Democracy Promotion's Discontent

As Russia's military rumbled into Georgia last week, the United Nations Security Council was nowhere to be seen. And how could it be otherwise given Moscow's veto power? This sad fact would seem to give a boost to the notion promoted by Senator John McCain and many prominent Democrats that the United States needs to forge a new "League of Democracies" to take action when an authoritarian regime like Russia decides to throw its weight around.

Big ideas like that might have appeal, but they are most successful when there's a clear political benefit to pursuing them. And the politics among both liberals and conservatives aren't working in the League's favor right now.

For many Democratic Party partisans, the idea of democracy promotion has become tarnished because of its association with George W. Bush's "freedom agenda." After experiencing the debacle in Iraq and seeing Hamas get elected to power in Palestine, some Democrats have had enough of democracy. Recent opinion polls show that far fewer Democrats than Republicans believe that the U.S. should "help establish democracy in other countries." As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright laments, Bush has "given democracy a bad name." This is ironic, since the last time a Democrat wrested the White House from Republican hands, democracy promotion was one of the few foreign policy themes liberals embraced.

In the 1992 campaign against George Bush's father, Bill Clinton made the spread of liberal values globally central to his foreign policy vision. This was part of being a New Democrat, but Clinton also saw the political payoff: he sought to use democracy promotion as a way of broadening the reach of the Democratic Party. In particular, he and his top campaign advisers labored to win back the neo-conservatives, who had abandoned the Democrats during the Reagan years, but by 1992 were deeply disgruntled with George H.W. Bush's shakiness in standing up for liberal values. By stressing intervention in the Balkans and promising to confront the "butchers of Beijing," Clinton's hopes were realized as many prominent neo-conservatives crossed party lines to endorse his candidacy.

The Clinton administration championed the idea throughout the 1990s, even trying to articulate a strategy of "Democratic Enlargement" that would replace the Cold War's containment doctrine. Clinton used democracy promotion as a rationale for policies from ending war and genocide in the Balkans to expanding NATO. And toward the end of his presidency, Clinton spearheaded the creation of the Community of Democracies, which is a talk-shop version of the proposed League. But all that has been forgotten by many on the political left.

Meanwhile, among conservatives, there's a deep divide about the future of democracy promotion. Despite the pounding the neo-conservatives have taken, these idealists are still hoping that they can convince Americans of the need for grand global projects in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Some McCain supporters seemed gleeful that Russia's invasion of Georgia had bolstered the case for the League of Democracies. The idea appeals to those who have long questioned the legitimacy of the United Nations for kow-towing to such countries as Cuba, Syria, North Korea, and Iran.

But the conservative realists are pushing back. They see a world in which the big problems -- like terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and climate change -- can't be managed without Russia and China, no matter how undemocratic they might be. These conservatives see no reason to talk about creating an organization that would exclude and anger these two authoritarian giants -- provoking, they argue, the very kind of bad behavior we've seen from Russia recently. And more fundamentally, they doubt whether countries in the Middle East and elsewhere are even capable of becoming democratic, regardless of how hard the U.S. tries.

In the early 1990s, democracy was on the march around the world, America's global standing was unmatched, and making the promotion of freedom a centerpiece of the foreign policy agenda had political benefits. In this election season, the trends are all running the other way. China cowed its critics during the Olympics, Russia has looted and pillaged a staunch pro-Western nation while the UN and NATO were tied up in knots, and Sudan and Zimbabwe thumb their noses at the United States.

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama both argue that America must continue to be a staunch defender of democracy. Yet given how politically tarnished democracy promotion efforts have become during the past seven years, any effort they undertake must overcome stiff resistance on both the right and the left.

For more, please check out our book, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11.