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Assumptions Testing Series

December 9, 2021

Assumption #4: The United States should prioritize the promotion of democracy around the world over other key US objectives

By Mathew Burrows and Evan Cooper

What’s the issue?

The promotion of democracy around the world is a central component of US foreign policy. Policymakers often assume that the United States should continue to prioritize democracy promotion over other goals. Undergirding this view is the belief that the American people support democracy promotion as a key foreign policy objective and that the United States has the capacity to successfully support democratization abroad.

An analysis of these assumptions shows that the US practice of democracy promotion is inconsistent – and, at times, counterproductive. US leaders frequently proclaim the universality of democracy while selectively supporting democratic movements and maintaining relationships with autocrats. Meanwhile, democracy promotion is not a high priority for most Americans. And in the cases where the United States has backed democratic movements, the results have been mixed. A global trend of democratic backsliding calls into question the efficacy of US democracy support.

Recalibrating the US approach to democracy promotion

Attempts by the United States to impose democratic governance have failed. The most glaring example is Iraq, but most democracy support programs have not produced resilient democratic states. The use of US power to advance democracy is a worthwhile cause, but policymakers should reassess what works, and why.

An examination of the assumption that the US should promote democracy over other key US objectives leads to the following recommendations:

  • US democracy support should follow a triage approach, providing assistance to countries on the precipice of democratic backsliding, while investing in civil societies that hold promise for advancing democratic values
  • The United States should leverage its assets while working with partners and allies to fight disinformation and support equitable economic growth and entrepreneurship, while exercising caution about relying too heavily on supporting elections and empowering foreign militaries.
  • The United States should focus its efforts and resources on the health of its own democracy in order to receive buy-in domestically and from foreign publics for democratization efforts.

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Photo by Eric Hershman, used under the Creative Common 2.0 generic attribution license