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.