Argument

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Can America Do Anything at All to Encourage Democracy?

As uprisings happen in China and Iran, it’s no accident the United States hasn’t been involved.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
People hold sheets of paper in protest of COVID restriction in mainland during a vigil in the central district on November 28, 2022 in Hong Kong, China.
People hold sheets of paper in protest of COVID restriction in mainland during a vigil in the central district on November 28, 2022 in Hong Kong, China.
People hold sheets of paper in protest of COVID restriction in mainland during a vigil in the central district on November 28, 2022 in Hong Kong, China. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Forty years ago, in an address before the British Parliament at Westminster Abbey, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan asserted that while “democracy’s enemies have refined their instruments of repression,” the events of the day—above all, the Solidarity movement in Poland—demonstrated that democracy was “a not-at-all-fragile flower.” (I wonder what cautious speechwriter curbed Reagan’s rhetorical gusto with that “not-at-all-fragile” formulation.) Reagan went on to announce a new policy of democracy promotion to be carried out by the National Endowment for Democracy as well as institutes attached to the two main political parties.

Autocratic countries have vastly improved their arsenal of oppression since then; yet the world seems to be living through another moment of gathering resistance. We see that in mass uprisings against the brutal mistreatment of women in Iran, the spontaneous protests against COVID-19 lockdowns and other indignities in China, and Ukraine’s heroic stand against Russian aggression. These thrilling and sometimes terrifying acts of self-assertion remind us that, no matter how disgusted people in the West seem to be with the stalemates, compromises, and specious rhetoric that afflict democracies, people who don’t have one or fear losing one will take astonishing risks in the name of liberty—or even the accountability that democracies offer.

So yes, democracy is a not-at-all fragile flower, but Reagan’s confidence in 1982 about the United States’ ability to encourage it abroad now feels naive. In my 2009 book, The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did), I argued that the war in Iraq, supposedly conducted in the name of bringing democracy to the Middle East, had done terrible damage to a cause worth caring about. But I also wrote at length about the effective, below-the-radar work of the groups Reagan fostered, especially in assisting nascent political parties and training local nongovernmental and media organizations.

Forty years ago, in an address before the British Parliament at Westminster Abbey, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan asserted that while “democracy’s enemies have refined their instruments of repression,” the events of the day—above all, the Solidarity movement in Poland—demonstrated that democracy was “a not-at-all-fragile flower.” (I wonder what cautious speechwriter curbed Reagan’s rhetorical gusto with that “not-at-all-fragile” formulation.) Reagan went on to announce a new policy of democracy promotion to be carried out by the National Endowment for Democracy as well as institutes attached to the two main political parties.

Autocratic countries have vastly improved their arsenal of oppression since then; yet the world seems to be living through another moment of gathering resistance. We see that in mass uprisings against the brutal mistreatment of women in Iran, the spontaneous protests against COVID-19 lockdowns and other indignities in China, and Ukraine’s heroic stand against Russian aggression. These thrilling and sometimes terrifying acts of self-assertion remind us that, no matter how disgusted people in the West seem to be with the stalemates, compromises, and specious rhetoric that afflict democracies, people who don’t have one or fear losing one will take astonishing risks in the name of liberty—or even the accountability that democracies offer.

So yes, democracy is a not-at-all fragile flower, but Reagan’s confidence in 1982 about the United States’ ability to encourage it abroad now feels naive. In my 2009 book, The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did), I argued that the war in Iraq, supposedly conducted in the name of bringing democracy to the Middle East, had done terrible damage to a cause worth caring about. But I also wrote at length about the effective, below-the-radar work of the groups Reagan fostered, especially in assisting nascent political parties and training local nongovernmental and media organizations.

The ruinous effect of the war in Iraq was self-evident: People throughout the region and, indeed, around the world thought: “If this is democracy promotion, please save me from it.” But I’m no longer so convinced of the affirmative side of my argument.

In the aftermath of the so-called color revolutions of the early 2000s and the Arab Spring, Russia, Egypt, and even less harshly repressive states like the United Arab Emirates concluded that organizations that promote democracy constituted a viper in their midst and expelled them from the country. The consequence is that such groups only do their best work in countries democratic enough to welcome their presence.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s much-ballyhooed Summit for Democracy also suffered from this syndrome. The premise of the summit was that states, including the United States, could learn “best practices” from one another on matters like limiting corruption, staging fair elections, protecting free speech, and so on. But democracies do not face a crisis of knowledge but a crisis of faith and political will. India, Poland, Hungary, and (just a few years ago) the United States elected leaders who are or were hostile to core elements of liberal democracy—and they won majorities not despite that fact but because of it. The summit would only help democracies that want to do better.

But to say that democracy promotion as an enterprise has been oversold does not mean that the United States is helpless to advance the cause of liberty abroad. Presidential rhetoric and White House policies matter today as they always have. I was appalled by Reagan’s Cold War bombast—“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”—yet I later learned that dissidents behind the Iron Curtain welcomed it as a fire to warm their hands by. Biden’s insistent drawing of lines between democracies and autocracies sends a similar message of encouragement to people behind today’s iron curtains, much though it offends many progressives who regard it as self-righteous chest-thumping.

Of course, words without actions only devalue the words. No president spoke more resolutely about freedom than former U.S. President George W. Bush, but besides waging a catastrophic and arrogant war, Bush flinched when the wrong side—Hamas—won a free election in Palestine and caved in when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cracked down on democratic opposition in a 2005 election. So despised was the United States abroad that a leading Iranian reformer implored the Bush White House not to endorse his efforts to contest the election.

What, then, are the actions that matter? That depends, of course, on the situation. Reagan’s unwillingness to confront autocratic Cold War allies lent those figures legitimacy—until, in his final years, he pressured those leaders to step down in the face of popular protests and did more to advance democracy in the Philippines and Chile than he ever had in Eastern Europe. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a concerted effort to prop up liberal forces in former President Boris Yeltsin’s Russia—but those forces were much too weak to rise to the top amid growing chaos.

American diplomacy can be decisive at a moment when democratic and authoritarian forces are finely balanced. Foreign assistance matters critically when new democracies seek to gain a solid footing; in the 1990s, the prospect of admission to the European Union helped tip the balance of forces in ex-Soviet states. (See this recent post in the Liberal Patriot for suggestions of more specific actions Washington could take.)

With the possible exception of that European Union moment, nothing the West has done over the last half century has advanced the cause of democracy as much as their whole-hearted support for Ukraine. Ukraine was a very feeble democracy when the war began, and it will be a great deal more impoverished when the war ends. But in rallying behind Ukraine, the West has sent a message that democracy is worth fighting for.

Indeed, willingness to support Ukraine despite very real sacrifices offers a blunt rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who assumed that Western leaders would prove as cynical and self-aggrandizing as he is. Putin may be hoping that the West will fold if he ups the ante; that will be a grave test of just how much the liberal order matters to those who preach its virtues.

What about China and Iran—or, for that matter, Russia? There, the United States can do little directly. One of the lessons of democracy promotion is that outsiders can’t make much of a difference until a critical mass of citizens is prepared to take the—often mortal—risk of confronting an autocratic regime. Yet American actions can help that critical mass form over time. The Cold War liberals of the 1950s argued that the best way to win the Cold War was by demonstrating that democracy and free markets worked better than communism, not only in bringing security and prosperity to the average citizen but in raising up marginalized people—thus, the centrality of civil rights. They argued as well for the use of foreign aid to support democracies like India and for a less enthusiastic embrace of autocratic allies.

That remains true today. The best way to promote democracy is, first, by making the United States a model of what democracy can do for people and, second, by clearly distinguishing in its foreign policy which democratic nations it will give material and diplomatic support to and which autocracies it will work with as a matter of national interest. That is Biden’s own guiding principle (though his decision to fold to Saudi Arabia in the hopes of increasing oil production shows how hard it is to hew to such a line in practice).

I know that even such a restrained policy will irk both realists on the right and so-called restrainers on the left who regard democracy promotion as a species of American self-delusion, a mission civilisatrice doomed to failure. They are fond of citing former U.S. President John Quincy Adams’s famous message that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Adams feared foreign crusades in the name of American principles, as they do. Yet the new Quincy followers forget the thunderous peroration of that July 4, 1821, oration. A fervent patriot who regarded democracy as God’s gift to mankind, Adams cried that if the “spirit” of the Declaration of Independence could come down from its “habitation in the skies,” then it would “address each one of us, here assembled, our beloved country, Britannia ruler of the waves, and every individual among the sceptered lords of humankind; his words would be ‘Go thou and do likewise!’”

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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