The Obama administration’s approach to democracy promotion is marked by continuity with its predecessors, says a new analysis. But the bipartisan consensus in favor of advancing democracy may be eroded as the rise of authoritarian powers “will make the projection of American political values more difficult, resistance to it easier and the promotion of competing alternatives more likely.”
The record of Obama’s first term in office “confirms that, for all the difficulties and contradictions it produces, US presidents persistently fall back on democracy as a theme and goal of their foreign policy,” Nicolas Bouchet writes in International Affairs, the journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
“Predictions that the presidency of George W. Bush, with its ‘Freedom Agenda’ tied up with the controversial and unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would inoculate American leaders against the urge to shape the political evolution of other countries, have proved wrong,” he asserts.
Democracy assistance “gained an institutional foothold” in the early 1980s, he notes, citing the formation of the National Endowment for Democracy and its four core institutes: the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, the Free Trade Union Institute [now the Solidarity Center] and the Center for International Private Enterprise.
Bouchet identifies three levels at which advancing democracy abroad influences US foreign policy:
The ideational level locates the source of the democracy tradition in the relationships among deep-rooted American beliefs about political order, national identity, national interest and international relations. Over time, at the strategic level these beliefs have shaped American aspirations and influenced the setting of broad goals that include the spread of American political values abroad. However, it is mostly in the past 30 years or so that these strategic goals have been translated gradually into concrete actions designed to promote democracy in specific countries at the policy level.
The degree of continuity between successive administrations has been obscured by the realism–idealism debate, argues Bouchet, co-editor of US Presidents and Democracy Promotion (Routledge, forthcoming 2012).
“Despite the differing approaches and emphases of successive administrations, there has been a great degree of continuity in US democracy promotion since at least the Reagan years—both on the positive and on the negative side.”
“Where it concerns democracy, the case for continuity rests on two arguments,” he contends:
…first, that the projection of liberal values has traditionally been one central element of American strategic thinking; second, that this has rarely been the uppermost priority, nor has it generally been allowed to supersede vital economic and security interests where they have clashed. In short, democracy along liberal lines is one fundamental national interest that the United States traditionally has pursued abroad after or alongsidesecurity and economic interests.
With respect to the pro-democracy revolts of the ‘Arab Spring’, the Obama administration has “shown willingness, at least once confronted with the inevitable, not to try to dictate the path of transitions, certainly when compared to American engagement with Russia and other post-communist countries in the 1990s,” says Bouchet:
As he begins his second term, Obama stands squarely in the mainstream of the democracy tradition and in line with his predecessors, and there is no evidence to date that his presidency will mark any great shift …That is not to say that the democracy tradition is impervious to forces of change or is bound to keep moving in the direction of more democracy promotion by the United States in more cases.
….any significant change in the democracy tradition, and especially any retreat from democracy promotion, should be expected to come not through the agency of particular presidents but from realignment in the international balance of power. Should global changes in that direction continue over the long term, with the rise of different democratic and autocratic powers, they will make the projection of American political values more difficult, resistance to it easier and the promotion of competing alternatives more likely, and may perhaps even erode the world-view of US leaders that is based on the inseparable intrinsic and utilitarian value of democracy to their country.