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.
Engage with us: the New American Engagement Initiative welcomes feedback. Its success or failure hinges on the willingness of leading experts to scrutinize prior assumptions, consider alternative explanations, and be open to new approaches that collectively rethink, reshape, and reinvigorate US global engagement. Explore our program by navigating through our content, past and future events and experts pages.
May 17, 2021
New American Engagement Initiative
The New American Engagement Initiative, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, challenges prevailing assumptions governing US foreign policy and helps policymakers manage risks, set priorities, and allocate resources wisely and efficiently. The United States confronts a range of national security challenges, but the marketplace of ideas defines these too expansively, fails to prioritize them effectively, and limits the range of options for addressing them. Unconventional thinking is needed to help Americans put dangers into perspective, and encourage them to embrace global engagement through diplomacy, trade, and mutually beneficial cultural exchange.
Jan 12, 2021
Assumptions Testing Series
The New American Engagement Initiative’s Assumptions Testing series explores some of the foundational beliefs that guide US foreign policy. By questioning the conventional wisdom, and exposing these assumptions to close scrutiny, the series aims to open a new seam in the policy debate and generate a more lively, fruitful, and effective strategic dialogue – one that is capable of producing a sustainable, nonpartisan strategy for US global engagement.
Feb 18, 2021
Reality Check Series
The New American Engagement Initiative’s Reality Checks are short briefs dedicated to exploring a particular policy or set of policies, assessing their efficacy, and, where appropriate, proposing alternatives. Reality Checks are published regularly and tied to the news of the day or derive from NAEI’s Assumptions Testing series. All are succinct and straight-to-the-point. The briefs are designed for busy professionals anxious for pragmatic and timely policy options.