Great Decisions 2012 Preview: Exporting Democracy

The Great Decisions briefing book and television series on PBS take a closer look at democracy promotion as a U.S. foreign policy tool. Support for democracy has long been a stated goal of U.S. foreign policy, but can it be exported? For more in-depth analysis, order the 2012 briefing book and DVD.


Current Situation

Democracy promotion has long been a stated goal of U.S. foreign policy. The means and justifications for employing this tool are constantly evolving- largely due to Presidents’ differing strategies, as well as shifting domestic and international pressures- but encouraging democratic governments overseas remains a constant in political discourse. How effective, and sincere, have efforts to support democratic movements worldwide been, and should they continue? Is the promotion of democracy an effective foreign policy tool? One of the cornerstones of the Iraq War was the hope that the U.S. could instill democracy once and for all in a war-torn country. Yet President Obama has committed to withdrawing troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, under the pretense that one cannot hope for a tidy solution. As the U.S. continues to struggle over a coherent foreign policy in response to democratic uprisings in the so-called Arab Spring, questions over the future of democracy promotion remain paramount.


Democracy promotion, in some form, has always been a cornerstone of U.S. thought, manifesting in policy in various ways since the country’s inception. The government explained projects in the Philippines at the end of the 19th century as democratic enlightenment. In both World Wars, the U.S. fought on grounds of democratic principles. During the Cold War, notably, the U.S. offered support to any developing country willing to embrace democracy over Soviet and Chinese communism. Democracy promotion programs vigorously sprouted throughout Latin America, and in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia, throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Former President George W. Bush campaigned for the Iraq War largely on the grounds of establishing democracy in the Middle East. This trajectory has been ripe with controversy. The U.S. often supports corrupt dictators, and has taken action to remove democratically elected officials in favor of pro-American leaders. Many have argued democracy promotion exists only in rhetoric. However, this history also extends beyond the U.S. to key international institutions. Many of the United Nations’ founding and guiding principles are in line with U.S. ideology, and this has translated to international policy. U.N. peacekeeping missions’ roles are usually to implement or monitor elections in damaged countries. Similar democratic ideals, such as free trade, govern the Bretton Woods intuitions.


At what cost will the U.S. pursue democracy across the globe? The history of democracy promotion is littered with controversial practices in Latin America and the Middle East in particular. Far from being a means to increase national security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not put an end to terrorism: countless lives have been lost on all sides, and the U.S. has driven itself even deeper into debt. In the past, the U.S. has supported corrupt and authoritarian leaders in the name of democracy (or perhaps more accurately, as a means to deter communism), policies that have damaged countries and decreased U.S. standing overseas. With a small success rate and controversy abound, is exporting democracy an unrealistic goal? Some schools of thought say that one of the central flaws of democracy promotion is that emerging democracies are rarely peaceful- removing a dictator does not guarantee peace and stability, but might encourage the opposite. Others argue that democracy promotion is used as a tool to mask economic and political motives, a tactic that has harmed U.S. credibility overseas.


On the other hand, proponents of democracy promotion argue that it is both practically and morally important- democracies are less likely to engage one another militarily or produce gross humanitarian disasters, they make better trade partners and more secure allies. However, some analysts postulate that the popular (and political) tide has changed following a decade of troubled intervention abroad- democracy promotion may no longer be at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. One analysis points to the 2012 Republican candidates’ overall firm stance against action in Libya as emblematic of a broader move away from democracy promotion. Unlike the Bush years, it is no longer seen as a means to ensure national security. Yet the Obama administration’s response to the Arab Spring has been rife with democratic rhetoric- the U.S. has not abandoned its reliance on this tool, even if the nature of its use has changed. The U.S. now has an opportunity to review its foreign policy, working with a more diverse range of international organizations and citizen’s groups to support democracy without waging war in its name. With foreign affairs to be a central point in the 2012 Presidential debates, democracy promotion- one of the cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy- is sure to be a crucial issue.

Key Questions:

  • To what extent does democracy promotion play a role in President Obama’s foreign policy?
  • Has democracy promotion been discredited after Iraq and Afghanistan? Or Chile and Venezuela?
  • How has democracy promotion been used in the past? When has it been successful?
  • Is democracy promotion merely a mask for other foreign policy agendas?
  • To what extent does democracy promotion factor in international organizations? Is this a good thing?
  • Is democracy promotion an effective foreign policy tool? Should it remain a central goal of U.S. foreign policy?

This Great Decisions 2012 Brief was written by Sarah Marion Shore

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