Democracy Promotion Under Obama: Finding a Way Forward

Democracy Promotion Under Obama: Finding a Way For
Policy Outlook
The Obama administration can find a positive new way forward on democracy promotion by changing how the United States supports democracy abroad rather than what emphasis to place on it relative to other interests.
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The Obama administration can find a positive new way forward on democracy promotion by changing how the United States supports democracy abroad rather than what emphasis to place on it relative to other interests. 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.

Key Conclusions

  • The Bush’s administration’s highly problematic legacy on democracy promotion and general pessimism about the global state of democracy create pressure on the Obama administration to pull the United States substantially back from supporting democracy abroad.
  • Although dissociating U.S. democracy support from the errors of the Bush approach is crucial, a broad realist corrective of U.S. policy is not necessary.
  • The way forward for Obama will be more about changing how the United States goes about supporting
    democracy abroad than about what emphasis to place on democracy relative to other interests.
  • Cardinal values of Obama’s political philosophy and style—non-confrontational, measured, persistent,
    bipartisan, cooperative, effective, and empowering—provide a natural basis for a new framework to help the United States regain its place as a respected, trusted, and influential ally of democracy around the world.


End of document

About the Democracy and Rule of Law Program

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.


In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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