The Importance of 'Democracy Promotion'

"Out with the old; in with the new." This aphorism has produced some strange results over the years as one administration succeeds another as the curator of American foreign policy.

In the Reagan era, for example, it was forbidden to use the phrase "human rights," a term identified with the administration of President Jimmy Carter. It mattered not that "human rights" -- both as a term of art and a legal concept -- had been long accepted by the international community.

The overly enthusiastic embrace of "democracy promotion" by the Bush administration could have smothered that phrase for years to come (even though both U.S. parties previously had endorsed the policy). Fortunately President Obama resisted the temptation to abandon it. Eloquent and culturally-sensitive speeches by the President in Prague, Cairo, and Accra effectively promoted this fundamental American value and with a "tough love" approach that implied we wanted to maintain a high standard.

The Bush administration often sounded as though it was lecturing from on high, while at the same time it pursued policies in its war on terror that made it sound hypocritical. When President Bush used democratic change as a rationale for the war in Iraq, many around the world began to see the promotion of democracy as a euphemism for regime change.

The Obama administration has set a high bar in advancing this value proposition. It must now take care to promote democratic change the right way, creatively integrating its sophisticated engagement approach, development strategies, and "smart power" philosophy. This means joining others in supporting democratic change, avoiding any hint of ambivalence even where security seems the overriding immediate concern, and providing resources to civil society organizations to support counterparts in transitional states.

A "smart power" foreign policy assumes a realist's understanding of geo-strategic considerations, but it also appreciates the benefits of positive American values in a world arena where ideology still has a role to play. We promote these values through public diplomacy, foreign assistance programs, and diplomatic and citizen initiatives that reflect our nation's democratic ideals.

It is true that elections do not always translate into full-blown democracy. Yet, when the people of a nation or territory decide to resolve conflict using an electoral process, it behooves us to do all in our power to help, even when the outcome may not be convenient (as in the case of the Hamas victory over the Palestinian Authority or the muddled result in Afghanistan). A process that will lead to some degree of legitimacy for the government that emerges can avoid an even more costly conflict.

New democracies with weak institutions are fragile and susceptible to failure. The need for assistance is greatest in the decade following a first election. Yet, when a country's electoral process is no longer front-page news, we tend to lose interest. Our promotion of democracy carries with it the responsibility to follow through.

As Fareed Zakaria has observed, new democracies can become "illiberal," as we have seen in Afghanistan, Venezuela, Iraq, and Bolivia. Yet, US policy in these states should not abandon grassroots democrats. When democratic institutions are attacked, as was the case in Venezuela, the United States should publicly denounce these efforts. The right approach is to respect the formal lines of sovereignty, but to work with the appropriate international organizations to isolate the regime in question and to offer open support to those who oppose the rolling back of democracy.

Many liberals argue today that stability is a more realistic goal in a chaotic world. They even see advantages in the relative efficiency of autocratic regimes. Yet these regimes will eventually meet political and economic pressures that will either force internal change or create conflict that can be contained only with violence. When this happens, the United States is better off having been consistent with its fundamental principles. Short-term, so-called "pragmatism" can place us on the wrong side of history.

Democratic institutions that function well offer checks on arbitrary behavior and enable the participation of citizens, an essential requirement of development progress. Where these societal attributes are missing, governments are more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of global markets and popular unrest. A real test is the management of economic downturns. When growth rates drop, tensions increase and stability is an erstwhile illusion.

The United States, more than any nation, has exemplified the journey that is democracy. We have seen our institutions and laws evolve; we have become more inclusive; and we have broken barriers that other societies have found daunting. Barack Obama has personified this mostly positive journey. His presidency and his policies should continue to promote democracy by marrying our fundamental values with "smart power."