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Shadow Government

What Does it Really Mean for the U.S. to Support Democracy Abroad? (Part 2)

Part one of this essay rebutted the erroneous conflation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the historic policy of supporting democrats around the world. What follows is an explanation of what that policy is and why it is important for the 2016 candidates to embrace these ideas and efforts anew. What democracy support ...


Part one of this essay rebutted the erroneous conflation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the historic policy of supporting democrats around the world. What follows is an explanation of what that policy is and why it is important for the 2016 candidates to embrace these ideas and efforts anew.

What democracy support is not…

Support for democracy is, as I noted in part one, not the same as regime change. But neither is it something we contemplate for a few troubled places in the world. Looking at a range of years comprising the Clinton Bush terms, the United States has implemented democracy programs in as many as 80 countries at one time and on all continents; in only two of those countries have we been at war or recently at war.

Nor is democracy support properly understood as a job for the military. While the military and the development community have cooperated in many ways — and our military makes it safer for our development workers to operate — no one who implements democracy programs believes that it should actually be done by our military. When our military helps a foreign government secure its state and ensure peace and stability so that both nationals and development workers in the public and private sectors can do their work, it has done pretty much all that is needed of it.

Nor is democracy support the same as nation building. There is a difference between helping a people build the structures and institutions of a self-governing society as opposed to trying to help them create a nation. The former is building hardware; the latter is developing software. No foreign government can force another people to embrace the habits of mind of democracy and self-governance. It takes years, decades, sometimes a generation to develop the right “software” for the culture and context of each people group. One hopes that the natural desire of men and women everywhere is to live in freedom. I believe that desire is natural unless a history of slavery, oppression, colonialism, or authoritarianism has all but extinguished knowledge of and hope for liberty. But there are far too many cases of liberated peoples opting for self-governance for us to be discouraged: South Africa and India are good examples, and so are Germany, Japan, and Mexico. Tunisia is the most recent hopeful example.

Neither is support for democracy simply a matter of insisting on human rights. It is more fundamental than that. A foreign policy that encourages respect for human rights is a good thing, but it is not enough. No government should be trusted to respect human rights if it knows it cannot lose power when it violates those rights. Many times democracy supporters have been frustrated by administration and NGO colleagues who can bring themselves to insist on a human rights policy but cannot appreciate the simple fact that dictators are glad to bend to outward pressure on human rights as long as it is convenient. But once the pressure is off or their hold on power is threatened, they can slip back into the old ways with impunity. Far better to understand that it is democracy that protects human rights, not the temporary acquiescence of a dictator.

What democracy support is…

A little history is in order here. Foreign policy that supports democracy abroad is as old as the republic. The American founders were indeed well wishers to all and hoped that the beacon of the United States would set an attractive example. But even before the Marshall Plan and the efforts of Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, the United States also took strong action in support of democracy in our hemisphere in the form of the Monroe Doctrine. This doctrine had both a negative and a positive connotation. First, it sought to keep the imperial powers from meddling in the Western Hemisphere which the founders understood was a direct threat to U.S. security and our exceptional status as a the first free republic. Second, the founders hoped that by protecting the emerging republics from foreign meddling, they might follow the U.S. example and build self-governing societies. Most of the indigenous experiments failed, but after the Cold War and with U.S. support, democracy characterizes the region today, not dictatorship, with only a few lone holdouts in Cuba, Venezuela, and the badly slipping Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.

There is much that can be said of how U.S. support for democracy developed in the modern era, but two examples are the Marshall Plan and the formation of the National Endowment for Democracy and its related organizations.

With the Marshall Plan (which led to the creation of the U.S. Agency for International Development which does most of this work), the United States embarked on a serious and expensive program not simply to rebuild the European continent’s economy but also to stave off communist takeovers of the free countries. Marshall and Truman’s vision included helping European countries rebuild their democratic structures so that the millions of Europeans who wanted to self-govern after the catastrophe of fascism could do so. They needed help rebuilding their states and to be encouraged in the ideas and ways of democracy against the Soviet-inspired and funded onslaught of forces that would roil their societies once more and enslave them under one party rule. We provided technical and financial support for the building of multi-party democracy, strong civil societies, the rule of law, free labor, and free enterprise. It worked, in no small measure, because Europe had a history of democracy to which most people wanted to return.

Over the decades after the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Europe into another bulwark of freedom, the United States did not cease support for democracy around the world but it was difficult to do so in the context of the Cold War and in countries with little history of self-government. At times, the need for alliances based on national security trumped support for democracy. Cynics cry foul, but my experience with them is that they change their tune when they are responsible for American security, and they tend to downplay the advances made for democracy even during the Cold War, as the Philippines, Chile, and Nicaragua illustrate.

One of the most important elements in the effort to support democrats around the world has been the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Created under Ronald Reagan and in conjunction with bipartisan congressional support and annual funding, the NED is home to party-building, press freedom, and free labor institutes, and it works with and supports many other U.S. and foreign-based NGOs. The NED family helps those who want to help themselves be free.

Support for democracy began to come into its own during the Clinton administration. Under that president, and with the Cold War over, the United States developed programs administered by new bureaus and offices at the State Department and at USAID. More staff developing and implementing more programs — often with the aid of scholars housed at various think tanks and universities — impacted U.S. foreign policy greatly. Former communist states and colonies developed free institutions; there was an explosion of democracy and the United States was helping most of them every step of the way (that is where those 80 countries come into the conversation that I mentioned earlier). And the Congress was not a bystander: from across the spectrum members and senators legislated and appropriated on behalf of those seeking ordered constitutional liberty now that it was possible again for so many, and the Congress saw it as an important part of our national security policy. Heroes include Sen. Jesse Helms and Congressman Tom Lantos, among many others.

The Bush administration took these efforts to new levels by grounding these policies on national security strategy and the president’s own vision and goals. For the Bush administration, support for democracy was understood to be a fundamental element of good development policy, and development policy had an important role in national security policy. We had a lot of help due to the positive changes to culture worldwide because of the fall of communism and the information revolution. We can dicker over how accurate Francis Fukuyama was regarding “the end of history” but it is indisputable that billions more people today know what freedom is and that they want it. That desire, coupled with pervasive information sharing and media, has been shaking the foundations of authoritarianism for decades now with no let up in sight.

It is important to note that the United States is certainly not alone. Many U.S. government programs and NGOs have their counterparts at the United Nations, in the European Union and individual European countries, and also in Canada, Japan, India, and the formerly communist states of Europe. This is hardly a U.S. idea exported and imposed by us. Anyone doing this work has colleagues across the globe and in the intergovernmental organizations. We rarely work alone in the field or engage in scholarship without interaction with academics around the world.

2016: A re-set opportunity for foreign aid.

Alas, the Obama administration has not made support for democracy a priority. Notwithstanding the views of many Foreign Service officers at both State and USAID who want democracy support to be fundamental to our development and foreign policy once again, the White House has played down democracy and played up economic development. They have reversed the trend of the Clinton and Bush years to focus resources on health, agriculture, the environment, and family planning. This shows up in who gets presidential appointments, the content of their speeches, and most importantly the budgeting of resources.

Now there is nothing wrong with development policy addressing these issues. But we must appreciate one simple fact: our national interest is not in helping people in developing countries live better: it is in helping them be constitutional democracies characterized by free people and free markets. All the rest begins to take care of itself once these states are no longer dependent on others. We have been providing economic development to many countries for over 60 years with no end in sight for the need for these programs. And that is because these countries are not free, or they are very weak democracies characterized by corruption, weak civil society, and instability. And while I do appreciate that the Obama administration still considers it important to focus on human rights, building civil society and encouraging good governance, implementing these programs without helping people achieve true self-governance (especially the rule of law and free and regular elections) so that they can throw out corrupt or backsliding governments will change nothing in the end.

If we want to see economic development, we should understand this: there is no economic development without good governance, but there is no good governance without democracy. We cannot leave out the most important element (constitutional democracy) and expect stability and economic development and the rising prosperity that attends it.

I hope the 2016 candidates will embrace support for democracy as a fundamental part of our development and foreign policies. They should do so in what they say, from whom they seek advice, and in how they articulate their national security goals. They should defend what is a very small part of the budget that has a good return on the investment. They should be ready to take office with a plan to work with the Congress to reform our foreign assistance programs so that we once again are focused on short as well as long term goals. It is not only the right thing to do given our history and the very ethos of our nation, but it is also quite practical.

Once one appreciates that this policy of supporting democracy around the world is not the same thing as armed imposition of democracy via regime change, even Senator Rand Paul should be able to embrace it.


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