Issue #23, Winter 2012

Democracy Promotion: Done Right, A Progressive Cause

To read the other essays in the “First Principles: America and the World” symposium, click here.

On one level, everyone knows this; but on another level, our democracy- promotion apparatus, and the people who work within it, consistently ignore it. We routinely plan programs that we know will require multiyear funding to be sustainable, even when we also know perfectly well that such funding is unlikely to materialize. This is counterproductive, and has left many fledgling democratic societies strewn with the wreckage of abandoned projects: prisons dependent on electronic security measures that fall apart when foreign benefactors stop paying for a steady supply of power; legislative reform efforts that produce volumes of complex new commercial codes that no one has the money to print and distribute; and so on. These abandoned projects often end up wasting time and money, and they leave behind bitterness and cynicism, not hope or new capacities.

Principles Into Practice

Truly accepting the low likelihood of sustained funding would lead to a very different approach to democracy-promotion projects. We would abandon resource-intensive projects and focus instead only on those about which we can affirmatively answer a very simple question: If this project runs for a year and is then abandoned, will it still have done more good than harm? Sometimes—such as when a project focuses on providing local personnel with key skills—the answer may be yes. Other times, it will be no, and we should cease and desist.

Being unable to do something ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t help others do something themselves, of course. Diplomacy, both private and public, remains a powerful and relatively low-cost tool for supporting democratic reforms. The American private sector can also play a useful role. But we do need a more thoughtful and principled approach for deciding when and how we should get directly involved in democracy promotion in a particular society, and when we should remain in the role of sympathetic bystander.

So how’s Obama doing? The Bush Administration largely made a hash of democracy promotion, despite recent revisionist attempts to claim credit for the Arab Spring. Has Obama done any better, so far?

On the whole, yes. It took a while—at first, the Administration’s approach to democracy promotion could be most generously characterized as mendacious avoidance—but by the late spring of 2011 Obama had found his way to a sober, principled stance:

It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo—it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it’s the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome. Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region. But we can, and we will, speak out for a set of core principles… [We oppose] the use of violence and repression… [support] a set of universal rights… [and] support political and economic reform.

Obama’s May 2011 speech was a good one—an excellent one, in fact—though its subtler messages were almost entirely overshadowed by a brief reference to the appropriate borders for a Palestinian state.

Putting our principles into practice will be an enormous challenge—and so far, the jury is still out on whether the Obama Administration is truly serious about the project. It should be—it can be. But will it be?


Issue #23, Winter 2012
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Good to see you writing again!

Dec 19, 2011, 10:28 AM

Murdering a 16 year old American citizen is not in any way, shape or form opposition to the use of violence and repression. Only when all those initiating, approving and implementing this gross abrogation of universal human rights are brought to justice will democracy be an alternative to all other forms of governance.

Dec 30, 2011, 11:48 PM

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