Democracy Promotion as Foreign Policy

US Policy on Promoting Democracy

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Nabil Fahmy give a press conference
US Secretary of State John Kerry in Cairo in 2013.

NurPhoto/Getty Images 

Promoting democracy abroad has been one of the main elements of U.S. foreign policy for decades. Some critics argue that it is harmful to promote democracy "in countries without liberal values" because it creates "illiberal democracies, which pose grave threats to freedom." Others argue that the foreign policy of promoting democracy abroad fosters economic development in those places, reduces threats to the United States at home and creates partners for better economic trade and development. There are varying degrees of democracies ranging from full to limited and even flawed. Democracies can also be authoritarian, meaning that people can vote but have little or no choice in what or whom they vote for.

A Foreign Policy 101 Story

When rebellion brought down the presidency of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt on July 3, 2013, the United States called for a quick return to order and democracy, per statements from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on July 8, 2013.

"During this transitional period, Egypt's stability and democratic political order are at stake, and Egypt will not be able to emerge from this crisis unless its people come together to find a nonviolent and inclusive path forward."
"We remain actively engaged with all sides, and we are committed to supporting the Egyptian people as they seek to salvage their nation's democracy."
"[W]e will work with the transitional Egyptian government to promote a quick and responsible return to a sustainable, democratically elected civilian government."
"We also call on all political parties and movements to remain engaged in dialogue, and to commit to participating in a political process to hasten the return of full authority to a democratically elected government."

Democracy in U.S. Foreign Policy

There's no mistaking that promotion of democracy is one of the cornerstones of American foreign policy. It hasn't always been that way. A democracy, of course, is a government which invests power in its citizens through the franchise, or the right to vote. Democracy comes from Ancient Greece and was filtered to the West and the United States through such Enlightenment thinkers as Jean-Jaques Rousseau and John Locke. The United States is a democracy and a republic, meaning that the people speak through elected representatives. At its start, American democracy was not universal: Only white, adult (over 21), property-holding males could vote. The 14th, 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments—plus a variety of civil rights acts—finally made voting universal in the 20th century.

For its first 150 years, the United States was concerned with its own domestic problems—constitutional interpretation, states rights, enslavement, expansion--more than it was with world affairs. Then the United States focused on pushing its way onto the world stage in an era of imperialism.

But with World War I, the United States began moving in a different direction. Much of President Woodrow Wilson's proposal for a post-war Europe—the Fourteen Points—dealt with "national self-determination." That meant imperial powers like France, Germany and Great Britain should divest themselves of their empires, and former colonies should form their own governments.

Wilson intended for the United States to lead those newly independent nations into democracies, but Americans were of a different mind. After the carnage of the war, the public wanted only to retreat into isolationism and let Europe work out its own problems.

After World War II, however, the United States could no longer retreat into isolationism. It actively promoted democracy, but that was often a hollow phrase that allowed the United States to counter Communism with compliant governments around the globe.

Democracy promotion continued after the Cold War. President George W. Bush linked it to the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

How Is Democracy Promoted?

Of course, there are ways of promoting democracy other than warfare.

The State Department's website says that it supports and promotes democracy in a variety of areas:

  • Promotion of religious freedom and tolerance
  • Civil society strengthening
  • Elections and the political process
  • Labor rights, economic opportunity, and inclusive growth
  • Independent media, press freedom, and internet freedom
  • Criminal justice, law enforcement, and rule of Law
  • Promotion of human rights
  • Promotion of disability rights
  • Promotion of women’s rights
  • Fighting corruption and supporting good governance
  • Justice

The programs above are funded and administered through the State Department and USAID.

Pros and Cons of Democracy Promotion

Proponents of democracy promotion say that it creates stable environments, which in turn fosters strong economies. In theory, the stronger a nation's economy and the more educated and empowered its citizenry, the less it needs foreign aid. So, democracy promotion and US foreign aid are creating strong nations around the globe.

Opponents say that democracy promotion is just American imperialism by another name. It binds regional allies to the United States with foreign aid incentives, which the United States will withdraw if the country does not progress toward democracy. Those same opponents charge that you cannot force-feed democracy on the people of any nation. If the pursuit of democracy is not homegrown, then is it really democracy?

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Jones, Steve. "Democracy Promotion as Foreign Policy." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Jones, Steve. (2023, April 5). Democracy Promotion as Foreign Policy. Retrieved from Jones, Steve. "Democracy Promotion as Foreign Policy." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).