"Examining the Clinton Record on Democracy Promotion"

September 12, 2000

In a symposium at the Carnegie Endowment on September 12, Thomas Carothers, David Yang and Michael Cox spoke on the role of democracy promotion in the Clinton administration's foreign policy to an audience of approximately 75 representatives of the US government, democracy promotion organizations, policy institutions, and universities . Summaries of the two main presentations follow:

Thomas Carothers, Vice President of Studies, Carnegie Endowment, noted the Clinton administration's rhetorical emphasis on democracy promotion as the cornerstone of U.S.. foreign policy, and surveyed the performance of this administration. Carothers observed the broad regional patterns of Clinton's foreign policy: in Latin America and Eastern Europe, the administration has integrated democracy promotion most fully into policy and has made genuine efforts on its behalf, and yet even so, there have been limits to the level of U.S. influence and tensions with other interests (such as the drug war in Peru and Colombia; and security issues in the Balkans). In the former Soviet Union, democracy promotion efforts in Russia have been problematic, and all but ignored in the oil- and gas-rich Caucasian and Central Asian states. In Asia, the administration has made democracy part of the picture, but also, notably, delinked democracy and trade with China and supported Indonesia's Suharto almost right up to the bitter end. In Africa, the absence of major security and economic has given freer reign to democracy interests; but the administration has devoted insufficient resources to match its rhetoric, and democracy issues are swamped by overwhelming problems such as war, state collapse, humanitarian crises and the AIDS epidemic. Finally, in the Middle East, the Clinton administration has pursued its oil and regional security interests in preference to democracy promotion.

Carothers extrapolated five major conclusions. First, U.S. policy under Clinton has been "semi-realist," which is to say that when democracy promotion was consistent with "hard" interests, the administration pursued it, and when it was not, it took a back seat. In this sense, Clinton continued the basic framework of Bush's foreign policy. Second, the number of places where democracy promotion and "hard" interests conflict has been shrinking, simply because the world is becoming more democratic. Third, despite globalization, regions still matter: nations in Latin America are held to a higher standard than those in the Middle East, in part a function of regional subcultures within the State Department. Fourth, U.S. democracy promotion efforts work best when they follow a country's shift to transition; they have failed when they endeavor to initiate the transitions themselves. Fifth, the Republicans, who emerged as the majority in Congress in 1994, have not helped democracy promotion efforts with their reductions of the international affairs budget.

Carothers observed that Clinton has institutionalized democracy promotion in the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy, with staff positions and a growing budget; but this is slow and often fails to affect high policy. Clinton has pushed the norm of democracy in global fora, such as the Community of Democracies meeting; but this diffusion of the democratic norm has been compromised the U.S. failure to pay UN dues and ratify international treaties. Carothers expressed concern that the next president would seek to back away from democracy promotion, so as to disassociate himself from what some have come (incorrectly) to see as a primarily Clintonian concern. Carothers urged the next president to give attention to democracy promotion, and to carefully build on the progress of the last decade.

David Yang, US Department of State Senior Coordinator for Democracy Promotion, denied that the Clinton administration's democracy rhetoric was overblown. He traced the tension between, and the distinctive American fusion of, realism and morality throughout the twentieth century in US foreign policy. Yang also argued that it is appropriate that other interests sometimes trumped democracy promotion. He expressed a preference for the term "pragmatic idealism" rather than "semi-realism," but essentially acknowledged Carothers's criticism, and justified this approach as necessary in the difficult world of foreign policy. He also argued that the Clinton administration had a strategic and consistent vision, and referred to Anthony Lake's 1993 speech where Lake proposed to: advance the community of developed democracies; support democratic transitions; isolate and try to liberalize authoritarian states; and approach conflict and post-conflict scenarios with an eye to fostering democracy. Democracy has been the grand vision of the Clinton administration, and it has been successfully implemented in diplomacy. Yang wholeheartedly agreed with Carothers on the point of institutionalization. Indeed, Yang noted that each year, every embassy submitted to Washington a detailed program on democracy promotion. He also emphasized the lead that the US has taken in articulating democratic norms and pointed to three major declarations on democratic principles in recent years-with real impact. Finally, Yang noted the Clinton administration's commitment to multilateralism in promoting democracy abroad.