Promoting American Democracy Abroad: A Quick Response

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Last night, Agora, the Kenyon Democrats and the Kenyon Observer hosted a great discussion ahead of next week’s Center for the Study of American Democracy conference, entitled “should America promote democracy abroad?”

The interesting and informal conversation asked both that question itself as well as what that question means: what do we mean by democracy?  Does a system of majority rule and elections best represent the popular will? Are we more concerned about a country with the same respect for liberal values, minority rights and civil society that we hold dear in our own nation than simply democratic regimes?

And if we do choose to promote democracy abroad, how should we do it? Should we use military force, economic sanctions, diplomacy or merely the strength of our own example? And  how effective would these actions be? Will they really make a positive difference in the lives of foreign citizens?

It’s very difficult to take a strictly realist position about promoting democracy abroad. As much as we like to make hardheaded decisions based on American interests, we have to recognize that our interests and our ideals are inextricably tied together. While it may be in our strategic interest to collude with brutal dictators from time to time, such actions have unintended consequences. And we don’t need to embrace Wilsonian idealism in order to believe that America can have a limited but positive impact in certain spheres. As James Traub explains in his excellent book The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy Abroad (Just Not the Way George Bush Did), human rights and democracy really do make a difference for reasons of morality and global stability. But he urges far greater caution in how we choose to spread it.

One thing that struck me is the advisability of separating democracy promotion and atrocity prevention. We did not intervene in Libya to promote stable democratic institutions; we did to stop the slaughter of thousands of civilians by Gaddafi’s forces. Conversely, it would make no sense for us to invade a nation like China or Russia on the basis that they are authoritarian countries.  It seems like we have two separate but related problems. One may be helped by military force. The other is a long-term project, political processes that requires constant engagement, diplomacy and the assistance of non-governmental organizations.  Our military may be very effective at stopping these humanitarian crises, but it is quite poor at the nation building needed to foster long-term democratic change.

If we recognize this distinction, we may be able to save lives and promote dignity while respecting the limits of American power.

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