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A nation must think before it acts.
For decades, the United States has been at the forefront of international engagement. It has settled disputes and advanced democracy through supporting elections, civil society development, and often through educational exchanges. Yet, today, America’s disengagement is in the headlines. America’s partners and adversaries discuss contentious travel bans, shaky relations with allies, constant turnover of high-level officials, and presidential twitter feuds with members of Congress and private citizens. The message received by the outside world is of internal disarray and America’s external disinterest. In the countries of the South Caucasus, the message is twofold. First, the increasingly isolationist United States is unlikely to get involved in local disputes. And second, other leaders can point to Donald Trump’s attacks on the U.S. media to justify their own crackdowns.
These observations encourage the discussion of a significantly different policy of engagement: the promotion of democracy abroad. More specifically, we must consider U.S. policies that directly engage with the citizens of democratizing countries. Granted, democracy promotion has not been particularly successful in establishing and consolidating democracy in recipient countries. It has, however, produced many long-standing partnerships and reinforced positive perceptions of the United States. American-sponsored education programs have played a critical role in this achievement. While traditional elements of democracy promotion, such as support for elections, sometimes only create the illusion of democratization, educational exchanges help to socialize a new generation of political leaders to the ideals of democratic governance. Support for such programs is thus imperative not only for continued democratization, but also for America. This is particularly important for the South Caucasus, where significant obstacles to democratization remain. Yet, the success of educational exchanges has already been proven.
Democratic backsliding in the South Caucasus can dissuade even the most enthusiastic advocates of democracy promotion. While the policy’s success has been limited in the South Caucasus, research shows that the meaningful civic engagement that accompanies democracy promotion can successfully mold political culture, both through targeted civil society trainings and by the virtue of example.
Conventional wisdom argues that by capitalizing on the economic troubles of the West, illiberal democracy has gained the upper hand and rendered democracy promotion both ineffective and unnecessary. When evaluating support for democracy, policy makers and scholars often look for quick outcomes, overemphasize elections, and omit the role of non-systemic actors. Yet, as the experience of post-Soviet countries shows, democratization is not just about elections, and it is not an overnight project. Democratization is perhaps more about creating a democratic political culture than consistently holding farce elections, as is the case in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Although the political elites of the South Caucasus profess their commitment to democracy, various political freedom indices show that democracy has been steadily retreating in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The overarching unwillingness of Armenian politicians to comply with democratic reforms means that even should new democratic policies be adopted, the prospects for democratization remain low. This bleak political situation has in turn led to a fragmented opposition and an apathetic populace. In Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev cemented his authoritarian rule after the presidential elections of 2003. Azerbaijan’s authorities then harshly cracked down on human rights through new legislation that restricts civil society and deprives the media of its watchdog function. That First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva became the country’s vice president in a “House of Cards” move in 2017 demonstrates the dearth of democratic norms in Azerbaijan. Compared to its neighbors, Georgia is the region’s clear democratic frontrunner. The peaceful transfer of power after the 2012 parliamentary elections further presented a positive sign for continuing democratization in Georgia.
When the benefits of adopting democratic norms outweigh the costs, democracy promotion is more likely to be effective. The changing behaviors of civil society and pro-democracy opposition parties illustrate this point clearly. As civil society increasingly strives to hold governments accountable via online exposés, political parties become less inclined to engage in electoral fraud. These transformations are more likely to occur when involved stakeholders have been socialized to the norms of open and democratic governance. This is where American democracy promotion policies come into play.
The United States’ policy of democracy promotion has suffered a number of drawbacks. Critics argue that it is both a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores regional particularities and that it is inconsistently enforced across the globe. Low credibility of American commitments and counteraction from non-democratic regimes further impede the policy’s chances of success.
However, research also shows that the outcomes of democracy promotion are nuanced. This nuance is especially visible when we take a closer look at the various levels and sectors of democracy promotion. This is where programs such as academic exchanges come into play: they are significantly less expensive, do not carry the burden of requiring immediate success, and are free of the damaging implications of a military operation.
Pouring financial resources into countries where corrupt elites thrive at the expense of their populations is not only wasteful, but is also counterproductive. The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts aid to several such countries, even if perhaps not for democracy-related reasons. Yet, engaging with the population in an apolitical manner, often through educational opportunities, both improves the United States’ image abroad and is a cost-effective method for promoting cooperation with the U.S. regional policies.
International educational programs are a form of public diplomacy; they establish intercultural communication, diminish stereotypes, and build political partnerships premised on cultural understanding. This does not mean that any U.S. foreign policy approach will be viewed favorably, but it does increase the probability that individuals who have been immersed in these programs will have a more positive view of U.S. positions. The example of Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia, who is an alumnus of a U.S.-sponsored graduate program, illustrates how an American-friendly political leader can spark democratization, transform a political culture, and set his country on the course to its first peaceful transition of power. As a bonus, his election also decidedly transformed the country’s foreign policy orientation towards the United States.
The United States understands the transformative power of education. It has spent many decades educating and cultivating the next generations of foreign leaders through government-funded programs. The U.S. Department of State runs these educational programs, which provide funding for at least two semesters of study at an American university to individuals selected through nation-wide competitions in their countries. Programs such as the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) for high school students, Global Ugrad for undergraduate students, and the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship for graduate students have brought thousands of young people to U.S. universities with the condition they must return to their countries for at least two years to apply their newly acquired knowledge.
A round of interviews with Ugrad and Flex alumni conducted for this piece reveal that 90% of alumni return home having acquired an improved understanding of and a greater appreciation for America, even though their program did not entail any political messaging. Of course, the real impact of these programs on domestic politics and on relations with the United States is yet to be thoroughly researched and documented. Yet, anecdotal evidence is plentiful showing how these alumni create change by aspiring for more inclusive societies, improving education systems, or dispelling misconceptions about the United States in their home countries.
Recent studies show that “leaders educated at Western universities are more likely to democratize than other leaders.” When societal and political elites have already been socialized to the advantages of open and democratic governance, the implementation of democracy promotion projects is likely to have higher chances of success. The most telling illustration of the effect of these programs is the reaction of illiberal regimes. In 2012, Russia passed a “foreign agent” law that effectively expelled USAID and the American Councils, a U.S. education NGO that administers the FLEX program. Simultaneously, Russia reinvigorated its own youth-related initiatives.
Belief in the formative nature of education dates all the way back to Plato, who argued that education molds the soul. Research shows that Western education both socializes leaders to embrace democratic governance and creates transnational linkages that alter the strategic understanding of democratization. When societal or political elites have been socialized to the advantages of open governance, the process of democratization has a higher chance of overcoming pernicious obstacles. People who have participated in Western-sponsored educational programs often make the difference in democratic transitions. This is an area where the U.S. can make a meaningful impact with minimal costs.
Interviews for this piece were supported by the Institute of the Armenian Studies at the University of Southern California.