Democracy and Civil Society

The Abandonment of Democracy Promotion

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 13, Issue 3, June 2011

 By Tara McKelvey*

One of the newest models in a Vargashi car factory is called the Avalanche-Hurricane or, as it is known among the Siberian workers, an anti-democracy truck. It is encased in steel armor and thick window grills and comes with accessories such as a water cannon and pepper spray canister, and each vehicle costs approximately $500,000. The factory director told a New York Times reporter, who wrote about the trucks in an April 2009 article, that he hopes to sell two or three of the vehicles over the course of a year.

So far the trucks have not done much to thwart democracy, or to generate revenue either, since none have actually been sold, but the fact that they are being manufactured captures a growing sentiment in Russia that democracy has become unruly, and in this sense the new line of trucks is a disturbing sign of things to come. After nearly two decades of democracy, some officials in Moscow believe that freedom and liberty have gotten out of hand, and they are looking for methods to tamp it down. Part of the officials’ discomfort seems to stem from the fact that tens of thousands of Russians have been expressing unhappiness with the corrupt leaders who are in charge of their country and are demanding change at the top.

Russia is not an isolated case. Democracy has been taking some serious knocks in countries around the world and, according to Freedom House, a New York-based organization that promotes democracy and liberty, it has been on the decline over the past three years. Yet despite the threat to political freedom in Russia, Pakistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, and other countries around the world, Americans have begun to show considerably less interest in helping to promote democracy as part of the nation’s foreign policy. These trends will reinforce each other in the coming years and make things considerably bleaker for those who are fighting for freedom around the globe.

Americans have turned away from the principles of democracy promotion largely in response to President George W. Bush’s disastrous efforts in this arena. It may seem natural to scale back on this aspect of foreign policy after the excessive zeal of the Bush Administration. Yet this shortsighted view will diminish the positive influence the United States has on the rest of the world. Even worse, pulling back on democracy promotion could harm people in other countries who are most vulnerable to autocratic leaders. With the election of Barack Obama, democracy advocates around the world are rightly concerned about whether they will continue to have American support in their dangerous work.

Albeit with recent exceptions, Obama Administration officials have been placing more emphasis on protecting the relationship between the United States and other countries than on supporting the work of local democracy activists. People who work for Freedom House say they have “met with several U.S. Embassy officials who have sought to distance themselves from civil society and human rights leaders who were not favored by the host government,” according to a July 2009 report. If the efforts of local democracy activists are stymied, then the autocratic leaders of the nations they live in will be emboldened to take away even more liberties.

And yet despite the threat to freedom in countries around the world and the potential danger to democracy advocates abroad, President Obama has demonstrated that he is significantly less interested in democracy promotion than his predecessor; moreover, his views are shared by top members of his cabinet. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee in April 2009, said, “The foreign policy of the United States is built on the three Ds: defense, diplomacy, and development.” Democracy was not included. Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have sent a national-security memo to President Obama, urging him to abandon democracy promotion in Afghanistan.

When President Obama gave his speech about Afghanistan at West Point in late 2009, he talked about defeating Al Qaeda and reducing the threat of terrorism but said nothing about helping to build democracy. He has been trying to tamp down expectations for the future of that country, and some U.S. officials seem almost disdainful of the attempts at building a democratic society that are currently underway. To be sure, the Afghan government has a long way to go. The 2009 election of President Hamid Karzai was widely considered a sham, and his government has been rife with corruption. One official who oversaw the elections in Logar province was forced to hide out in a barricaded office for three months because he had received death threats from the Taliban. He and other officials put their lives on the line in an attempt to build a democratic society; thousands of Afghan people risked their lives in an attempt to make sure the polls would be open. And yet, many of them felt their efforts were not fully acknowledged or appreciated.

President Obama’s attempt to scale back expectations for Afghanistan and overall for democracy promotion abroad has caused little stir among liberals. Democrats in general are less likely than Republicans to support the notion of democracy promotion, with only fifty-four percent saying that it should be featured in foreign policy, according to a 2007 Pew survey; seventy-four percent of Republicans believe U.S. foreign policy should embrace it, and are more likely to say that the United States should “help establish democracies in other countries.” This means few liberals will be willing to take on the issue of democracy promotion or try to ensure that it becomes a top priority.

The twenty-first century dawned as the age of democracy promotion. Then-President Bush made it clear to tyrannical leaders that he intended to tear down their regimes and to allow for the blossoming of democracy around the world. Rather than kowtowing to dictators because Americans wanted oil, gas, and natural resources or access to airbases within their borders, like former U.S. presidents, Bush made it clear that he would take a hard line against dictators and would support the efforts of those fighting for democracy.

These principles were the bedrock of the Bush Freedom Agenda—but that was not the way things turned out in the real world. Bush was tough on dictators in places like Zimbabwe, where Americans had few or no interests, and was considerably less strict with autocratic leaders in countries such as Uzbekistan, which was the home of the strategically important Karshi-Khanabad air base. Moreover, the war that was waged in Iraq to make that country safe for democracy descended into chaos while he was in the White House. To be sure, a fragile form of democracy gradually emerged in Iraq, but it has come at a terrible cost and has nearly discredited the undertaking of democracy promotion altogether.

The cost of the Freedom Agenda was staggeringly high, causing worldwide opinion of the United States to plunge to its lowest point in decades. Yet there was some merit in putting despots on notice. The current U.S. President is no longer making hyperbolic and inflammatory statements about democracy; instead, President Obama is circumspect in his efforts to assist activists who are working toward greater freedom and liberty in other countries. His approach to democracy promotion is cool and low-key, so much so that he appears to be overly cavalier about it. In fact, Obama’s ambivalence about democracy promotion represents a sharp break with the past, and his approach to the issue has disturbing implications.

Democracy itself, of course, is wildly popular and is often cited by people on left and right in support of a broad array of programs. Democracy promotion, however, is a controversial part of U.S. foreign policy, based in a network of Washington-based institutions and rooted in bureaucratic flow charts and line items in the State Department budget. Moreover, a common understanding of the term has been elusive, since it seems to encompass everything from broadcasting jazz programs to Poland in the 1980s to deploying troops to Iraq in the 2000s.

President Ronald Reagan extolled freedom and democracy around the world and reached out to dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which provided news programs as well as a message of hope to those who lived under repressive regimes. In Cuba, people tuned in to Radio Marti, which broadcast programs produced in the United States and provided a balance for the anti-American propaganda put out by the Cuban stations.

The U.S. information strategy worked, at least to some extent, since it provided news, as well as moral support, for Central European dissidents and Cuban activists. In 1990, Americans watched joyously as Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, was elected to office in Poland, and then cheered as the Soviet Union began to crumble.

From the outside, the shift from Communism to democracy seemed quick and easy. Back then, however, it was not at all clear how things would turn out. In July 1989, after meeting with a group of dissidents in Eastern Europe, President George H. W. Bush wrote in his diary that he was afraid the situation was spinning out of control. He and his advisors also worried about what would happen if Germany were reunited. Nevertheless, he kept his cool and maintained cordial relations with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. By the end of the following year, Bush and other world leaders had helped bring about not only the relatively peaceful revolutions across Eastern Europe, but also “a unified Germany, a transformed EU,” wrote historian Philip Zelikow in Foreign Affairs (November/December 2009), and “a preserved and extended Atlantic alliance.” It was an impressive string of successes.

The second President Bush was much more aggressive about democracy promotion, and yet in contrast to his father’s efforts the countries of the Middle East have not made a smooth transition to democracy, despite tremendous investment in the region. This has caused many people in this country, particularly liberals, to swear off democracy promotion altogether. Even its most ardent supporters have trouble with the fact that democratic elections sometimes produce undesirable results. George W. Bush’s historic push for Palestinian democracy turned out far differently than expected when Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, won a majority in the Gaza elections in 2006.

In previous decades, Americans sometimes responded in a brutal manner to election outcomes they did not like. After a socialist candidate, Salvador Allende, was elected in Chile in 1970, Henry Kissinger famously said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” Three years later, Allende was deposed in a U.S.-backed coup. No policymaker today would advocate such extreme actions. Nevertheless, legions of people have spoken out strongly against incorporating democracy promotion into U.S. foreign policy; the enemies of such an approach have multiplied at an alarming rate and can be found on both ends of the political spectrum.

On the far left, where the work of Noam Chomsky is admired, many people believe democracy promotion is a diabolical plot to expand U.S. hegemony around the world. According to these critics, American-style democracy promotion conflates democracy with free-market capitalism, and actually places a higher value on the latter. American officials attempt to remake the world in their own image and graft their views about democracy onto other societies. Human-rights advocates and some progressives are also opposed to democracy promotion, but for a different reason. They argue that human rights, not democracy, should be the focus of U.S. foreign policy.

Meanwhile, on the far right, isolationist conservatives like former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan maintain that Americans should not get involved in difficult, messy projects abroad, regardless of how well-intentioned they might be.

So should we simply give up on democracy promotion altogether? That is clearly not the answer. Previous mismanagement of democracy promotion, however egregious, does not mean that all future efforts are doomed.

Promoting democracy in other countries is messy and hard, but abandoning these efforts constitutes a threat to freedom on a global scale. The United States should not ignore people in other countries who are risking their lives on behalf of democracy simply because the Bush Administration failed in its efforts. A Kabul-born psychologist who lives in Washington says that if Americans turn their backs on the Afghan women who have been marching in the streets in order to secure more freedom, “they will be lost.” And yet, despite the fact that Afghan women, Chinese students, and many others are counting on American support in their struggle for freedom, there are signs that President Obama will not be there for them.

Obama and his top officials apparently believe that it is better to get along with tyrants than to confront them, and to eschew symbols in favor of achieving pragmatic goals on the ground. This was the clear impression made by his failure to speak up for Iranian students protesting the repressive Islamic regime in 2009. When Administration officials favor a form of democracy promotion that values pragmatism above all else, however, they are missing something important. To put it simply, despotic leaders do not always listen to reasoned arguments. “I can’t remember any text of mine where it said one should fight Hitler without violence,” said Adam Michnik, who was one of the leading dissidents in Poland in the 1980s. “I’m not an idiot. In the state of Saddam, the opposition could find a place only in cemeteries.”

Maintaining a tough stance against tyrants and being vigilant about encroachments on democracy in other countries is crucial. In Lebanon, for example, where democracy is fragile at best (the nation currently ranks as only “partly free,” according to Freedom House) and ill-prepared to defend itself against the determined opposition of religious fanatics, America has a clear and vital (if limited) role to play, particularly since the international community has been weak and indecisive. Indeed, democracy experts have applauded President Obama’s decision to increase its support in this area. The administration’s proposed funding for democracy promotion in Lebanon was raised fifty percent, from $18 million in fiscal 2009 to $27 million for fiscal 2010.

For many Americans, the success of democracy in faraway countries such as Lebanon may seem unimportant, but the U.S. benefits in a variety of ways from free and open societies in other parts of the world: Democracies are more likely to be economically advanced and, at least in theory, buy American goods and provide additional markets for the United States; democracies are also less likely to wage war on each other.

To be sure, the United States needs a finely tuned, culturally adept approach to promoting democracy, rather than the gunslinger one that was used in the past, and it should moreover be based on an understanding that simply granting people the right to vote does not guarantee a truly democratic result.

One cannot measure with precision the relationship between investments to support democracy in a particular country and its transformation into a free and open society; but some methods have been successful. People in Central Europe benefited from listening to Radio Free Europe, and these kinds of efforts should be continued. The United States should also support freedom of expression through online media and fund efforts to help prevent authoritarian governments from using the Internet to crack down on activists. (Iranian police have recently created a twelve-person unit to track activity on the Internet, and are stepping up efforts to collect information on activists from online sources.)

Financial support should be provided to reformers and democrats in Iran and other countries around the world in a more equitable fashion, rather than devoting resources almost exclusively to the places where the United States is engaged in armed conflict; currently, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan receive roughly three-fourths of the funding that is allocated for democracy promotion. In addition, the United States should work harder to present itself as a model of democracy, since its image as a beacon of freedom and justice suffered a blow in recent years because of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and Guantanamo. (In Iraq, the Abu Ghraib picture of the hooded man is known as the Statue of Liberty, and insurgents have used it as a recruiting tool.)

Moreover, President Obama should say explicitly what he intends to do in the area of democracy promotion, since democracy advocates need to know that they have friends in the United States and that the funding will continue under the new administration. Over the past year, administration officials have been trying to make progress on global issues such as climate change, nuclear weapons, and financial reform, and have placed less of an emphasis on democracy promotion when dealing with leaders of other nations. At first glance, this seems like a realistic and wise approach, but it is a mistake. Idealism plays an important role in American foreign policy, and Obama should provide strong rhetorical support for the efforts of democracy activists abroad so that the leaders of authoritarian nations will hear the message.

By and large it is easier to promote democracy through development aid rather than to save or repair a democracy that is floundering. However, when things fall apart in other countries, the United States may have to intervene, whether through diplomatic or military means.

Just as a factory director in Siberia is counting the cash that he will earn from selling armored trucks, leaders in other countries are banking on the fact that they can smash their opponents into the ground when there is no resistance from the United States. Despite the flawed history of democracy promotion, it belongs high on the U.S. foreign policy agenda and should be supported by substantial resources. The threat to freedom is strong in many countries around the world, and abandoning the people who live in those autocratic regimes would be a travesty.


* Tara McKelvey is a correspondent for Newsweek / The Daily Beast and a 2011 Guggenheim fellow. She is the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War. Copyright 2011 by Tara McKelvey.