In 2002, 70 percent of Americans said “the United States should be promoting its ideas about democracy…to the rest of the world.” By 2013, just 18 percent of Americans said the United States should be “promoting democracy in other nations.” And by 2016, 57 percent of Americans said the US should “deal with its own problems, while letting other countries get along as best they can.”
Reflecting the national mood, President Barack Obama focused on “nation-building here at home,” left proto-democracies in Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine on their own, and shrank the reach, role, and resources of democracy’s greatest defender—the US military.
President Donald Trump promised and has delivered much of the same. In a surprising echo of Obama, Trump argues, “We have to build our own nation.” He endorses an “America First” foreign policy evoking pre-World War II isolationism. And he describes “trying to topple various people”—we can infer he was talking about dictators in Iraq and Libya—as “a tremendous disservice to humanity.”
Both Trump and Obama sensed—and indeed tapped into—America’s world-weariness, which surely is a contributing factor to the retreat of democracy. But don’t take my word for it. “After eight years as president,” Freedom House concludes, “Obama left office with America’s global presence reduced and its role as a beacon of world freedom less certain.” Trump, Freedom House worries, will likely prolong democracy’s doldrums by pursuing “a foreign policy divorced from America’s traditional strategic commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rules-based international order that it helped to construct beginning in 1945.”
Practitioners of realpolitik argue that this shift away from democracy promotion was necessary—and that President George W. Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom” was an aberration. In fact, democracy promotion has been a hallmark of US foreign policy for many decades.
President Woodrow Wilson declared that America would fight “for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations.” Wilson believed that a world torn between dictatorships and democracies was inherently dangerous for America. Thus, when he talked about making the world “safe for democracy,” he wasn’t talking about a utopian crusade; he was talking about building a safer world for America’s democracy.
President Franklin Roosevelt argued, “Freedom of person and security of property anywhere in the world depend upon the security of the rights and obligations of liberty and justice everywhere in the world.”
President Harry Truman vowed “to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions.” In NSC-68, his administration declared that the goal of US foreign policy would be “to foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish”—a system founded on free government, free enterprise, and free trade.
President Dwight Eisenhower explained, “We could be the wealthiest and the most mighty nation, and still lose the battle of the world, if we do not help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress.”
President John Kennedy promised that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Arguing that democracy “needs cultivating,” President Ronald Reagan helped launch the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) “to foster the infrastructure of democracy.”
“For two centuries,” President George H.W. Bush observed, “we’ve done the hard work of freedom.”
“Enhancing our security, bolstering our economic prosperity, and promoting democracy are mutually supportive,” President Bill Clinton argued.
Echoing FDR, Bush 43 concluded, “America has always been less secure when freedom is in retreat” and “more secure when freedom is on the march.” He declared, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Some described this as audacious, but he merely articulated what American leaders dating to Thomas Jefferson had envisioned.
These men made mistakes and were often forced to choose the least bad option. But they deserve credit for doing more than just talking about democracy; they promoted it.
Seizing on Wilson’s vision, people groups around the world stood up democratic governments. FDR used “the great arsenal of democracy” to vanquish fascism. Truman and Eisenhower began the arduous process of transforming Germany, Japan, and South Korea into liberal democracies. Reagan used the bully pulpit and sometimes the big stick to spur what he called a “global democratic revolution” that transformed Europe, the Americas, and the Philippines.
Bush 41 intervened in Panama, and Clinton in Haiti, to restore democracy. Owing to initiatives they launched in Eastern Europe, what was once a Soviet-occupied buffer zone of communist dictatorships became a community of democracies.
Notwithstanding the hardships and miscalculations that followed liberation, Afghanistan and Iraq were offered a pathway to free government because Bush 43’s post-9/11 interventions ousted two brutal dictatorships.
As evidence of how effective America has been at promoting democracy over the past century, consider that even the enemies of democracy claim they are democratic: North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; Vladimir Putin’s Russia declares itself “a democratic federal law-bound state”; Iran’s constitution trumpets “the democratic character of the government”; Xi Jinping’s China claims it is governed by “democratic parties” “under the leadership of the Communist Party.”
“Democracy,” Bush 43 observes, “remains the definition of political legitimacy.”
A “D” in Democracy Promotion
In short, when it comes to democracy promotion, it seems the Obama-Trump era is the aberration.
Freedom loving peoples look to America for signals, and the Obama administration’s signals were loud and clear.
Consider Obama’s rhetoric. Obama referenced “democracy” overseas—as opposed to “our democracy”—a total of just nine times in seven State of the Union addresses. By comparison, the younger Bush mentioned “democracy” in this manner 45 times in his seven State of the Union addresses, Clinton 38 times, the elder Bush eight times (in three addresses), Reagan 40 times.
Following Obama’s lead, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in 2009, “The foreign policy of the United States is built on the three ‘Ds’: defense, diplomacy, and development”—no mention of that other “D” that has defined US foreign policy: democracy.
When the Iranian regime crushed pro-democracy demonstrators after sham elections in 2009, Obama responded with a shrug. The reaction was so bad that protestors chanted, “Obama, are you with them or with us?”
In 2011, Obama withdrew US stabilization forces from Iraq, leaving Iraq’s nascent democracy to fend for itself, with predictable consequences. Obama did nothing when Egypt’s army ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president. When Ukraine’s fledgling democracy was mugged by Putin, Obama sent only MREs and non-lethal aid. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gave a damning response: “One cannot win the war with blankets.” By 2014, Obama had scaled back democracy promotion assistance for the Middle East and North Africa (see here, here and here). In the closing hours of his presidency, Obama traveled to Cuba’s tyranny. Predictably, the Castro regime arrested pro-democracy demonstrators just before Obama arrived.
There was, as the late Foaud Ajami observed, an “ambivalence at the heart of the Obama diplomacy about freedom.”
Trump has embraced the historically fraught “America First” label—in spite or perhaps because of its isolationist connotations. “An America First National Security Strategy (NSS) is based on American principles, a clear-eyed assessment of US interests, and a determination to tackle the challenges that we face,” Trump explains.
Put another way, it continues the effort begun under Obama to decouple American interests and ideals.
“If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own,” then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained in a 2017 speech, “it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests… It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines.” What it means, according to Tillerson, is that there’s a “difference between policy and values.” The word “democracy” was unspoken in Tillerson’s 6,500-word address.
Trump’s NSS notes that America’s “commitment to liberal democracy and the rule of law serves as an inspiration for those living under tyranny… We encourage those who want to join our community of like-minded democratic states.”
Yet the document says precious little about promoting democracy, and Trump’s pronouncements and policies elsewhere call into question how much Washington cares about that community of democratic states. After all, Trump threatened to “terminate” NAFTA, which binds together the three democracies of North America; publicly scolded South Korea and Japan, America’s foremost democratic allies in Asia, because they “do not pay us what they should be paying us” for defense; dismissed NATO—history’s greatest democratic alliance—as “obsolete”; proposed cuts to NED, Radio Free Asia, and democracy promotion initiatives in Cuba; withheld financial support from post-ISIS reconstruction efforts in Iraq (imitating Obama’s policy of benign neglect); and tends to rationalize and equivalize the excesses of dictatorships (from Russia to Turkey to Saudi Arabia).
Add it all up, and it’s no wonder Freedom House concludes we are in the midst of “the accelerating withdrawal of the United States from its historical commitment to promoting and supporting democracy.” Part three of this series will discuss how to reverse that withdrawal.
Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor to Providence and a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.
Photo Credit: Mir-Hossein Mousavi during the pro-democracy protests in Tehran, Iran, on June 18, 2009. By Hamed Saber, via Wikimedia Commons.