a crusade to spread democracy across the globe. He was arguing that America must stop authoritarian regimes – in that case, the Kaiser’s Germany – from becoming geopolitically dominant in a way that would ultimately make it difficult for democracies anywhere to thrive.

Promoting democracy abroad has been a long-standing U.S. priority, notes the U.S. Government Accountability Office:

We examined how much money U.S. agencies pledged for democracy assistance in fiscal 2012-2016 and how they awarded the funds. We found USAID obligated $5.5 billion, but we could not determine a total for the State Department because some of its bureaus could not provide reliable data. In addition, in our sample we found USAID seldom documented award-related decisions in a complete and timely manner. We recommended that State improve data reliability and that USAID assess whether its new processes are improving award documentation.

In 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked her staff how much the government was spending on programs to promote democracy, according to Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service, and Robert Goldberg, deputy associate director for international affairs at OMB from 2003 to 2009 and the director of U.S. Foreign Assistance at the State Department from 2010 to 2014. She discovered what all secretaries of state have known for decades: nobody could give her a clear, precise answer to the question. Too many agencies, bureaus, and offices had their hands in the democracy-promotion arena, and nobody was coordinating the American effort, setting priorities, and tracking program success and failure, they write for Foreign Policy.

Supporting efforts to promote democracy throughout the world has been a long-standing foreign policy priority for the U.S. government, the GAO report adds:

In fiscal years 2012 through 2016, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Department of State (State) have allocated about $2 billion per year toward democracy assistance activities related to rule of law and human rights, good governance, political competition and consensus-building, and civil society. USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and State are largely responsible for providing this assistance….In fiscal years 2012–2016, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) obligated $5.5 billion and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) obligated $610.2 million in democracy assistance funding. The total funding the Department of State (State) obligated for democracy assistance could not be reliably determined. RTWT

“To the extent that Washington can keep China from becoming the supreme power in East Asia, to the extent it can stop Moscow from restoring its lost sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it can create the ideological and geopolitical space for liberal values to flourish,” Brands concludes. RTWT

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