Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Atlantic Council Freedom

For a time, it seemed that the Bush administration had discredited U.S. efforts to promote democracy. During this period, political scientist Thomas Carothers wrote, “Washington’s use of the term ‘democracy promotion’ has come to be seen overseas not as the expression of a principled American aspiration but as a code word for ‘regime change’ – namely, the replacement of bothersome governments by military force or other means.”

Democracy had become a bad word because it was foreign, unrealistic, and ethnocentric. Consequently, good governance became the new term of art, and Bush’s second-term cabinet officials were heralded as being more pragmatic. The United States seemed to admire Beijing’s instrumental foreign policy.

With about 120 countries in the world that practice some form of democracy today, its image should never have been tarnished. Since the Bush administration retired, the Obama administration seems to have picked up the democracy promotion agenda. Secretary of State Clinton has emphasized the importance of democracy in many speeches, which now extends to Internet freedom. During her major foreign policy address last summer at the Council on Foreign Relations, she said our “Administration will stand for accountable and transparent governance, and support those who work to build democratic institutions wherever they live.”

On numerous occasions, President Obama reminded the world of the importance he places on democracy. While in Ghana, he told parliamentarians there, “Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not.” Or upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he said “I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear.” And during the recent State of the Union Address he told Congress:

As we have for over 60 years, America takes these actions because our destiny is connected to those beyond our shores. But we also do it because it is right. That’s why, as we meet here tonight, over 10,000 Americans are working with many nations to help the people of Haiti recover and rebuild. That’s why we stand with the girl who yearns to go to school in Afghanistan; why we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran; why we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea. For America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity. Always.

When the President’s national security strategy is released later this year, democracy promotion is likely to remain a key plank of U.S. policy.

At the same time democracy promotion emerged as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy, the Journal of Democracy provided a forum for scholars to debate the theory and praxis of democracy. In its current issue, a group of scholars reflect on the journal’s 20-year history and provide good advice for governments that seek to instill democratic practices, promote rule of law, and support civil society. As the editors note, transitions to democracy have largely been a success story, but they have not necessarily improved societies as democratic theory suggests. The world has seen unprecedented growth in electoral democracies – there were just 40 democratic regimes in 1974, 76 in 1990, and 117 in 1995 – but in many cases, elites have maintained power, middle classes have not grown, personal freedom remains restricted through informal mechanisms, and authoritarianism persists in key regions of the world.

Taking up these issues, democratization scholar Philippe Schmitter (professor emeritus at the European University Institute in Florence) is optimistic. He argues that “no matter how many citizens disapprove of their elected leaders and shun politics as unsavory, there is virtually no sign of mass desire for any form of government other than democracy, and few signs of growing support for avowedly undemocratic parties or politicians.” No matter how flawed, democratic regimes have legitimacy.

Schmitter’s co-author Guillermo O’Donnell disagrees slightly, noting that there is a trend toward tighter authoritarianism in the world. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way explain this through an unlevel playing field thesis. That is, “democratic competition is undermined less by electoral fraud or repression [as in the past] than by unequal access to state institutions, resources, and the media.” Once in power, the dominant political party exercises a familiar incumbency advantage that gradually shuts down political competition stunting democratic progress. Given how subtle this can be, it largely escapes international criticism and illiberal democrats maintain power.

Finally, a number of authors in the journal consider the staying power of authoritarian regimes present in Asia and the Middle East. In particular, Larry Diamond explores why there are no Arab democracies. Dispelling the myth of religion by citing Islamic democracies such as Turkey, Indonesia, and Senegal, and dismissing Arab culture through polling data that show popular support for democracy in Arab countries, he cites structural reasons for authoritarianism sustained by oil revenues. For him, democracy won’t come to the Middle East until one emerges there, U.S. policy stresses structural reforms, and oil prices decline to force Arab governments to change.

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.  These views are his own.  Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking on democracy at the Atlantic Council Freedom’s Challenge awards ceremony in Berlin, November 8, 2009.