President Obama has changed the tone of U.S. policy on global democracy promotion compared to his predecessor, George W. Bush. In a discussion co-organized by Carnegie Europe and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and moderated by Carnegie's Thomas Carothers, Lorne Craner of the International Republican Institute and Ken Wollack of the National Democratic Institute discussed the role of the United States in supporting democracy around the world. Arjen Berkvens, director of the Alfred-Mozer-Stichting and coordinator of the European Network of Political Foundations, and André Gerrits, professor of European studies at the University of Amsterdam, joined the panel as commentators.

U.S. Democracy Promotion Policy: Change and Continuity 

  • Democracy Promotion and Foreign Policy: During the Cold War, the primary U.S. foreign policy focus was containment. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States began to see the worldwide advance of democracy as serving global interests as well as its own.
  • History of Democracy Promotion: Wollack described the historical antecedents of U.S. democracy promotion, from the creation of the Helsinki Process under President Ford in 1975 to President Carter’s foreign policy emphasis on international human rights. He explained that President Reagan’s 1982 Westminster address formalized America’s commitment to the global advancement of democracy. The Clinton administration reinforced this commitment by identifying democracy as a critical principle of its national security doctrine.
  • The Bush Administration: Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, the Bush administration placed democracy promotion at the forefront of its foreign policy, at least rhetorically. In many ways, this represented the continuation of an existing policy, Wollack stated. However, the Bush administration’s policy differed from that of previous administrations in some key ways:
    • Middle East: Unlike his predecessors, President Bush brought the discussion of democracy promotion to the Middle East, both through his rhetoric and through programs that provided protection and political space for reformers in the region.
    • Selective Application: The soaring rhetoric the administration used about democracy promotion only emphasized the inconsistencies in U.S. application of those policies. Skeptics, both domestic and international, came to see democracy as a tool that was used against governments unfriendly to the United States but not against friendly, though undemocratic, regimes.
    • The Iraq War: The depiction of the Iraq war as an effort to build Iraqi democracy and drive democratization in the region left a number of policymakers in Washington confused about the purpose and the means of democracy promotion. That created a debate in Washington among those who viewed democracy promotion as either too idealistic a response to threats facing the United States or as too bellicose, a cover for regime change and the use of military force.
  • The Obama Administration: Given the legacy of the Bush administration, some observers predicted an incoming administration would back away significantly on democracy promotion. However, contrary to these initial expectations, President Obama made references to democracy promotion in several speeches, maintained financial commitments to democracy assistance, and made democracy a significant part of his National Security Strategy document. Policy under this administration is still evolving, Wollack said, but he concluded that democracy promotion will remain a central pillar of U.S. policy.

Democracy Assistance and Obama’s Foreign Policy

  • Reagan and Obama: There is a parallel between the development of democracy agendas in the Reagan and Obama administrations, Craner stated. Both presidents came to office after unpopular predecessors and amid general skepticism toward democracy promotion. Both faced heavy criticism within their first 18 months in office for their handling of the issue. President Reagan responded to that criticism through his Westminster address, where he outlined America’s intention to offer democracy assistance abroad, and also through the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, which offered the means to implement this policy. President Obama has also addressed democracy promotion in numerous speeches, and his administration now has the beginnings of a democracy policy and a strategy for implementing it, Craner said.
  • Following Local Agendas: The Obama administration is beginning to implement a policy that allows local civil societies to take the lead in determining what reforms are needed, and fostering and defending those civil society groups as they do so, Craner explained. This approach has the advantage of having a basis in international law, but Craner admitted that it is also vulnerable to authoritarian repression.
  • The Primacy of Democracy: The United States should not shy away from engaging with non-democratic regimes. However, the promotion of democracy and human rights needs to remain an important part of engagement with such regimes, Craner argued. While previous administrations have achieved this balance, he continued, the current administration is having greater difficulty doing so. Wollack disagreed, arguing the Obama administration has adopted a two-track policy that combines engagement and democracy promotion by offering simultaneous government and civil society-level outreach.

Challenges for Democratization

Gerrits outlined three issues that make democracy promotion increasingly controversial:

  • Popular Appeal: Democracy and the practice of democracy promotion have lost popular and political appeal.
  • Distinction: Most regimes today combine aspects of democracy with elements of non-democratic rule. This makes it increasingly difficult to draw a distinction between democratic and non-democratic regimes and, consequently, to develop an effective democracy promotion strategy.
  • Consequential: Democratization has changed politics, particularly regarding human and individual rights, and the way governments deal with their subjects. However, it has done little to transform power relations or living standards, so it has not had the widespread social impact many had hoped.

The View from Europe

  • Transatlantic Dialogue: Berkvens underlined the importance of transatlantic cooperation between U.S. and European foundations that support democracy promotion. Such dialogue between foundations faced a difficult phase following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. However, relations have since improved and cooperation will be particularly important going forward. Policies are changing on both sides of the Atlantic, and he argued that the success of new initiatives will rely on effective collaboration.
  • Europeanization of American Policies: The Obama administration seems to be adopting a view of democracy promotion that places the emphasis on the role of development, Berkvens contended. This approach has been used in the strategies of the European Commission and Council, as well as those of many European political foundations.