Democracy Promotion As Foreign Policy

Pros And Cons

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.

Look at these statements from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on July 8.

  • "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

    No mistaking it, promotion of democracy is one of the cornerstone's of American foreign policy. It hasn't always been that way.

  • Refresher: What Is Democracy? 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 filtered to the West and the United States through such Enlightenment thinkers as Jean-Jaques Rousseau and John Locke. The U.S. is a democracy and a republic, meaning that the people speak through elected representatives. At it's 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, slavery, expansion -- more than it was world affairs. Then the U.S. focused on pushing its way onto the world stage in an era of imperialism.

    But with World War I, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. could no longer retreat into isolationism. It actively promoted democracy, but that was often a hollow phrase that allowed the U.S. 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 Do You Promote Democracy?

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

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

    • Strengthening democratic institutions
    • Supporting civil society
    • Enhancing the rule of law and judicial independence
      • Promoting political pluralism and free, fair electoral processes
      • Protecting independent media
      • Promoting Internet freedom
      • Promoting human rights for all, including women.

      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 U.S. 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 U.S. with foreign aid incentives, which the U.S. 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 home-grown, then is it really democracy?

      How Many Democracies In The World

      The State Department lists 117 democratic governments worldwide, while a recent report from The Economist Intelligence Unit lists 165. Note, however, that there are varied 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.

      Nevertheless, the State Department is happy to take credit for global democratic advances. "When historians write about U.S. foreign policy at the end of the 20th century, they will identify the growth of democracy--from 30 countries in 1974 to 117 today--as one of the United States' greatest legacies," the State Department says.

      Regardless of the arguments, stats, or statistical interpretations, democracy promotion is ingrained in the American ethos. From its early days of Manifest Destiny, the United States has seen the spread of democracy as something of an evangelical mission. Whether in Democratic administrations or Republican, that will not change.


      Democracy Index 2013. Huffington Post. March 21, 2013. Accessed, July 13, 2013.

      U.S. State Department. Democracy Promotion. Accessed July 12, 2013.

      White House. Press Briefing, July 8, 2013. Accessed July 12, 2013.