As President Barack Obama and his team define the contours of a new U.S. foreign policy, one of their many challenges is to reformulate U.S. policy on democracy promotion. President George W. Bush elevated the profile of U.S. democracy promotion but then badly tarnished it. By relentlessly associating it with the Iraq war and regime change, he caused many in the world to see it as a hypocritical cover for aggressive interventionism serving U.S. security needs.
By casting the war on terrorism as a global “freedom agenda,” yet cultivating close ties with autocratic regimes helpful on counterterrorism, he provoked justifiable charges of double standards. And by condoning U.S. abuses of the rule of law and human rights against persons caught in America’s antiterrorism net, he badly damaged America’s standing as a global symbol of democracy.
Some of President Obama’s initial actions offer a valuable start in a necessary process of dissociating the United States from this unfortunate legacy. Just by being elected, Obama sent a ringing signal to the world of the renewal
of American democracy and the power of the democratic idea.
His immediate order to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility within a year and additional subsequent actions to reverse other legally problematic parts of the war on terrorism added momentum to the rejuvenation of America’s global democratic standing. His sober approach to Iraq—talking about it as a daunting policy challenge rather than as a shining example of U.S. democracy promotion—halts a long, painful delegitimization of the democracy promotion concept. His expressed openness to diplomatic engagement with hostile governments has put the regime-change line to rest.
The Carnegie Democracy and Rule of Law Program rigorously examines the global state of democracy and the rule of law and international efforts to support their advance.
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