December 2, 2013

KUHN | American Democracy Abroad: As We Say or As We Do?

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By SAM KUHN

There is little denying that critics of American democracy have ample and fresh ammunition with which to challenge the “purity” of the United States’ democratic practice, if not its basic integrity. The revelations generated by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, to name just a couple of recent developments, have created justifiable domestic and international anger at the disjuncture between America’s preferred image as a liberal and transparent state and the apparently more insidious and opaque reality. The disturbing expansion of secret federal surveillance programs via the decisions of publicly unaccountable FISA courts, and the unabashed ferocity with which the government has sought to prosecute the citizens who leaked these troubling decisions, lead some to worry that America has become a national security state first and an open society democracy second.

Other relatively recent events in American domestic politics further call into question America’s democratic health: the repeal of the national Voting Rights Act and the passage of other measures which make voting more difficult for citizens in some states; the Citizens United Supreme Court decision equating corporations with persons and striking down limitations on their ability to pay for and influence political campaigns; the government shutdown, precipitated by legislative gridlock and dysfunction; even (and perhaps especially) the contested results of the 2000 presidential election. But American foreign policy, despite such apparent disarray on the homefront, still grapples with the responsibility to promote the development of democracy abroad. All of this begs the question: Do domestic practices which can be perceived as antithetical to “good” democracy undermine international perceptions of America’s qualifications as a democracy promoter in other nations?

To conclude that America’s political dysfunction and electoral unrepresentativeness have compromised its legitimacy as a democracy promoter abroad would not be unfair. But it would be incorrect to declare that America’s well of credibility, as it pertains to international democracy promotion, has altogether run dry.

Of course, the extent to which America has ever been perceived internationally as a qualified “active” promoter of democracy is a subject of much debate; it is probable that since the beginning, America has been more impressed with itself as a promoter of democracy than has the rest of the world.

But America’s domestic foibles have been far less damaging to international perceptions of America’s democratic credibility than has America’s inconsistency in promoting democracy internationally. Strategic and material considerations have time and again been the clear motivations for our foreign policy decisions. The American government has been deeply selective in choosing where and when to intervene on behalf of the democratic ideals we profess to uphold. America’s decades of military and financial support to brutal and oppressive dictators across the Middle East have not been forgotten despite our recent support, measured as it was, for revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The disjuncture between our public support for protest in the name of democracy and our much quieter tacit support for the suppression of the Bahraini opposition movement does not go unnoticed by other countries and determines our credibility to promote democracy. Interested readers should read Andrew Cockburn’s article “Secretary of Nothing” (available in the Olin periodicals section) for some surreal case studies demonstrating that much foreign policy is created with insufficient consideration of the domestic circumstances of other involved nations.

As I previously mentioned, a distinction should be drawn between “active” democracy promotion, in which America is directly and materially involved in the development of a democratic state (i.e. Iraq), and promotion via soft power, where America’s popular cultural and economic influence serves as powerful advertisements for our political ideology. Since the aftermath of World War II at least, credibility for the former has seldom existed in practice, even if American intervention in the name of democracy is still sometimes sought by states in transition. But it is undoubtedly true, if difficult to concretely measure, that America still serves as a model for many countries due to our economic success and cultural resonance. America is still widely perceived as a land of innovation, the biggest magnet for the world’s best and brightest minds looking for freedom and opportunity. Though negative perceptions of the American government’s inconsistent and self-interested stance toward democracy promotion abroad may pervade in some parts of the world, many of America’s most vociferous critics would and do take up residence here, given the chance. And given the opportunity to craft new democratic institutions in their own countries, it is American models they consult, tinker with and sometimes ultimately subvert.

No democracy is a perfect model of compromise or productive administration. Even the countries most consistently lauded as worthy of emulation, including the developed democracies of Western and Northern Europe, have recently faced the rise of far-right parties and increasingly alienating stances toward immigrants and minorities. But even America’s political problems can be seen as enhancing our credibility as a democracy promoter from an experiential perspective. America is an advanced democracy which has, so far, dealt with its own internal political problems peacefully, within a democratic framework. Our controversies can serve to remind potential adopters that democracy is hard work and requires careful maintenance and evolution.

In a post-colonial, post 9/11 world, even America’s most sincere attempts to directly support the development of democratic institutions abroad are likely to backfire, to be seen (or cynically smeared) as self-interested propaganda tarring everyone it touches. Going forward, it is by example that America can hope to promote democracy abroad.  Yegor Sobolev, leader of the ongoing Ukrainian protests against President Viktor F. Yanukovich, described the December 1st demonstrations there thusly: “The general opinion was something closer to the American and European ideal—that the real power should be citizens, not ministers, not presidents, not politicians.”For the time being, despite its domestic struggles, America still enjoys significant international credibility to promote democracy.

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