Relative moralism: is the U.S. still promoting democracy?


Does the U.S. administration’s decision to restrict visas for Cambodians engaged in “undermining democracy” in the Southeast Asian nation validate the Economist’s observation that it’s not necessary  “to have clear doctrines about democracy promotion, or many other weighty questions of geopolitics” in order to advance democracy?

Despite a shift towards a more insular, America-First foreign policy stance, U.S. “democracy promotion schemes continue on autopilot in many countries, shielded by multi-year budgets,” the Economist notes:

How America projects its values has real-world effects, says Steve Pomper, who worked on human rights in the Obama-era NSC and is now at the International Crisis Group. “It’s a choice: giving people reason to hope if they are languishing in prison, or giving their jailers hope that they can act with impunity.”

American leadership isn’t always required, according to Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations, who discusses democracy promotion in the Middle East following the Arab Spring with Mark Lagon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“It’s not always the best thing for the U.S. to take the lead” in ending fractious national compacts, says Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, “sometimes it’s better to have the UN or some ally take the lead, but in some instances there’s no substitute for the United States.”

Democracy promotion has not been particularly successful in establishing and consolidating democracy in recipient countries, argues Nelli Babayan, a Black Sea Fellow at FPRI, a Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, D.C., and Associate Fellow at the Center for Transnational, Foreign and Security Policy at Freie Universität Berlin. It has, however, produced many long-standing partnerships and reinforced positive perceptions of the United States, she writes for the Foreign Policy Research Institute:

American-sponsored education programs have played a critical role in this achievement. While traditional elements of democracy promotion, such as support for elections, sometimes only create the illusion of democratization, educational exchanges help to socialize a new generation of political leaders to the ideals of democratic governance….

Conventional wisdom argues that by capitalizing on the economic troubles of the West, illiberal democracy has gained the upper hand and rendered democracy promotion both ineffective and unnecessary. When evaluating support for democracy, policy makers and scholars often look for quick outcomes, overemphasize elections, and omit the role of non-systemic actors. Yet, as the experience of post-Soviet countries shows, democratization is not just about elections, and it is not an overnight project. Democratization is perhaps more about creating a democratic political culture than consistently holding farce elections, as is the case in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Recent studies show that “leaders educated at Western universities are more likely to democratize than other leaders,” Babayan adds. When societal and political elites have already been socialized to the advantages of open and democratic governance, the implementation of democracy promotion projects is likely to have higher chances of success. RTWT

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