What if We Disagree With the Will of the People?

The Paradox of Exporting Democracy in the American Interest

By Jon Green

Americans hear “democracy” and think of a very specific type of democracy. In the American lexicon, the word alludes to the Bill of Rights, comfortable living standards and comedians’ right to make fun of the government without fear of reprisal. But when American leaders talk about promoting democracy abroad, the American people, or perhaps the leaders themselves, fall into the trap of believing that democracy abroad can and will look just like democracy at home.

Liberalism within an international relations framework holds that democracies are passive toward one another. The logic states that, between two democratic regimes, shared values and the incentive to trade raise the costs of conflict to prohibitive levels, making violence irrational. But Liberalism assumes that every free society wants certain social and economic rights, and that those rights naturally arise from democratic governments. But what happens when a democratic society denies its citizens the rights that liberal societies like ours take for granted?

The Arab Spring involved countries that are democratizing in ways that conflict with American values and interests. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak led an undemocratic regime, but he consistently supported American interests by maintaining peace with Israel, even when it was unpopular with many Egyptians. With Mubarak out of power in Egypt, the Middle East could become further destabilized if the Egyptian people are not interested in maintaining peace in the region.

As Israel’s ally, America could easily be drawn into a war with a democratic Egypt if the peace that Mubarak helped keep breaks down. Liberal democracies are expected to welcome and promote new democratic regimes, but should America promote this democratic shift? Should Israel?

Illiberal democracy is also problematic for American interests because plebiscitary leaders can claim popular mandates in faux-democratic regimes. For example, Vladmir Putin has recently secured ostensibly liberal democratic power through what appear to be illiberal, undemocratic means in Russia, creating the image of democratic legitimacy where none likely exists. This allows him to claim rule by the people while destroying Russian citizens’ faith in democracy because they recognize the absurdity of such a claim.

Why bother to vote if Putin is casting your ballot? Promoting democracy at any cost in a country where democracy will take an illiberal form undermines liberal democratic interests, because establishing real democratic traditions in the future becomes more difficult.

With that in mind, it appears that advocates of exporting liberal democracy focus too much on “democracy” and not enough on “liberal.” American and international interests are better served by promoting the free flow of people, products and ideas across and within borders, regardless of the methods by which leaders are selected. Certainly democratic regimes meet these conditions more often than non-democracies, but thinking that democracy alone is a sufficient prerequisite could produce more harm than good in the long term.

As America exits Iraq and Afghanistan, it should consider the regimes it leaves behind. Both countries may be ready for democratic rule, but do they share America’s liberal values? Even if they are able to hold free and fair elections, are they seriously ready to institutionalize and implement freedom of religion, expression or the press? It is easy to topple a weak regime, hold an election, declare our mission accomplished and leave. It is harder to recognize that elections might produce a regime that will not govern as we want it to, which could make the whole endeavor a waste of time or worse as far as American interests are concerned.

It follows, then, that to truly satisfy liberal democratic interests, those who wish to promote liberal democracy abroad must be willing to impose liberal values through undemocratic means. The United States could ensure that Iraq and Afghanistan each adopt a bill of rights and set up robust democratic institutions in an American fashion, but it would require ignoring both Americans’ calls to end the occupation of the countries and the right of citizens of the occupied countries to govern themselves. It takes more than a few election cycles to establish liberal traditions and institutions, which are vital components of a true liberal democracy, but a few election cycles is the longest amount of time citizens of a liberal democracy will tolerate armed occupation of a foreign land. A well-functioning liberal democracy will not invest the necessary time, resources and lives it takes to occupy a country for a long enough time to establish these traditions and institutions; citizens of liberal democracies don’t — and shouldn’t — have the stomach for it.

The notion of the proposition itself is problematic: how can one country legitimately impose freedom on another, especially if it expects that freedom to be expressed in popular elections? Imposition of liberal values on illiberal countries will undoubtedly be met with backlash. Such an imposition would put the occupying nation in the precarious position of imposing liberal values, knowing that such values may be abandoned shortly after it leaves. The only way to guarantee liberal values in these lands is to permanently take away their sovereignty through annexation, a decidedly undemocratic course of action.

It is only in the American interest to promote democracy abroad if the resulting democracies share our liberal values. Since America cannot promote liberal values in illiberal societies without using undemocratic and tyrannical means, it is therefore impossible to promote democracy in the American interest in these instances.

It is easy to assume that citizens of undemocratic regimes pine for a society that looks exactly like ours. But if we follow this line of thinking, we doom ourselves to quagmire after quagmire of tyrannical occupation and imperialism, all of which undermine the very values we claim to be promoting.

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