Is the U.S. giving up on supporting democracy abroad?


Serious pessimism about democracy’s global fortunes as well as skepticism about the value and wisdom of democracy promotion have gripped Washington, argues Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Democracy is no longer among the main areas of concern in U.S. foreign policy, as evinced by the United States’ approaches to major geopolitical rivals like Russia and China and its engagement in the Middle East, he writes for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab.

Looking back at U.S. efforts to promote democracy over the last several decades yields two crucial underappreciated facts that may provide some consolation for frustrated fans of democracy promotion, Carothers contends:

First, it’s important to note that, while the “high policy” side attracts most of the public attention given to democracy issues, the “low policy” side of democracy work is far bigger. Even as high-profile strategic engagement on democracy issues has waned, assistance programs, quiet diplomacy, and other long-term efforts have continued in as many as 100 countries.

This work has led to many meaningful results, undramatic though they may be in any single instance. These have included, for example, helping build lasting institutions that administer free and fair elections in Latin America, contributing to significant gains for women’s political empowerment in Africa, building active networks of pro-democratic politicians in Asia, and nurturing countless civic activists dedicated to greater governmental accountability in many regions.

This is not to say that the democracy promotion community should give up arguing for a place at the high policy table. For example, it’s imperative to keep making the argument that returning to an embrace of authoritarian stability in the Arab world would be dangerous and counterproductive. No less important (or true) is the fact that any efforts at counterterrorism will fail without attention to issues of political inclusion, pluralism, and tolerance.

But given the global headwinds on democracy, it is persistence on the “low policy” side that will allow the democracy community to conserve a significant place for democracy in the U.S. policy landscape and gradually build a bridge across the gulf that has opened up between it and the rest of the U.S. foreign policy community, Carothers concludes.


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