Democracy promotion is central to U.S. foreign policy, but the loss of global democratic momentum, problems of Western political credibility, and the rise of alternative political models are making it a more challenging task than ever. The Obama administration must not back away. It should not hesitate to push governments—even friendly ones—on democratic missteps and engage non-Western democratic powers as new partners in the endeavor.

Thomas Carothers
Thomas Carothers is a senior fellow and co-director of Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program. He is a leading authority on international support for democracy, human rights, governance, the rule of law, and civil society.
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Over the last three decades, a succession of Republican and Democratic presidents has made promoting democracy abroad a significant element of U.S. foreign policy. Democracy promotion gained particular momentum in the 1990s when the international political context turned especially favorable to the enterprise. Democracy was spreading rapidly, the United States and its democratic allies stood out internationally as the most attractive models of political and economic governance, democracy faced no serious ideological rivals, and the sovereignty barriers to political assistance across borders were suddenly in rapid decline.

Since the middle years of the last decade, however, it has become increasingly clear that this favorable context is disappearing due to a loss of democratic momentum, credibility problems, new challengers, and tougher resistance to external assistance.

Loss of democratic momentum: For the first time since the 1970s, the number of democracies at the end of the last decade was no greater than at the beginning of the decade. The momentum of the 1980s and 1990s dissipated in the face of widespread democratic backsliding and stagnation. Many fledgling democratic states struggled to turn democratic forms into democratic substance and to deliver improved socioeconomic outcomes for their citizens. Various elected strongman leaders, such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, steered their countries off the democratic track. While the outlook for political change in the Arab world in 2011 brought hope of a renewal of the democratic impulse, so far only a few Arab countries are moving toward stable, pluralistic systems. Moreover, continued negative developments—like the disturbing breakdown of political order in Mali, a country that was for some time one of Africa’s democratic success stories, or Ukraine’s passage from the Orange Revolution to semi-authoritarian stagnation—keep accumulating.

Both the United States and Europe have taken significant hits on their credibility as global models.

Problems of credibility: Both the United States and Europe have taken significant hits on their credibility as global models. For the United States this has been an unfolding cascade with damage during the Iraq war to America’s reputation as a country that respects the rule of law and human rights, blame for triggering the global financial crisis in 2008, the discouraging picture during Obama’s first term of a political system beset by polarization and gridlock, and a clear avoidance in this year’s presidential campaign of any serious plan from either party of how to handle the hard fiscal choices facing the country. Europe is faring no better in the world’s eyes given the loss of impetus for European unification and the protracted European economic crisis and its attendant sociopolitical woes.

New challengers: The growing appeal in some parts of the world of China’s and Russia’s versions of “authoritarian capitalism” has undercut the assumption that no serious alternative to the Western model exists for developing or transitional countries. The emergence of Islamist-led governments through elections in Tunisia and Egypt and the relative developmental success of some nondemocratic governments in Africa, for example Rwanda and Ethiopia, further weaken earlier simplistic assumptions about the triumph of the Western liberal model. Moreover, China, Russia, and other nondemocratic powers are asserting political influence across borders in ways that frequently work against the spread of democracy.

Thomas Carothers

Closing doors: A punishing backlash against U.S. and other Western democracy assistance emerged in the last decade. A growing number of governments, especially in the former Soviet Union, Latin America, and the Middle East, have taken actions to block international elections assistance, restrict international funding for civil society organizations, or reject Western democracy support altogether. Egypt’s ongoing prosecution of U.S. democracy supporters working in Egypt (and of many Egyptian nongovernmental organizations accepting Western aid) and Russia’s recent closing of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Moscow are vivid recent examples.

A punishing backlash against U.S. and other Western democracy assistance emerged in the last decade.

These interrelated developments add up to a daunting context for U.S. democracy promotion. It is important, however, not to lose sight of the fact that some positive fundamentals about democracy promotion still hold. To start with, although some elected leaders have turned toward anti-American populism, it remains the case that the global spread of democracy has largely favored U.S. economic and security interests. America’s most productive and lasting friendships are with other democracies. A more democratic world is a better world for the United States.

Second, despite the diminished credibility of its own political system and the increasing assertiveness of various nondemocratic rivals, the United States still has the capacity to contribute in vital ways to democracy’s advance in the world. Washington can rely on multiple channels including strategic backing of democratic allies, applying U.S. pro-democratic diplomacy and assistance to help democratic actors struggle against dictatorial regimes, supporting shaky democratic governments undertaking reforms, and challenging semi-authoritarian rulers to implement political reforms.

Third, democracy’s new challengers are hardly free of glaring deficiencies of their own that limit the appeal of their models. China’s serious labor tensions, widespread corruption, and severe environmental damage are as much a part of “the China model” as is its rapid growth. The same is true with Russia’s systematic high-level corruption and poorly functioning state. And although the relative power balance between the West and “the rest” is shifting, many of the major new non-Western powers are in fact democracies. The socioeconomic dynamism of Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey, and other rising democratic powers is giving a boost to global democracy both through their example and through their increasing efforts to support democracy in their neighborhoods.

Avoiding Traps

Given the ongoing shift from a remarkably favorable to a strikingly less favorable context for democracy promotion, two possible traps stand out for a new administration looking to engage in this area. Obama could try to ignore the changed reality and continue promoting democracy as though the United States still operates in the past—in a world where democracy is surging, the U.S. model is paramount, no ideological rivals exist, and sensitivities to cross-border political work are on the decline. Or, the administration could back away significantly, viewing democracy promotion as the goal of an earlier era that has no more than a marginal place in a U.S. foreign policy tailored to a less auspicious international context.

Despite the diminished credibility of its own political system and the increasing assertiveness of various nondemocratic rivals, the United States still has the capacity to contribute in vital ways to democracy’s advance in the world.

If Mitt Romney had been elected, the former trap would have presented the more likely danger. In a second Obama term, the latter is the greater concern. In his first term, Obama hesitated over democracy promotion, not quite settling where it stands among his priorities. When Obama first took office, he was acutely conscious of how unpopular the very idea of U.S. democracy promotion had become under George W. Bush as a result of its close association with the Iraq war and with forcible regime change generally. As a result he initially downplayed the issue. He and his top advisers avoided referring to the goal of advancing democracy abroad in their early policy declarations. When they did begin to give attention to the issue they emphasized rhetoric much more than action. Moreover, their focus on trying to engage in constructive dialogues with the governments of Russia, Iran, and other partially or fully hostile nondemocratic states contributed to their scaling back on democracy promotion. Obama’s initial avoidance of any pointed criticism of Iran’s badly flawed elections in the summer of 2009 out of a desire to leave the door open to possible negotiations with Tehran was a vivid example.

Over time, however, Obama’s engagement on democracy issues increased. Like his recent predecessors (who also came into office without any particular inclination to emphasize democracy promotion) Obama and his foreign policy team were pulled in by democratic breakdowns or breakthroughs in different regions of the world, which confronted the Obama team with expectations at home and abroad to respond. A coup in Honduras, a violent post-election political standoff in Côte d’Ivoire, a teetering political negotiation in Kenya, post-earthquake political challenges in Haiti, and other political flashpoints sparked pro-democratic diplomatic interventions by the administration. In the same time period, the rapid fading of hopes for productive diplomatic engagement with Iran and new tensions with China reduced the administration’s inclination to soft-pedal democracy and human rights disagreements with these and other countries.

The outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 raised democracy promotion even higher on the administration’s foreign policy agenda. Suddenly Obama and his advisers found themselves scrambling to craft ways to support democratic transitions in a region where the United States had long backed myriad friendly authoritarian regimes. In a May 2011 speech, Obama set out a new framework for U.S. Middle East policy, emphasizing that it will “be the policy of the United States to support reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” In Egypt (after some initial uncertainty), Tunisia, and Yemen the United States worked diplomatically and gave increased assistance to back democratic transitions. In Libya the U.S. role extended to military action.

Thus over the past three years Obama has often ended up being pulled in substantial ways to support democratic change around the world. He and his team have contributed significantly to the overall endeavor. Yet there has remained a lingering sense of uncertainty and sometimes ambivalence about whether democracy support is a major element of Obama’s foreign policy. This is especially evident with regard to the Middle East. Although the administration is helping some Arab countries undertake democratic transitions, in a larger number of countries in the region it is clinging to the old policy of backing useful authoritarian regimes as they repress domestic opposition or largely ignore calls for reform. The weak U.S. response to Bahrain’s harsh repression of protesters is an especially vivid example. U.S. policy toward the other Gulf states and Jordan follows a similar logic.

There has remained a lingering sense of uncertainty and sometimes ambivalence about whether democracy support is a major element of Obama’s foreign policy.

More generally, in pursuing a foreign policy organized around the panoply of major security challenges facing the United States—in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, China, and elsewhere—Obama and his team have sent mixed signals about whether they view democracy support as a central foreign policy issue for the United States, or only a minor add-on mostly in contexts where major security issues are not at stake.

Looking Ahead

A second Obama administration should bolster the U.S. commitment to strengthening democracy abroad, consolidating and expanding the progress made on the issue during the last four years while avoiding any tendency to back away in the face of the difficult international context. Several component elements will be key.

First, the new administration should avoid the common pattern (even in transitions where the same party remains in power) in which a new, incoming foreign policy team seized with the challenge of renewing U.S. policy on the current crises fails to give detailed attention to the full array of elements that make up democracy policy and only comes to grips with the subject once it is pulled in over time by unexpected democratic breakthroughs or breakdowns. In this vein, the new administration should consciously seek to carry over lessons about pro-democracy diplomacy that the outgoing team learned over the past four years rather than to relearn them slowly from scratch. These include the recognition that it is possible to push a friendly government hard on democratic missteps or deficiencies without losing the friendship, that acting quickly and decisively in crucial political junctures is the heart of pro-democracy diplomacy, and that overreliance on soaring speeches rather than concrete acts quickly breeds disappointment and resentment.

Second, the various longer-term, usually multilateral pro-democracy initiatives that the first Obama administration launched should be sustained and when possible deepened. Some Obama officials have referred to these initiatives as “the long game” on democracy support. The Open Government Partnership, which is a public-private partnership launched in September 2011 to advance transparent and accountable governance, is one such effort. The list also includes the push on global Internet freedom, strategic dialogues with civil society in different countries, efforts to renovate the Community of Democracies (an intergovernmental forum first established in 2000), and the greater integration of democracy and governance goals into socioeconomic assistance. These and other related initiatives were closely tied to individuals in the administration—especially Hillary Clinton and certain members of her team and selected senior staff at the White House. As a new foreign policy team comes in, they should be sure not to view these initiatives as ephemeral enthusiasms of their predecessors but instead as valuable bases that merit consolidation and extension.

Especially important is the idea advanced by the administration in the past several years that the United States and other established Western democracies should find ways to engage with rising non-Western democratic powers such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Turkey on international democracy support. Such engagement and possible collaboration is not easy given the deeply rooted skepticism that such countries have about Western political interventionism but it is potentially an important new avenue for democracy policy.

Third, the second Obama administration should improve its responses to the pushback against democracy support. Egypt’s prosecution of American and other pro-democracy actors and Russia’s recent closure of the USAID mission in Moscow were not isolated incidents but two flare-ups in a longer trend. The new administration should assume that pressure on the available space for U.S. democracy assistance will continue and be ready to put forward coherent, consistent responses to further negative developments. Such responses should include clear messages expressing U.S. displeasure and affirming the international principles at stake, finding alternative ways to deliver democracy aid in the face of new restrictions, and working actively with other international democracy support actors to present as wide a front as possible of resistance to such efforts.

The new administration will need to reaffirm and bolster the overarching policy framework of support for Arab democratic transitions that Obama set out last year.

Fourth, Obama should prioritize dealing with the ongoing wave of roiling political change in the Arab world. Faced with constant debate over whether movement away from old autocratic orders helps or hurts U.S. security and economic interests in the region, the new administration will need to reaffirm and bolster the overarching policy framework of support for Arab democratic transitions that Obama set out last year.

Toward Egypt the new administration should renew its efforts to assemble a significant economic aid package that will help Egypt’s democratically elected government get through the dangerous economic rapids ahead. At the same time, the evident desire of the Obama team to build good ties with the Islamist-led government should not inhibit the new administration from speaking out about problematic rights and democracy issues as they arise.

The new administration should reduce the inconsistency prevalent over the last eighteen months between the active U.S. support for democracy in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, and the continued embrace of autocratic stability in many other parts of the Arab world, including the Gulf states, Jordan, and Morocco. Finding ways to encourage autocratic allies to respond more productively to impulses for positive political change in their own societies is not easy given the varied interests at stake, but it is not impossible.

Fifth, the new administration should achieve greater coherence in its democracy policy overall. Despite their initial de-emphasis of the issue, Obama and his foreign policy team ended up engaging significantly on democracy promotion in many places. Yet hesitation and ambivalence about the overall scope and priority colored their approach. When viewed in the short term, the democracy issue only fits in around the edges of some of the major issues that dominate the U.S. foreign policy agenda, like Washington’s relationships with China and Russia, the war in Afghanistan, and the efforts to combat radical Islamist terrorism globally. But the new administration should project more clearly and consistently that advancing democracy’s fortunes worldwide is one of its overarching priorities, that it will seek to make democracy concerns a real part—even if sometimes only a modest one—of all of its major security-related engagements in the world, and that a persistent, partnership-oriented, and principled approach to democracy promotion is at the core of adapting U.S. leadership to a changed world.

Finding ways to encourage autocratic allies to respond more productively to impulses for positive political change in their own societies is not easy given the varied interests at stake, but it is not impossible.

Obviously Obama should not lapse into grandiose rhetoric or overinflated ambitions about the U.S. role vis-à-vis democracy in the world. Yet core elements of Obama’s approach—his instinct toward multilateralism, his wariness about the ability of the United States to impose its ways on other countries, and his emphasis on universal values rather than strictly American ones—are useful elements that fit today’s more difficult context, where the optimistic assumptions of twenty years ago no longer necessarily hold. Yet in his first term, Obama was surprisingly unwilling to effectively translate these instincts and his unusually strong global democratic profile into leadership on values. His reelection only cements this unusual democratic stature that he enjoys. It would be beneficial both for the United States and the world if his renewed mandate gives him new confidence and impetus to be a world leader deeply and widely engaged in the broader endeavor of expanding democracy’s reach.