Democracy Promotion: Done Right, A Progressive Cause
By the beginning of the Obama Administration, democracy promotion had become a rather tarnished idea, and understandably so. Like Islam or Christianity, much blood has been shed beneath its banner. It may be true that democracies don’t go to war with one another, but they certainly go to war, and their wars kill people just as dead as the wars undertaken by illiberal regimes. Anyone on the political left can tell the story: During the Cold War, the United States fought endless proxy wars and engaged in a great deal of overt and covert mischief, all in the name of democracy. During the Bush Administration, the idea of democracy promotion became tightly and inexorably bound up with regime change and the carnage of the Iraq War. Because it came to us in a package that included bloodshed, occupation, torture, and indefinite detentions, Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” left a bitter taste in the mouth.
Little wonder, then, that by 2009 many progressives considered democracy promotion something most appropriately tossed into the dustbin of history. At best, it seemed like a decent concept that had become permanently tainted by the instrumentalism and abuses of the Bush era. At worst, it seemed inherently flawed, a neoconservative idea premised on the worst sort of American arrogance and hubris. Democracy promotion, in this view, was but a siren call to the naïve, one that would only lead the United States into bloody, destructive, and expensive foreign adventures.
The Obama Administration consequently viewed democracy promotion with caution and, in some quarters, with mild distaste. While the word “democracy” could hardly be banned in the world’s oldest and proudest democracy, key Administration spokespeople were careful to avoid placing any great weight on it. Was democracy a fine thing? To be sure. Was the U.S. government determined to promote it, foster it, build it, or demand it, in Afghanistan or elsewhere? Heavens, no.
I recall, for instance, a great to-do when a senior Defense Department official testified before Congress in 2010 that one of our goals in Afghanistan was to “foster transparent, effective and accountable democratic governance.” I was responsible, having fecklessly inserted the phrase into the draft testimony, where it remained unnoticed during subsequent reviews. When discovered after the testimony was delivered, it brought the wrath of the White House down on us all: We were not, under any circumstances, to suggest in any way that promoting democracy was a goal of the Obama Administration. In the new realism of 2009 and 2010, democracy promotion appeared (officially, at least) to be anathema.
But a funny thing happened on the way to history’s dustbin. The Arab world woke up. In Tunisia, then Egypt, then Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, crowds of protesters took to the streets to speak out against autocracy and repression—and amidst the cacophony, “Democracy!” became a powerful rallying cry.
Taken by surprise, the Obama Administration backpedaled rapidly, insisting that the United States’ support for democracy abroad had been unwavering. “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy,” declared President Obama on May 19.
But even with this new surge of rhetorical support for democracy, the Administration remained cautious. The White House response to events in the region seemed always a beat behind, and while we sent fighter jets to Libya, we contented ourselves with handwringing over Bahrain and Syria. In the Middle East, much of the early euphoria turned to disappointment.
Democracy: A Human Fail-Safe
The events of the last year make this as good a time as any to ask ourselves (again) what place democracy promotion should have in our foreign policy. Can democracy promotion be saved, in the face of all our mistakes, all our inconsistencies, all our false starts, hypocrisies, and hesitations?
I think the answer is yes. Democracy promotion should remain a vital part of our foreign policy—not despite our mistakes, inconsistencies, false starts, hypocrisies, and hesitations, but because of them. We should embrace and promote democracy not because it is perfect or because we are perfect, but because democracy remains the only political system yet devised that builds in a capacity for self-correction.
Start by going back to first principles. Democracy is premised on an idea that remains radical in many parts of the world: the idea that every human being counts, that we all have a right to participate in making the decisions that will affect us, that no person or group has a permanent monopoly on political wisdom. Political theorists can debate whether civil and human rights require democracy to protect them or whether democracies must protect civil and human rights in order to sustain themselves. For our purposes, it is probably enough to say that the idea of democracy carries with it at least some minimal assumptions about rights and the rule of law: Democracy cannot thrive without at least some degree of freedom of expression and assembly, and it requires at least some minimal institutional arrangements to sustain it (courts, legislatures, and so on). How much free expression (or judicial independence, or parliamentary power) is “enough” is hard to say; certainly, reasonably stable and contented democracies have answered this question in different ways.
But the basic contours of the idea remain both clear and sound. If everyone counts, then everyone must be allowed to speak and organize and assemble with others; everyone must have a shot at arguing with and persuading others. This is how ideas emerge, struggle for life, gain prominence, and are tested. Some survive; some vanish; some fade for a time and re-emerge again later on.
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