A Principled Approach to Democracy Promotion

The Importance of Values

By James Neimeister


From its foundation, America was an exceptional nation. It was the first modern liberal democratic state, its constitution guaranteeing the rights of its citizens based on the principles of liberalism — the idea that people should be permitted to act freely so long as their actions do not infringe on the rights of others. In such a way, liberalism allows for a pluralistic society in which all kinds of people can coexist with one another, and in as tightly interconnected a world as we live in today such a society is essential to ensure the vibrancy and vitality of humankind. Moreover, such a world is best served by democratic governments broadly representing their people. As the most powerful nation on Earth and the first such contemporary society, America’s role in the world should naturally be that of an advocate and protector of liberal democracy.

But America’s role in promoting the values of liberalism has been problematic at times. Some have abused the concept of American exceptionalism in arguing that America can do whatever it wishes on the world stage simply because it is America. Those who believe this should remember that abusing America’s privileged status, if it can be called as such, ruins its reputation and squanders its resources. In the past, America has exercised its authority in the form of economic, political and military means, sometimes justly and other times less so. In the future, America should continue to be active on the world stage, but its actions should be based on the values and principles that underlie America’s exceptional nature.

When it comes to democracy promotion, the United States has always utilized economic means liberally to strengthen the position of democracy in the world. Considering that all modern democracies have market-based economies, the U.S. naturally promotes the adoption of market economies in non-democratic countries and developing democracies. And yet a market economy alone does not a democracy make. Aggressively promoting market liberalizations can have a devastating effect on a transitioning economy and be counterproductive to democracy promotion. In Russia during the nineties, for example, foreign experts from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund suggested an array of “shock therapy” methods, immediately releasing trade and price controls, privatizing massive state companies and eliminating currency protections. The results were disastrous, making Russia wildly unstable for a full decade. The resulting hyperinflation, corruption and previously unthinkable levels of crime set the stage for President Vladimir Putin’s rise to unrivaled power in the 2000’s.

Pushing for policies that stimulate short-term investment but do nothing to develop the economy in the long term tend to hinder democracy promotion. When lobbying organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce push foreign governments to knock down trade regulations in order to provide fast, easy profits for multinational corporations, only to pull their money out when the bubble bursts or when their lobbying efforts are more successful in some other poor country, their actions are antithetical to promoting development and democracy. In short, America should utilize economic means in the way of promoting democracy only in so far as it provides meaningful improvements in the economic life of the people of the country in question. Economic development should be focused on promoting the financial literacy and infrastructure necessary to create an economy in which ordinary people can have access to the capital they need to launch projects of their own design. Under such a state of affairs, people would be more willing and able to participate in their own governance, appreciate the rights of others and take on more responsibilities. Allowing big business to ravage developing economies does nothing to develop the kind of economy that can support a liberal democratic state.

Finally, the U.S. has historically used military force to promote democracy abroad. This is by far the most problematic method of democracy promotion. After all, it is quite puzzling to consider how one might force people to voluntarily accept an open democratic form of society by the barrel of the gun. It is understood that in some cases governments have used force to put down democratic uprisings and that, if it can conceivably prevent violence against the people, the U.S. should intervene. But in many such cases the regime in question is a regime which the U.S. has previously supported: Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and even Moammar Gaddafi had at some point been in bed with the U.S. So before asking whether America should intervene in such countries, it would be better to ask whether America should have supported them in the first place. All three of the aforementioned leaders had at one point proven themselves of use to the U.S.’s strategic interests. Yet what interests does the U.S. have that should under any circumstances be given precedence over its interest in bringing forth a free and democratic world? There must be no such interests, because that would be entirely contrary to the mission of the U.S. in the world to serve dictatorships and military regimes. In Egypt, though, the U.S. managed to use its military leverage in another way by withdrawing its military support for the Mubarak regime, an action that emboldened the rebels. It is not to be forgotten that, as one of the world’s largest producers of arms, the U.S. has the power to withhold its support for regimes that contradict liberal democratic values. This is a considerable power.

Naturally, the U.S. finds itself in a difficult position balancing its roles as the most powerful country in the world, the world’s largest economy and the world’s oldest democracy. The world may be changing, and the U.S. may yet see its role in the world change. Nevertheless, it is more important than ever to stay true to those values that have characterized it from the very beginning. In promoting democracy abroad, the U.S. must pursue policies that promote continual, qualitative improvements in the lives of people throughout the world. Moreover, as democracy continues to develop in countries vastly different from Europe and North America, we must be willing to be sensitive to the particularities of other cultures and accepting of the fact that democracy in other countries may have different priorities and values than our own. This will signal the triumph of liberalism and democracy — when the world may find itself at once fully integrated and fully divergent.

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