The Leader of the Free World itself, the world’s longest standing and most successful democracy, is failing to promote democracy within its own borders—so, why has the U.S. government continued to reflect democracy promotion as a staple of American foreign policy? Although interventionist foreign policy to promote democracy has had limited success, this method of protecting countries from authoritarian regimes does not always succeed. To encourage worldwide democratic consolidation, Western democracies should concentrate on retaining the strength of their governmental institutions and political norms. Only credible democracies are able to promote international organizations as a protection method against authoritarianism, and support free trade between and global integration of non-democratic countries.

During his tenure as President, Woodrow Wilson encouraged the United States to look beyond its economic interests and to define and set foreign policy in terms of ideals, morality, and the spread of democracy abroad. Wilson declared that the United States would abandon the materialistic programs and policies of his predecessors—mainly referring to Latin American imperialism—and established that the U.S. would be the guard against war and global domination, as well as a mediator for ensuring political harmony and commercial cooperation. This set of assumptions were the foundations of American foreign policy for almost a century.

Despite this trend in foreign policy, western intervention to influence governments has failed numerous times. United States’ Cold War diplomacy in Nicaragua is a major example of a failure of U.S. attempts to stabilize a developing country. The United States kept a contingent force in Nicaragua almost continually from 1912 until 1933. Although reduced in 1913, the presence of U.S. forces served as a reminder of the willingness of the United States to use force over the country and its desire to keep conservative governments in power. Despite the assurance of U.S. “aid” to solidify a conservative-liberal regime, Nicaragua found itself experiencing constant leadership changes and was left unstable, demonstrating the inability of the U.S. to establish stable government structures in other countries.

Doubts about U.S. democracy promotion do not diminish the importance of establishing a more democratic world order. The liberal principles and institutions of democracies greatly affect the conduct of the foreign affairs. It is evident that democratic states are more capable of building soft power. Soft power is diplomacy with other countries that doesn’t involve war. This structure can be created through economic ties like free trade, but also through cultural contact. By analyzing free trade economics it becomes evident that once states become interdependent, through the reliance on trading resources, they are likely to compromise and become less resistant when making policy decisions, as not to disrupt the beneficial system of interdependence. Global sway depends more on this concept of soft power rather than threat of force.

As a subset of soft power, democratic peace theory posits that democracies are hesitant to engage in armed conflict with other identified democracies. Democracies hold their leaders accountable to the public, democracies share values of free trade, and are founded on fundamental beliefs outlined through their institutions; all of these factors, and more, combine to dissuade state-sponsored violence. In The Philosophy of Kant, Kant outlines the reasoning behind this theory as follows: “if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared, nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war.” Once states share common values due to the structure of their governments, there is a stronger sense of trust, admiration, and ability to collaborate. These are required characteristics for soft power development.

The success of soft power is dependent on the extent to which the predominant form of nationalism in the recipient country is friendly to interventions from the outside and specifically to interventions by the providers of assistance.  Professor Fish, a political scientist who studies democracy and regime change in developing and postcommunist countries, explains that “the character of nationalism has real implications for international interactions. French nationalism poses a permanent challenge to the EU and its institutions. Italian nationalism does not. It readily accommodates European transnationalism. Relatively speaking, French nationalism is prickly to the foreigner’s touch; Italian nationalism is smooth.” Opposition to western democracy promotion is often a reaction to American interventionism, not democracy itself. It is argued that American democracy promotion is simply a facade to hide U.S. expansionist tendencies.

Resistance to Democratic Aid

What are the consequences when a country is either resistant to U.S. interventionism or when established democracies decide to refrain from intervening in certain countries? As history has demonstrated, unstable governments create conditions that are conducive to the spread of radical groups or the influence of anti-democratic expansionist governments. Take Italy’s Five Star Movement as an example. Low income levels and extreme poverty caused by the 2008 financial crisis in Italy left many in discontent with the economic system of the European Union and led to the election of the anti-establishment prime minister candidate Giuseppe Conte. Italy’s economic instability created an environment in which  an anti-immigrant and euro-skeptic populist candidate could appeal to the common Italian by painting the institution of the European Union as an enemy to the lives of all Italians.

Fig. 1: Luigi Di Maio (L), the party leader of the Five Star Movement
Sourcec: Andreas Solaro, Getty Images

For many reasons including extreme polarization and the eroding of liberal values, the strength of democracy within the United States is weakening, consequently taking away the country’s credibility to promote democracy. As the strength of the U.S. political system has declined, so has the favorable perception of democracy worldwide. The United States has lent and continues to lend economic and military aid to a surprising amount of Freedom House identified dictatorships. The Trump administration has decided to veer from Obama’s policy of denying Egypt access to the foreign military financing budget and has now released $195 million in military aid to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, despite the president’s failure to address civil rights issues within the country. The continuance of U.S. aid to illiberal, non-democratic regimes has damaged the perception of democratic values.Therefore, overcoming resistance to democracy promotion begins with disassociating democracy with only the western world.

Solutions to Resistance

One way this can be achieved is through varying the sources of democratic aid, either through NGO’s or international institutions. The incorporation of NGO’s into non-democratic societies, not only provides aid but increases participation in civil society. Civil society is a staple in fully functional democratic regimes. Civil society creates ways in which to monitor and restrain the power of political and state leaders, promote political participation, and allow a platform for the diverse interests of citizens of the same country.

Post Cold War efforts of the United States to maintain the new world order, including establishing and enlarging international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, paralleled by the increasing amount of european countries joining the European Union testifies to the ability of organizations to inspire favorable views of democratic politics, free markets, and fundamental values such as human rights. The IMF functions by promoting international financial stability and monetary cooperation and facilitating international trade to help reduce global poverty, but it also encourages reforms of governments through conditional requirements connected to loans. Despite successes of improving governance through conditionality agreements, it is true that creating economic growth while promoting good governance is a difficult task for any type of organization, causing negative views of many organizations when the effects of intervention are far from ideal.

Democracy can also become the favorable option without direct intervention by previously established democracies or by institutions. Ideology and domestic self-interest play a key role in the attraction to democracy. Globalization, including open markets and foreign investment, encourages economic development, accompanied by industrialization, urban development, and greater personal economic status. Thus, encouraging a democratic government that provides the rights to maintain this economic stability. This can be seen with the growth of the Chinese middle class. There are theories that, since, pro-democracy leanings are rooted in material interests and cultural values, when the middle class of a country begins to grow, they will begin to desire a more democratic government because of the need for protection from arbitrary government. (Nathan, “The Puzzle of the Chinese Middle Class”)

While international organizations and socioeconomic factors inherent to the global system are capable of influencing the rise of democratic governments, the most successful way to encourage democracy is to demonstrate that the principles are in place to create policy based on the desires of the citizens, while also erasing the fear of government abuse of power over basic human rights. How a government behaves at home, in international institutions, and in foreign policy can affect others by the influence of its example. And, as we see the actions of the strongest world democracy becoming anti-democratic, it is difficult to justify defining democracy as the most beneficial and functional form of government. As Paul Howe, professor of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick, so masterfully explains, “the challenge, therefore, is not merely to bring people back into democratic politics, but to draw them again into the social contract–into a sense that they belong to a society where core principles essential to living together should rightly be respected and observed.”

Post-World War Wilsonian era diplomacy advocated for democracy and world peace, but the policy reflecting these ideals was deficient. In our current political climate, the goal of successful democratic intervention becomes less and less feasible as we witness U.S. democratic values waning. Thus, the importance of redeveloping U.S. soft power and encouraging democracy through the structures of institutions should be the foreign policy route that the western world embraces.

Featured Image Source: Image by KAL

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