Why Is America So Bad at Promoting Democracy in Other Countries?

There’s no quick, cheap, or military-based way to bring peace to places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Iraq. It’s time we changed our approach, and we can start at home.

US and Afghan soldiers listen to a mission briefing before a combined patrol southwards towards the village of Kandagal in the Pech valley, 16th June 2012
US and Afghan soldiers listen to a mission briefing before a combined patrol southwards towards the village of Kandagal in the Pech valley, 16th June 2012

If you’re a dedicated Wilsonian, the past quarter-century must have been pretty discouraging. Convinced liberal democracy was the only viable political formula for a globalizing world, the last three U.S. administrations embraced Wilsonian ideals and made democracy promotion a key element of U.S. foreign policy. For Bill Clinton, it was the “National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement.” For George W. Bush, it was the “Freedom Agenda” set forth in his second inaugural address and echoed by top officials like Condoleezza Rice. Barack Obama has been a less fervent Wilsonian than his predecessors, but he appointed plenty of ardent liberal internationalists to his administration, declaring, “There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders.” And he has openly backed democratic transitions in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and several other countries.

Unfortunately, a soon-to-be-published collection edited by Larry Diamond and Mark Plattner suggests that these (and other) efforts at democracy promotion have not fared well. Success stories like the recent end to military rule in Myanmar are balanced by the more numerous and visible failures in Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, the obvious backsliding in Turkey, Hungary, Russia, Poland, and elsewhere, and the democratic dysfunctions in the European Union and in the United States itself. As Diamond points out in his own contribution to the book, nearly a quarter of the world’s democracies have eroded or relapsed in the past 30 years.

You might think a realist like me wouldn’t give a damn about a state’s regime-type or domestic institutions and care even less about the goal of promoting democracy. But you’d be wrong. Realists recognize that regime-type and internal arrangements matter (indeed, Kenneth Waltz wrote a whole book comparing different democratic orders); they just believe relative power and the need for security are usually more important and that systemic pressures often lead dissimilar regimes to act in strikingly similar ways.

Even so, there are good reasons for realists (and others) to favor democracy while remaining mindful of the dangers associated with democratic transitions. Stable democracies have better long-term economic growth records (on average) and do much better in terms of protecting basic human rights. While not immune to various follies, democracies are less likely to kill vast numbers of their own citizens through famines or ill-planned acts of social engineering, mostly because corrective information is more readily accessible and officials can be held accountable. Democracies are as likely to start and fight wars as any other type of state, but there’s some (highly contested) evidence that they tend not to fight each other. On balance, therefore, I think it would be better for most human beings if the number of democracies in the world increased.

The question is, however: How should we try to bring that goal about?

At the risk of stating the obvious, we do know what doesn’t work, and we have a pretty good idea why. What doesn’t work is military intervention (aka “foreign-imposed regime change”). The idea that the United States could march in, depose the despot-in-chief and his henchmen, write a new constitution, hold a few elections, and produce a stable democracy — presto! — was always delusional, but an awful lot of smart people bought this idea despite the abundant evidence against it.

Using military force to spread democracy fails for several obvious reasons. First, successful liberal orders depend on a lot more than a written constitution or elections: They usually require an effective legal system, a broad commitment to pluralism, a decent level of income and education, and widespread confidence that political groups which lose out in a particular election have a decent chance of doing better in the future and thus an incentive to keep working within the system. Because a lot of social elements need to line up properly for this arrangement to work and endure, creating reasonably effective democracies took centuries in the West, and it was often a highly contentious — even violent — process. To believe the U.S. military could export democracy quickly and cheaply required a degree of hubris that is still breathtaking to recall.

Second, using force to spread democracy almost always triggers violent resistance. Nationalism and other forms of local identity remain powerful features of today’s world, and most people dislike following orders from well-armed foreign occupiers. Moreover, groups that have lost power, wealth, or status in the course of a democratic transition (such as Sunnis in post-Saddam Iraq) will inevitably be tempted to take up arms in opposition, and neighboring states whose interests are adversely affected by a transition may try to stop or reverse it. Such developments are the last thing a struggling democracy needs, of course, because violence tends to empower leaders who are good at it, instead of those who are skilled at building effective institutions, striking deals across factional lines, promoting tolerance, and building more robust and productive economies.

To make matters worse, foreign occupiers rarely know enough to pick the right local people to put in charge, and even generous and well-intentioned efforts to aid the new government tend to fuel corruption and distort local politics in unpredictable ways. Creating democracy in a foreign country is a vast social engineering project, and expecting outside powers to do it effectively is like asking someone to build a nuclear power plant, without any blueprints, on an active earthquake zone. In either case, expect a rapid meltdown.

The bottom line is that there is no quick, cheap, or reliable way for outsiders to engineer a democratic transition and especially when the country in question has little or no prior experience with it and contains deep social divisions.

So if promoting democracy is desirable, but force is not the right tool, what is? Let me suggest two broad approaches.

The first is diplomacy. When there is a genuine, significant, and committed indigenous movement in favor of democracy — as was the case in Eastern Europe during the “velvet revolutions” or in Myanmar today — powerful outsiders can use subtler forms of influence to encourage gradual transitions. The United States has done this successfully on a number of occasions (e.g., South Korea, the Philippines, etc.) by being both persistent and patient and using nonmilitary tools such as economic sanctions. In these cases, the pro-democracy movement had been building for many years and enjoyed broad social support by the time it gained power. Relying on diplomacy may not be as exciting as the “shock and awe” of a military invasion, but it’s a lot less expensive and a lot more likely to succeed.

The second thing we could do is set a better example. America’s democratic ideals are more likely to be emulated by others if the United States is widely regarded as a just, prosperous, vibrant, and tolerant society, instead of one where inequality is rampant, leading politicians are loudmouthed xenophobes, the prison population is the world’s largest, and airports and other public infrastructure are visibly decaying, yet no one seems able to do much about it. When millions of qualified citizens are excluded from voting, or when a handful of billionaires and other moneyed interests exert a disproportionate and toxic effect on U.S. politics, it is hardly surprising that other societies find America’s professed ideals less appealing than they once were. Add in Guantánamo, targeted killings, Abu Ghraib, overzealous NSA surveillance, and the reluctance to hold powerful people accountable for their misdeeds, and you end up with a pretty tarnished brand.

In short, the United States will do a better job of promoting democracy in other countries if it first does a better job of living up to its ideals here at home. The necessary reforms are not going to be easy — and I have no magic formula for achieving them — but reforming the United States should be just a tad easier than trying to create a robust democracy in Afghanistan, Yemen, or any of the other places where we’ve been flailing for a decade or more.

Building a better America would also permit more Americans to lead prosperous, proud, secure, and bountiful lives. Maybe I’m dreaming, but might doing more to improve the lives of Americans here at home also be the best way to enhance democracy’s prospects abroad?

Photo credit: JOHN CANTLIE/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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