Elliott Abrams on how to promote democracy

Elliott Abrams on how to promote democracy

By Christian Brose

Going back to that Foreign Policy Initiative conference I mentioned earlier, I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of democracy promotion between Ken Wollack (president of the National Democratic Institute) and Elliott Abrams (formerly Bush’s deputy national security advisor, now with the Council on Foreign Relations). Not surprisingly, they spent most of their time on whether the United States should promote democracy and less time on how to do it. But in the current debate, the two seem pretty linked: After the Bush administration, many people think we don’t know how to promote democracy and thus question whether we should do it.

It’s a tricky question. After all, democracy is not like, say, disease, where one output (medicine) is likely to achieve the desired outcome (health). There are so many contingent factors that go into democratization, and it’s not clear which of these factors — economic development, a rising middle class, anti-corruption programs, improvements in basic security and rule of law, outside support for democracy activists, external pressure on autocratic governments to reform, free elections, among other factors — gets a country to democracy. And that’s to say nothing about what influence and role an external actor like the United States can have on another country’s democratization.

So how exactly do we promote democracy? I put this question to Elliott Abrams, and here is his response:

The United States is not without useful experience in helping foreign democracy activists, and helping governments that are trying to democratize. Some of the expertise resides in the National Endowment for Democracies and the two party institutes, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. Some resides in Foreign Service personnel who have served in posts where this was a major issue, and have seen what works and what does not. So the first part of an answer is to involve people who have worked on this on the ground, pragmatically. 

Sounds simple. But the State Department does not greatly value such expertise; it is most often not very "career-enhancing" because it often involves tangling with your ambassador or deputy chief of mission, your USAID mission director, and the local government. State most often pursues smooth relations with other countries, and pushing for democracy through backing local dissidents is not the path to that over-valued goal. We need less to discover, from scratch, what works, than to harness the knowledge that exists in various corners of the U.S. government. The failure to do this — for example, at the Foreign Service Institute — and teach it to Foreign Service  officers is scandalous.

It is hard to generalize about what does work. Societies are not like bodies, to use your analogy — all fundamentally alike. In some situations, free elections are the best path forward, and our role is mostly pressure and activism to guarantee the integrity of elections. In other cases, there will not soon be elections, and all we can do is try to protect dissidents — by meeting them, championing them, visiting them in prison, helping their families, advertising their situation. I do believe, as President Bush did, that elections are often transforming events (not least if they are stolen!) and should not be delayed until all conditions are ideal — the sequentialist view. But there is no playbook that works in all situations; there is only the accrued experiences of success and failure. 

I would say that always and everywhere we should make our position clear, backing peaceful democracy activists (as Bush said in his Prague speech). I reject the view that we need to be silent about abuses, or very quiet about them — the view that seemed widespread in the Obama Administration as it reacted to Iran after the June elections. Our comments about stolen elections, or the safety of jailed activists, or the trials of dissidents, are always helpful.