The Enduring Dilemmas of Democracy Promotion

How much should the United States do to promote the advance of democracy abroad? This timeless question has received renewed attention during the Obama years. Political upheavals in Iran in 2009, the Arab world beginning in 2011, and now in Ukraine have compelled American observers to assess the prospects for democratization in these countries, and they have reopened a longstanding debate about what role the United States might play in strengthening or encouraging that process.

American leaders have traditionally taken one of two approaches to this question. On one side of the debate are the apostles of caution and restraint. Realists in the mold of Eisenhower, Kissinger, and George H.W. Bush do not doubt that democracy is a desirable form of government, and they generally believe that the spread of democracy is good for the United States. But they also believe that democratization springs primarily from deep-seated internal forces, and that America’s ability to influence those forces is inherently limited.

In their eyes, pushing too hard for democratic changes overseas can easily backfire. It can endanger other foreign-policy interests like the preservation of stability in key regions, or the establishment of productive diplomatic ties with flawed but potentially cooperative regimes. It can also turn counterproductive in other ways, allowing repressive governments to claim that reformers are really “made-in-America.”

Accordingly, it might be advantageous to push democratic reform through quiet diplomacy of similarly subtle measures, or to take a particularly compelling and easy opportunity when it arises. But democracy promotion should not be a leading tenet of U.S. foreign policy, and it should certainly not be pursued to the detriment of other geopolitical goals.

On the other side of the debate are the activists, those who favor a more forward-leaning approach. Activists understand that promoting democracy is hard work—and that consolidating democracy can be the work of decades. But they argue that U.S. power can nonetheless play a critical role in empowering reformers and increasing the strains on authoritarian regimes. Applied selectively but energetically, it can help tip the internal balance between dictatorship and democracy, or push the advance of liberal reform into areas where it might otherwise be stymied.

George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” and the attempt to catalyze the spread of democracy in the Middle East by invading Iraq in 2003, represent perhaps the most ambitious recent examples of the activist tendency. Yet that tendency has a long historical heritage, reaching back to Ronald Reagan’s democracy-promotion efforts in the 1980s, Jimmy Carter’s human-rights campaign, John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress during the early 1960s, and other examples as well.

Where does the Obama administration fit within this longstanding debate? Although the president has demonstrated signs of both restraint and activism, he tends to lean more toward the first camp than the second. He did intervene to aid the Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Qaddhafi in 2011, but not without considerable reluctance, and the administration sought to keep direct U.S. involvement as minimal as possible. With regard to the Middle East more broadly, Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 played down his predecessor’s emphasis on political democracy. The president then noticeably kept his distance from Iran’s Green movement, and his administration has generally been very cautious in dealing with the Arab Spring and its aftershocks.

Most recently in Ukraine, U.S. officials did seek a settlement that would bring the opposition into the government, but Obama himself kept his distance from the protest movement until very late in the game. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes has characterized the administration’s view of the democracy issue in a way that fits comfortably within the canon of restraint: “These democratic movements will be more sustainable if they are seen as not an extension of America or any other country, but coming from within these societies.”

The administration’s relatively restrained approach to Ukraine, the Middle East, and democracy promotion in general has the virtues of discretion and prudence. It recognizes the limits of U.S. power, and the dangers of overreaching. It is sensitive to the fact that the United States has goals beyond the spread of democracy, and that pursuing the latter too ambitiously can undermine the former.

At a time of austerity and retrenchment, and coming on the heels of the Bush administration’s experience in the Middle East, these advantages of restraint are not to be underestimated. Indeed, one can easily point to other historical examples—Jimmy Carter’s dealings with Iran and Nicaragua, for instance—where it was precisely this absence of restraint that proved so catastrophically destabilizing.

Yet if restraint can therefore be a valuable commodity, the activist approach also has strengths to commend it. Activists recognize that good ideas do not triumph just because they are good ideas; they sometimes need powerful supporters if they are to overcome strong resistance. And while the most pragmatic activists understand that military intervention is an inherently fraught approach to promoting democracy, they correctly recognize that other forms of activism—forceful crisis diplomacy, exerting timely pressure on authoritarian governments, providing meaningful support to democratic reformers—can make all the difference when applied in the right place and at the right time.

Perhaps the best recent example of a successful activist president is Ronald Reagan. After some initial hesitation, Reagan assertively used American power to encourage or sustain liberal reforms in a wide range of countries, from South Korea and the Philippines, to Chile and Paraguay, to Peru and Bolivia, to El Salvador and Honduras. He did so by providing military and economic assistance to fragile democratic regimes, by making clear that the United States would not tolerate coups or other attempts to derail shaky transitions, and by using the National Endowment for Democracy and other tools to put Washington on the side of democratic activists struggling for change. He also did so by isolating and ostracizing entrenched dictators like Alfredo Stroessner and Augusto Pinochet, and intervening at crucial moments to help ease authoritarians like Ferdinand Marcos out of power.

To be sure, in none of these cases was American involvement the primary cause of democratization. But in each of these cases, and others, it was a necessary component in that process. Activism, in these instances, proved very rewarding: it helped make the crucial difference between repression and reform.

So where does this leave us in the continuing debate between restraint and activism? On the one hand, the United States cannot pursue any sort of democratic absolutism in its foreign policy. There are numerous cases where the competing interests are simply too important, or where the barriers to success are simply too high.

On the other hand, there is nothing inherently quixotic or counterproductive about the idea of using American influence to invigorate democratic change overseas. The history of U.S. foreign policy—in the Reagan years, and in other eras, too—offers numerous cases of American officials successfully doing just that.

What this means is that the debate over democracy promotion will not be resolved anytime soon. It also means that the question of how vigorously to pursue that goal is ultimately less one of doctrine than of judgment—of knowing which circumstances call for restraint and which favor activism, of understanding when the United States can affect the outcome at a reasonable cost.

Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire guide to making these judgments. But to the extent that American policymakers understand that there is wisdom in the counsels of both activism and restraint, perhaps they will be better informed, and more effective, in doing so.

Hal Brands is an Assistant Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. His most recent book is What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush, just released by Cornell University Press. This commentary was originally published in The National Interest.