A new grand strategy for US foreign policy should promote democracy through the attractive “pull” of successful example rather than the coercive “push” of power, say two leading scholars of international affairs.
The strategy should “be refocused on initiating a new phase of liberal internationalism that renews and deepens democracy globally, prevents democratic backsliding, and strengthens and consolidates bonds among democratic states,” write Daniel Deudney, associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, and G. John Ikenberry, Albert G. Milbank, a Princeton University professor of politics and international affairs:
By pursuing this strategic focus, the United States would once again embrace democracy promotion, but based on a strategy of attraction—the pull of success rather than the push of power. In short, it must aim to ensure that the dominant reality in world politics in the coming decades is a community of democracies leading global efforts to solve problems, rather than a world of weak global institutions and rising great power rivalries.
“In the 250 years since its founding, the United States has been both exceptional and indispensable: exceptional because it was the most liberal and democratic state in world politics, and indispensable because it had sufficient size and power to protect and expand the community of free states during an era when they were rare, and when rival great powers animated by radical antiliberal ideologies made serious bids to extinguish liberal democracy and dominate the world,” they write in a new paper for the Council on Foreign Relations.
“By the turn of the twenty-first century, the United States had played a major role in producing a world order that was more peaceful, prosperous, and free for more people than ever before in history,” but today the US is no longer as exceptional or indispensable “precisely because of its success in creating a free world order in which so many states are liberal, capitalist, and democratic.”
“This democratic world is America’s greatest accomplishment, but it also provides a new set of opportunities and challenges that the United States has been slow to recognize and address,” they assert.
The collapse of Soviet-style communism at the end of the Cold War and the global spread of liberal, market-based democracies generated a sense of triumphalism that proved to be as misplaced as it was shortlived:
This triumphalist moment is over. Within the United States, the domestic foundations of liberal and democratic internationalism have eroded, casting doubt on the country’s continued ability to advance or lead the free world. Public support for an expansive U.S. international role has declined, and the United States has shifted from generally supporting international law and organization to adopting a much more ambivalent and selective posture.
US public opinion is still largely internationalist, they contend, but opponents of fresh international commitments have “grown more vocal and influential,” while the democratic ‘brand’ has been tarnished by democracies’ poor performance and failure to deliver essential public goods:
Democracies everywhere are facing internal difficulties. The older Western democracies are experiencing rising inequality, economic stagnation, fiscal crises, and political gridlock. Many newer and poorer democracies, meanwhile, are beset by corruption, backsliding, and rising inequality. The great “third wave” of democratization seems to have crested, and may be receding. As democracies fail to address problems, their domestic legitimacy is diminished and increasingly challenged by resurgent nationalist, populist, and xenophobic movements. These collective shortcomings cast a dark shadow over the democratic future.
“Enduring ideologies of anticolonialism and anti-Americanism can impede solidarity” between the US and other democracies, and shifts in the global distribution of power have led to the relative decline in the global leverage of the United States and its European democratic allies, China and Russia have emerged as “revisionist challengers, offering alternative nondemocratic models of political and economic development,” some observers suggest.
“Policy toward these two authoritarian states must continue to be a mix of ‘pull’ and ‘push, informed by the hope for the success of the ‘pull’ with prudent preparations to ‘push back’ against whatever revisionist agendas these states might pursue,” say Deudney and Ikenberry:
Realizing the goals of democratic internationalism increases the likelihood that nondemocratic countries will choose engagement and democratization rather than revisionist agendas. If the democracies cannot successfully address pressing world problems, and if they fail to live up to their own values, then the legitimacy and attractiveness of democracy will diminish. Conversely, if the enlarged democratic world is able to realize its potential, then advocates of democracy everywhere will be strengthened and its enemies undermined. Improved democratic world performance will also lay the foundations for a larger and more powerful coalition to counter revisionist efforts from nondemocratic countries.
Nevertheless, the US remains “the wealthiest, most powerful, and most ideologically influential country in the world, and its potential to shape the world in positive ways remains greater than that of any other nation,” Deudney and Ikenberry submit. “Furthermore, the world of democracies is threatened less by lethal external adversaries and ideological challengers than by the problems of modern democracy itself. In short, the fate of democracies rests largely in their own hands.”
The post-Third Wave expansion of democratic states has increased diversity among the democracies, a trend that has reduced political and policy cohesion, but also enhanced interdependence and prospects for collaborative problem-solving.
“The democratic world is no longer primarily Anglo-American or even Western,” they note:
It now includes countries in every region of the world, spanning civilizational lines (Japan, South Korea, India, and Turkey), former rivals (Germany and Japan), historical allies (Canada, Britain, and France), former colonial states (India, Indonesia, Ghana, and South Africa), and hemispheric neighbors (Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina). Democracies are old and new, Western and non-Western, colonial and postcolonial, and highly developed, rapidly developing, and underdeveloped. These diverse members of the democratic world also have divergent views about themselves, their place in the world, and their futures that are heavily burdened by historical legacies.
The diversity, success and growing size of the democratic world opens the opportunity to advance democracy promotion through “a strategy of ‘pulling’ by attracting,” Deudney and Ikenberry:
If the democratic world becomes a community and successfully addresses internal, bilateral, and multilateral problems, then democracy becomes more attractive. In so doing, it strengthens the prodemocratic forces in countries that are nondemocratic or are only partially so. Conversely, a failure of existing democracies to democratically solve problems and cooperate among themselves will reduce the appeal of democracy. Furthermore, democratic cooperation diminishes the opportunities for revisionist challengers, systemic alternatives, and unfavorable realignments.
“But before these opportunities can be realized, democracies must develop a stronger sense of community,” they suggest:
Paradoxically, as the world has become more democratic and interdependent, solidarity among the democracies is now much less than it was during the period of American preeminence. This growing “democratic community gap” is a reflection of both a greater diversity and a lessened sense of mortal external threat. And that gap among the democracies is eroding at precisely the moment when community—and the cooperation it fosters—is most needed.
A new Community of Democracies? What a wonderful idea!