TWQ: Global Democracy Promotion: Seven Lessons for the New Administration - Winter 2009
January 1, 2009
A professed commitment to worldwide democracy promotion has been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy for many years and was given a distinctive emphasis by the outgoing administration. President George W. Bush calls it “the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.” Promoting democracy, however, is not merely a matter of advocacy via an international megaphone. Policies of the Bush administration have led many to question the methods used to promote democracy or even the goal itself. Despite such criticism, much of it warranted, democracy promotion remains a central plank of U.S. foreign policy, an expression of U.S. values, and a tool that can be used to pursue the strategic interests of the United States. It is critically important, therefore, to learn from the mistakes of the past seven years and to rethink and refine the theory and practice of democracy promotion.
For the last three years, Rep. David Price (D-NC) and Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) have led the House Democracy Assistance Commission (HDAC), the institutional descendant of the Frost-Solomon Task Force. The bipartisan commission of twenty House members has sought to strengthen the institutional capacities of partner legislatures in Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Haiti, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Liberia, Macedonia, Mongolia, Timor-Leste, and Ukraine. HDAC has worked with parliamentary colleagues and their staffs in all these countries on nearly every aspect of legislative governance, from budgetary analysis and committee oversight to personnel management and constituent relations. Implementation of the programs has occurred through close collaboration with U.S. embassies around the world, as well as democracy programs administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and executed by experienced organizations such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), and the Asia Foundation. As a result, HDAC has been in a unique position to witness both the successes and failures of U.S. efforts to promote democracy worldwide.
Too often, U.S. democracy promotion efforts have failed to penetrate beyond the rhetorical or superficial, and the Bush administration’s track record in this regard is decidedly mixed. The most consequential mistake has been to assume that democracy could spring fully formed from the barrel of a gun, most notably in the case of Iraq. Bush’s failure to avoid the errors of his predecessors, despite acknowledging and disavowing them, has also been damaging. Like many executives before him, the current president has allowed a myopic, short term view of foreign affairs to obscure our national security vision. In places like Kenya and Pakistan, the United States has allowed its friendships with pro-Western, anti-terrorist leaders to cloud its judgment in the wake of ascendant popular opposition to such leaders. In other places, such as Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, short-term calculations of self-interest have muted U.S. advocacy for democratic reforms. With the democracy agenda and strategic interests of the United States increasingly overlapping, what policy course the new president and his administration pursue is an urgent and critical question.