Bush "Realists" Say Goodbye to Democracy Promotion

September 25, 2007

Since President Ronald Reagan announced his commitment to the promotion of democracy in a speech to the British Parliament in 1982, there has been a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the United States should promote democracy abroad. Presidents Reagan, George Bush I, and Bill Clinton highlighted democracy promotion as a cornerstone of foreign policy in each of their administrations. In each case, however, the conception of democracy was limited to free and fair elections and a market economy; it never encompassed notions of economic or social democracy. The consensus supporting democracy promotion also emerged with little critical examination of the objectives, methods and the impact of democratization programs. Indeed, since Woodrow Wilson, U.S. presidents have made a rhetorical commitment to democracy while supporting nondemocratic governments or forces if security or economic interests were at stake.

What became known in bureaucratic parlance as “democracy promotion” should therefore not be confused with the promotion of democracy in a broader sense. Yet the George W. Bush administration appears likely to break with this past and jettison altogether the promotion of democracy—even limited versions of it—as a foreign policy goal.

While it is early for an assessment of the Bush administration’s posture with respect to the promotion of democracy abroad, particularly in Latin America, we have thus far seen little attention either to the U.S. promotion of democracy as a foreign policy goal, or to Latin America as a region of particular focus. The Bush administration’s focus on responding to the September 11 attacks will likely further minimize the importance of democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy.

A look at early administration statements and personnel appointed to positions related to democracy promotion indicates a shift to what some political scientists would refer to as a Realist position, similar to Bush’s stance on more prominent foreign policy issues. A Realist, in international relations theory, is a policymaker who defines national interests narrowly as state interests, relies primarily on military strength rather than ideology or economic power, seeks to limit foreign entanglements, considers conflict natural and functional, and keeps moral calculations out of foreign policy decision making. The position with which Realism is juxtaposed, Idealism, defines national interests more broadly to include state, individual, and global concerns (such as human rights), argues that security can be achieved through international law and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, considers conflict dangerous and avoidable assuming the right international structures are in place, and views values as an integral part of foreign policy decision making. In contemporary international relations, Richard Nixon represents the archetypal Realist; and Jimmy Carter most closely approximates the Idealist.

There is a third position, which I call Idealpolitik, which more accurately characterizes the foreign policies of all U.S. administrations since the end of the Cold War—until the current administration. Idealpolitik shares characteristics of both Idealism and Realism, but is distinct. Idealpolitik views national security and U.S. ideals as complementary; according to this worldview, the United States can increase its own security by promoting its values and ideals, such as market democracy. Power is defined more inclusively than military capabilities, giving full weight to the power of ideas; thus, a war can be waged in terms of a battle of ideas. The state is the primary actor in international affairs, but institutions, both domestic and international, play important roles on behalf of the state. Conflict is contextual and can be avoided by structural changes to the international system, such as creating a world of democracies. By targeting the transformation of political systems of other countries, rather than focusing on the rights of individuals, Idealpolitikists believe that cooperation can be achieved. The administrations of Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton could be characterized as Idealpolitik, but the administration of George W. Bush appears likely to part company with them and adopt a posture of Realism.

It was Ronald Reagan who first used democracy promotion as a policy framework as the Cold War was drawing to a close. Reagan used the concept to wage a war of ideas, as part of his crusade for freedom for the United States and the whole world—his effort to fight “the evil empire” of Communism, and offer an alternative system. By creating a world of democracies, the world would be more peaceful, he said in 1985. After the end of the Cold War, it appeared that democracy promotion would continue to function as both a way for the United States to stay engaged in the world, and more strategically for presidents to secure congressional funding for their foreign policy priorities. After all, who could vote against the promotion of democracy?

The Clinton administration made democracy promotion an organizing principle of its foreign policy and was the first to speak about “market democracies.” Clinton often spoke in lofty terms about the promotion of electoral regimes as a way to advance U.S. interests. Madeleine Albright stepped down as chair of the National Democratic Institute, part of the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to become the Clinton administration’s Secretary of State and she was deeply committed to the project of U.S. democracy promotion. Clinton emphasized market democracy, meaning a strong private sector and free markets as essential elements of democracy, dismissing the notion of social democracy and the conflicts between market economies and democratic institutions. Clinton’s rhetorical commitment was often undercut by competing security and economic interests, but his administration provided leadership in Washington and abroad for building a consensus for democracy promotion.

How does the current Bush administration compare? As a candidate, Bush campaigned for limited U.S. involvement overseas, calling for a “distinctly American internationalism,” meaning that Washington would act only when its vital interests were at stake, and would stand tough against dictators, Communism and terrorists. He said he wanted to keep moralism out of foreign policy calculations. This sounds like a return to Cold War Realist ideology, and in his first six months in office Bush has tried to live up to his campaign promises. After coming to office, the Bush administration set limits on U.S. engagement in areas of the world where the United States had formerly played important roles. For example, it initially backed off from the Clinton administration’s spirited attempt to make peace between the two Koreas but Bush senior cajoled his son’s administration back into the talks. Similarly, until the terrorist attacks, the current administration had withdrawn the United States from the special role it had played in the Middle East since Jimmy Carter, and from recent attempts to bring peace to Northern Ireland. The Bush administration also reversed U.S. commitments to international agreements, such as the Kyoto agreement on global climate change and the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. In the wake of September 11, the administration has been taking pains to win allies for its “war on terrorism,” and it now seems willing to play a more active role in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Previously it had been more confrontational and unilateralist than the Clinton administration—especially with China and Russia—and less willing to cooperate with allies, but it is too early to know whether this new multilateralist approach will be applied in all foreign affairs.

Even before the onset of the “war on terror,” Bush administration officials had, with few exceptions, spoken and acted in Nixonian Realist fashion, seeking to limit entanglements, defining power in terms of narrow military capabilities. There were no attempts at moral suasion. U.S. foreign policy was based on military security, not broadly defined values like “freedom” and “democracy.” In the first eight months in office the administration made no significant statements about promoting democracy abroad.

A review of U.S. government officials’ speeches on democracy and human rights, using July 2001 as a sample, also indicates a shift from the previous administration, and a break with the agenda of the democracy promotion bureaucracy. The topics Bush officials spoke on under the heading of democracy and human rights were religious persecution, torture, and trafficking in humans. Notably missing were speeches on rule of law, elections and political processes, civil society, and governance—the topic headings for the Agency for International Development’s (AID) Center for Democracy and Governance. In one of Bush’s own few statements specific to democracy promotion—a White House-issued proclamation for Captive Nations Week in July—he emphasized that more than two billion people live under authoritarianism, and that the United States “must remain vigilant in our support of those living under authoritarianism.... To promote the development of democratic practices worldwide, I reaffirm America’s support for freedom, justice, and pluralism.” This statement was accompanied by a request for a report to examine U.S. democracy promotion and human rights programs to ensure that they advance U.S. policy, but no statement of democracy promotion as an administration foreign policy priority or call for additional programming.

At the cabinet level, however, there have been some subtle differences in officials’ public statements on democracy promotion, with Secretary of State Colin Powell the most vocal about the important role the United States has to play in this area. Powell has spoken in Clintonesque terms of promoting the values of democracy as a way of preserving U.S. global leadership. By contrast, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice has occasionally mentioned the importance of democracy in the context of free market economies, but her background and worldview lead her to concentrate her attention on other issues, namely, before September 11, Russia and maintaining a balance of power. This difference reflects a deeper and more general split within the administration, with Powell generally taking the most Idealpolitikist positions and Rice aligned with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney at the Realist end of the political spectrum. In the first six months of the Bush administration, Powell was in the minority in downplaying the importance of missile defense and he lost internal policy battles on Korea and Iraq. During a meeting between Bush and South Korean leader Kim Dae Jung, Powell was forced to reverse his previous public statement that the Bush administration supported negotiations between the two Koreas. Powell also stated that the United States would take a cautious approach with Iraq—and the next day the United States bombed the outskirts of Baghdad.

An examination of Bush’s appointments to date of officials who head agencies which have historically played a role in democracy promotion also gives some indication of the administration’s Realist inclinations. Telling evidence are the nominations for the positions of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the head of the Agency for International Development (AID Administrator), Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, and NSC Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations.

Lorne Craner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, has helped to shift the focus of his program to religious discrimination, an agenda originally set by Congress but one embraced by President Bush. Craner left his position as president of the International Republican Institute (IRI) to accept the position in the administration. The IRI, like the National Democratic Institute (NDI), is part of the National Endowment for Democracy. Both organizations are almost entirely reliant on U.S. government funding, but they have different track records in the field. Though officially a nongovernmental organization (NGO), IRI acknowledges that programmatic decisions are based on “current and historical U.S. national interests.” While NDI supports foreign NGOs or other institutions on various points of the political spectrum, IRI supports like-minded, that is, conservative, political groups. IRI literature explains that “by aiding emerging democracies, IRI plays a valuable role in helping bring greater stability to the world. Stable democracies not only further the cause of peace, but also enhance American opportunities for business investment and trade.”

Craner brings a targeted, strategic approach to his work, seeking to work in countries where the United States can have a large impact, rather than trying to promote free elections everywhere as was done during the Clinton Administration. Craner’s predecessor, Harold Koh, talked glowingly of the “globalization of democracy and human rights,” extolling the “international consensus [that] now exists regarding the laws, institutions, and practices that are essential to an effective, functioning democracy.” That consensus, he said, was embodied in various UN covenants and resolutions, which were important for the United States to support. He claimed that we now have three universal languages—“the languages of money, the Internet, and democracy and human rights.” Koh, assessing his two years in the Clinton administration, called for a foreign policy that is neither Realist or Idealist, but “practically Idealist.” Democracy and human rights should be integrated as core values of U.S. foreign policy, he said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Values are a part of our interests,” he explained, and promoting democracy is both a means and an end. It is a good or end in itself and it is a means to political and economic security. This kind of thinking and language differs greatly from that of the Bush administration so far, which avoids the language of universalism and idealism, as well as a commitment to international fora such as the United Nations.

At the AID, the new Administrator, Andrew Natsios, wants to shift AID’s programs away from traditional development assistance to a long-term strategy of resolving and avoiding conflict. Natsios has argued that a change in thinking is necessary because two-thirds of the 75 countries in which AID works are in conflict or have been in conflict in the last five years. The idea is that democracy programs cannot succeed without addressing conflict prevention. His previous work with World Vision and AID’s office of disaster assistance gave him background in the Horn of Africa but little knowledge of democracy assistance. While conflict prevention programs could be positive, it is too early to tell how these would be implemented. To further the new priorities, Natsios has proposed a reorganization of AID into three pillar bureaus: The Bureau for Global Programs, which housed the Center for Democracy and Governance, will be reconstituted into the new Bureau of Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance. By one account, rewriting job descriptions for the agency alone would take three years—which would have the effect of destroying the institution. Both Craner and Natsios are traditional conservatives, sharing a Realist logic of providing humanitarian assistance for countries that are in the most dire need of help, but otherwise favoring U.S. involvement abroad only to serve limited strategic interests and not grand overarching values like enlarging the community of democracies à la Clinton and Reagan.

President Bush’s controversial appointment of Elliott Abrams to the NSC as Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations is part of the shift toward a focus on religious persecution and pressure on Cuba. Abrams served in several positions in the Reagan administration, including Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (the same position held by Koh and now by Craner). Abrams is very interested in political changes in Nicaragua, particularly since Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega has a serious shot at taking the reins of power in Nicaragua again. Abrams is joined in the administration by his protégé Paula Dobriansky, who, as Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, is responsible for democracy promotion programs at the State Department. Dobrianksy served in the Reagan and Bush I administrations at the National Security Council, State Department, and US Information Agency. Under Clinton she was on the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and she has served on the boards of the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House, among others. In Idealpolitik fashion, Dobriansky has urged that U.S. foreign policy be both idealistic and pragmatic in protecting national interests. Speaking last May at the College of William and Mary she said U.S. foreign policy should “seek to impact not just the foreign policies of other countries, but their domestic policies as well.” Although Abrams and Dobriansky are more ideologically driven than most of their colleagues—more Idealpolitik—their appointments may be more an effort to appease the religious conservative and missionary wings of the Republican party, and less a reflection of the administration’s orientation, which is predominantly Realist.

What does the new Realist worldview mean for U.S. policy in Latin America? Latin America has not been a major foreign policy area for the Bush administration, and now the Middle East will undoubtedly take precedence. National Security Advisor Rice said in June that the Western Hemisphere, Africa, and new approach to deterrence would be this Administration’s foreign policy priorities, but with the exceptions of Mexico, Colombia and Cuba, the administration has so far virtually ignored Latin America. In the first eight months in office only two senior officials visited Latin America outside of Mexico: Secretary of State Colin Powell briefly appeared at regional conferences in Costa Rica and Peru, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick attended the inauguration of President Alejandro Toledo in Peru.

Concerning one of the major crises in Latin America during this period, Argentina’s economic woes, the administration sent conflicting signals on whether it would help Argentina avoid complete economic collapse, as Clinton did for Mexico. It reluctantly agreed to an IMF loan, contrary to Bush’s campaign promises that his administration would take a hands-off stance to foreign economies. In Realist fashion, the Administration did not consider Argentina’s economic difficulties a problem for the U.S. government, despite Argentina’s adoption of free market policies, dollarization of its economy, and a strong commitment to democracy.

In reference to Cuba, President Bush’s comments have been limited to using democracy promotion as a code word for isolating Cuba from its Latin American allies. At the Summit of the Americas in April the United States helped insert language in the Plan of Action that “democracy is essential for peace, development and security in the Hemisphere,” and this language was adopted by the Organization of American States. In May, Bush said that U.S. policy must go beyond isolating Castro internationally and also “actively support those working to bring about democratic change in Cuba.” Bush supported two bills in Congress that would give the Cuban opposition $100 million over the next four years, a substantial increase from the $3 million currently going to the Cuban opposition under the Helms-Burton Act.

If the Craner-Natsios worldview prevails and democracy funding is linked to foreign policy priorities, we can predict that in Latin America the countries to receive the most attention will continue to be Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, and if the Sandinistas win in November, Nicaragua—but programs will be less about democracy and more about bringing to power officials who support U.S. foreign policy. The Bush Administration committed $5.6 million for Nicaragua’s November elections, about half of what the Bush I Administration spent to help oust the Sandinistas from office in 1990. Only after the Nicaraguan people voted in great numbers for the Sandinistas in the last municipal elections, did U.S. policymakers decide that Nicaragua needed significant electoral assistance. Serving to increase skepticism of U.S. intentions, a State Department Spokesman said last July, “The United States will seek to work with any government that takes office in Nicaragua as the result of a free, fair, and democratic elections that clearly expresses the will of the people. However, we will continue to have serious concerns about the Sandinistas, absent clear commitments from candidate Ortega that he is now prepared to embrace democratic policies.”

Although promoting democracy has never secured a large percentage of the U.S. foreign aid budget, it was significant as a framework for the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton administrations as a way to have an activist foreign policy that combined missionary idealism and the advancement of U.S. interests. When security or economic interests dominated, however, the democracy agenda was compromised for these other foreign policy goals. For example, the Clinton administration overlooked the anti-democratic policies of President Fujimori in Peru because of his support for drug interdiction efforts in the region. And in 1994 Clinton delinked human rights from trade in granting China most favored nation status. Until September 11, the Bush administration had demonstrated the tendency to place economic interests above all. Now, of course, it is the “war against terror.”

While the foreign policy framework of this administration will not be the promotion of democracy, at this point democracy promotion is common currency within the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy and it cannot be eliminated quickly or easily. Clinton had eight years to build up the bureaucracy established by Reagan, and continued by Bush I, and a bureaucracy cannot be steered in a radical new direction overnight, especially when, as is the case with democracy promotion, several agencies and departments are involved.

However, if the National Security Council, headed by Condoleezza Rice, plays its traditional role of coordinating the interagency process, the Realist tradition will remain strong and democracy promotion will have a limited place in U.S. foreign policy during the Bush administration. Especially in light of the Realist inclinations of other key players in this administration, it is likely that the democracy promotion agenda will be eclipsed by other foreign policy priorities. Perhaps Secretary Powell will continue in Idealpolitik fashion to speak of promoting democratic values for national security purposes, but it is unclear whether Powell will outmaneuver the Realists Rice, Rumsfeld and Cheney. We could see a return to the early days of covert action, modeled on Nixon’s support for Christian Democrats and conservative unions in Chile and Europe. Idealpolitik, which had offered a new framework with the end of the Cold War, has not taken hold. Realism is resurgent.

Elizabeth Cohn is assistant professor of political science at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. She details the concept of Idealpolitik in her dissertation, Idealpolitik in U.S. Foreign Policy: the Reagan Administration and the U.S. Promotion of Democracy,1995.

Tags: US foreign policy, democratization, George W Bush, US AID, militarization

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