TWQ: Should Democracy Be Promoted or Demoted? - Winter 2008
January 1, 2008
In his second inaugural address, on January 20, 2005, President George W. Bush used the word "freedom" 25 times, "liberty" 12 times, and "democracy" or "democratic" three times. Bush did not enter the White House with a mission to promote freedom around the world. As a presidential candidate, he put forward a modest foreign policy agenda that eschewed nation building. The events of September 11, 2001, however, radically jarred his thinking on the nature of international threats and triggered a fundamental reevaluation of his administration's national security policy that elevated democracy promotion as a central objective of his foreign policy agenda.
In the years since the September 11 attacks, the rhetorical attention devoted to promoting freedom, liberty, and democracy has greatly outpaced actual progress in advancing democracy. To date, democracy has failed to take hold in the two countries in which Bush ordered the forcible ouster of autocratic regimes, Afghanistan and Iraq….
Nor did toppling these dictatorships send liberty rippling through the greater Middle East as some Bush officials and supporters had hoped. Instead, autocratic regimes in the region have used the excuse of terrorism (Egypt, Pakistan) or the alleged threat of U.S. invasion (Iran) to tighten autocracy. Outside this region, some countries have made some progress toward developing democracy, such as Georgia and Ukraine; but just as many, including strategic countries such as Russia, have moved toward greater autocracy….In sum, Bush's new attention to democracy promotion has not resulted in more people living in freedom.
Not surprisingly, many in Washington, both on the Left and on the Right, are pressing for a change in U.S. foreign policy objectives….Among foreign policy elites, only those at the extreme on each end of the political spectrum advocate completely abandoning democracy promotion as a U.S. foreign policy objective. Instead, skepticism is largely couched as "realism" and a return to a greater focus on traditional U.S. national security objectives. From this perspective, democracy promotion should take a back seat to strategic aims such as securing U.S. access to energy resources, building military alliances to fight terrorist organizations, and fostering stability within states.
Although focusing on the more traditional goals of national security is important, a zero-sum trade-off does not exist between these traditional security objectives and democracy promotion. Moreover, the Bush administration's mixed if not disappointing efforts to promote democracy in the past few years do not mean that democracy promotion should be downgraded or removed from U.S. foreign policy priorities. The United States should promote democracy, but there are new strategies and better modalities for pursuing this objective.