Washington’s ‘Democracy Dilemma’: Balancing power politics and American values


Translating President Biden’s rhetorical emphasis on democracy support into a meaningful plank of his foreign policy will require his team to grapple head-on with several thorny dilemmas, say Carnegie analysts Frances Z. Brown and Thomas Carothers:

  • First, an overriding focus on countering China and Russia risks crowding out policies to address the many other factors fueling democracy’s global decline.
  • It may also spur the United States to overlook democratic flaws in some partner countries, rather than developing ways to address them.
  • Meanwhile, a focus on the practical benefits of democracy should not come at the expense of a vigorous defense of the moral case for democratic governance.
  • Finally, U.S. support for democracy abroad must be connected in meaningful ways to democratic renovation at home.

Rather than tying the credibility of U.S. global democracy support to success in advancing domestic reform, a better approach would be to emphasize that both at home and abroad, democracy’s strength is that it allows countries to correct their missteps and evolve to solve new problems—but that it also needs constant tending to live up to its potential, they write for Foreign Affairs:

The Biden team should guard against the perception that it is tying the value of democracy exclusively to a competition over economic growth and service provision. Democracies often deliver a better life for their citizens than autocracies. But equally important, democracy is preferable to autocracy because it makes citizens their own political masters. Democracies do not systematically repress the political voice and actions of their citizens. Reducing the value of democracy to its performance cuts against its deeper sources of legitimacy. RTWT

The challenges of advancing democracy in the context of multipolar global politics and authoritarian resurgence were addressed in a CSIS exit interview with outgoing NED President Carl Gershman (above),

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