For most of the past decade, I’ve taught college students a seminar on the topic of American democracy promotion. Most of them think first of the Iraq War when they think about democracy promotion. And they are deeply skeptical of US foreign policy, especially as it relates to issues of democracy and human rights. They have good reasons to be skeptical.
American democracy promotion has many flaws. First, it’s hypocritical. After all, the United States is far from a perfect democracy itself. Its credibility as a champion of democratic values globally is frayed, at best.
Second, it’s inconsistent. The United States says it cares about democracy, but it is allied with some of the world’s worst autocracies, like Saudi Arabia. That’s not going to change any time soon, given the military and economic prerogatives that (seem to) demand the US maintain close relationships with certain repressive states with something valuable to offer.
Third, democracy promotion has been stated as the justification for failed policies that ultimately had little to do with the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad. The best (or worst) recent examples: the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Finally, even when American democracy promotion is being pursued sincerely and in countries where local activists are crying out for outside help, it doesn’t always work. Democracy is difficult to maintain. Foreign aid programs don’t always go where they’re needed most and can be manipulated by authoritarian rulers. I wrote an entire book about how US democracy promotion efforts are often “tame,” which is to say that they fail to confront dictators and end up being compatible with authoritarian regimes.
But despite all this baggage, American democracy promotion is needed. We know from the Trump presidency what it is like to have an American leader who frequently doesn’t even pay lip service to the ideals of democracy and human rights abroad – not to mention taking steps to undermine free and fair elections at home. It isn’t good. And American democracy promotion is a policy area where the trite adage to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good often rings true.
The issue of support for women’s rights is a great example of the limits but ultimately the necessity of democracy promotion within US foreign policy. US foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan under President George W. Bush put those countries’ records on women’s rights on the agenda. Although advancing women’s rights was not the main priority of the United States in either country, a recognition of the important links between democracy and gender equality has been a lasting legacy of those years.
Unfortunately, many autocratic leaders in the Middle East (and beyond) have used progress on women’s rights instrumentally, sometimes as a way to deflect international pressures for deeper democratization. Yet as Daniela Donno writes, the picture is not entirely bleak: “New laws are often the starting point for processes of societal mobilization and norm change. In more open autocracies, civil society mechanisms do exist to help women claim the rights granted to them by the law, as studies on women’s movements show.”
Thus, the growing emphasis in US foreign policy on women’s rights as a dimension of democracy promotion is important, if imperfect. Going forward, it is especially important to do democracy promotion in a savvy way that avoids cooptation by autocrats and remembers some of the hard lessons of the Iraq War.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.