Henry Farrell: Democracy Promotion


I’m Henry Farrell, an assistant professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. I’m a regular member of the academic group-blog Crooked Timber.
There’s an interesting three way conversation going on about the role of democracy promotion in US foreign policy. Michael Lind starts the ball rolling, denouncing the claim that the US has always been in the business of democracy promotion. John Ikenberry dissents politely, arguing that US presidents have “tied their visions of postwar peace to a liberal international community led by democracies,” with Bush as an exception (he may be interested in democracy promotion, but not in a liberal international community). Finally, Dan Nexon seems to disagree with both, claiming contra Lind that there is a tradition of democracy promotion, but that Bush’s policy isn’t very different from that of his predecessors. A “crusade” that involves only two countries is hardly a crusade.
It seems to me that Ikenberry’s argument is closest to the truth. US foreign policy involved a sporadic, opportunistic, but nonetheless sometimes effective policy of democracy promotion during the Cold War and its aftermath. But there are important differences between democracy promotion as practiced, say, in post World War II Europe, and the kind of democracy ‘promotion’ that the Bush administration has tried. The former drew a very clear link between an appropriate international order and domestic democratic politics. After WWII, the US used the Marshall plan to promote cooperation among European democracies, and then encouraged the integration process that led to the European Union. It correctly judged that democracy would be more likely to take root at the domestic level if there were appropriate institutions at the regional and international level. Most importantly, it agreed to limit its own future freedom of action in order to reassure its European allies that it wouldn’t use its vast power to hurt their interests. This worked beyond anyone’s expectations, creating a thriving set of regional institutions. These in turn supported a democratic zone that expanded to absorb recent dictatorships such as Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1980’s, and ten Eastern European countries last year (that this model is now having difficulty in expanding further shouldn’t detract from the fact that no-one expected it to expand this far in the first place). Both the EU and the CSCE/OSCE have used human rights norms to promote democracy and more stable international politics. In this era, democracy-building was, by definition, a multilateral process.
In contrast, the current US approach is unilateralist and distrusts international institutions as such. Very obviously, the current administration has little interest in any institutional arrangements that might hamper its freedom of action. It has weakened existing institutions (such as NATO) in favour of ad-hoc, short term “coalitions of the willing.” As a result, the US failed to take up the real opportunities that it had post-September 11 to reshape the post-World War II institutional architecture so as better to deal with new security threats, and perhaps help spread democracy to regions of the world where it doesn’t exist or is fragile. Indeed, the US is now in a position where it would have difficulty in pursuing such initiatives even if it really wanted to. No-one else trusts it to condition its own behaviour on any institutional commitments that it might make. On those few occasions when the administration has made noises last year about creating OSCE-type institutions for the Middle East, it hasn’t been able to garner support from allies. A democracy promotion policy which doesn’t pay much attention to how the international environment can be reshaped to support democracies is, at best, half-right.
Henry Farrell