Is Democracy a Dirty Word?

Last fall, Joshua Marks, a program officer from the National Endowment for Democracy, met with a group of community activists in a classroom in Abeche, a city in eastern Chad. Many of the activists had received small grants, ranging from roughly $200 to $5,000, to help in their efforts to foster civil liberties, political rights, and transparency in government. Yet democracy was not what they wanted to talk about on that day. "The main concern at the meeting," Marks says, "was 'How are we going to feed ourselves?'"

The local population had doubled over a three-year period, from 60,000 people to 120,000 people, as refugees from Darfur poured over the border in search of a peaceful haven. Many of the residents were going hungry, and the area was distressingly short on firewood, cooking oil, and maize. The activists in the classroom were anxious, even fearful. Marks decided it was not the right moment to steer the conversation back to good governance. Instead he spoke with the residents openly, allowing for an environment in which democracy would "grow organically." "I realized that if I'm going to be honest about my work, I have to recognize what they are saying," Marks says.

His experience reflects the larger conundrum of dozens of nongovernmental organizations and American nonprofits that help people around the world work toward free elections and representative governance. As Marks has discovered, developing a country's infrastructure and improving food security often take precedence over long-term goals of democracy-building.

In recent years, humanitarian aid has not been seen as closely linked with fostering democracy. Under the banner of "democracy promotion," former President George W. Bush marched toward war in Iraq and Afghanistan and portrayed elections as the only way of evaluating a country's progress. Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, under President Barack Obama "there's been a notable downplaying of democracy as a foreign-policy priority," says Michael Allen, who edits the newsletter Democracy Digest and also works for the National Endowment for Democracy.

The Obama administration is focusing on international efforts such as agricultural programs, women's rights, and economic development rather than on elections. It has also taken a more holistic approach to foreign policy, choosing to engage with nondemocratic regimes abroad in the hopes of finding some common ground. Democracy-promoting organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Eurasia Foundation, and Freedom House are listening carefully -- "Kremlin style," as one expert puts it -- to the statements of Obama and his Cabinet members for signs that the administration considers democracy a priority. Most aren't liking what they've heard so far. When asked about Obama's approach to democracy promotion, many activists in the field sound like hurt and angry ex-boyfriends. "It's too early to talk about important changes in the Obama administration," one analyst says defensively.

"There is concern among activists that perhaps the administration sends the wrong signals to authoritarian regimes when it downplays democracy so much that it may be seen as neglected," Allen says.

In April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, saying, "The foreign policy of the United States is built on the three D's: defense, diplomacy, and development." To the dismay of democracy promoters, that other "D" -- democracy -- was not included. And when Obama referenced American foreign policy in his Inaugural Address, he said, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

"He did not say, 'to any democracy,'" says Steven Simon, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of The Next Attack. "A lot of people have written in the margins, 'Include here, democracy promotion,' and none of that stuff has ended up on the teleprompter."

From a monetary perspective, at least, democracy-promoting NGOs have nothing to complain about. The Obama administration requested a 9 percent increase in funding for democracy-related projects, asking for a total of $2.81 billion in the State and Foreign Operations budget for fiscal year 2010. Yet advocates worry that specific democracy issues -- such as freedom of the press and freedom of assembly -- may wither for lack of attention, and funding could drop in the years to come.

"I just think Obama's too smart to put democracy at the top of the foreign-policy agenda," Simon says. "It's too demanding. In the Arab world, it's been rendered toxic by the Bush administration."

democracy has a very straightforward definition: a government by the people, along with a respect for human-rights and justice. The definition of democracy promotion, however, is nothing if not contentious. Activists in the field have long debated how much emphasis should be placed on elections and how much should be placed on issues such as women's rights and judicial independence. Traditionally, the tendency on the right has been to put more stock in the elections, which are a shaky measurement of a nation's level of democracy because results can be fraudulent (case in point: Afghanistan). People also can, and do, elect tyrants. In contrast, experts on the left have argued that a more reliable metric can be found by examining a nation's civic institutions and its system of justice.

Obama's scaled-back approach to democracy promotion has cost him little or no political capital among Democrats, who feel burned by Bush's disastrous approach and are significantly less likely than Republicans to support democracy promotion. A 2007 Pew survey shows that 54 percent of Democrats believe it should be featured in U.S. foreign policy, compared to 74 percent of Republicans. Opinion polls show that across the board conservatives are more likely than liberals to say that the United States should help establish democracies in other countries.

Americans at both ends of the ideological spectrum acknowledge that everyone in the world wants to live in a free society. The rift is over how -- or whether -- we should help them. Historically, American efforts to promote democracy abroad have been tied in with our economic or strategic interests. "To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism," says Andrew J. Bacevich, a Boston University professor and author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. "It is a prerequisite to self-understanding."

Decades ago, President Ronald Reagan made ridding the world of communism a core mission of the United States. He placed democracy promotion high on the foreign-policy agenda and helped establish the National Endowment for Democracy. Meanwhile, he maintained friendly relations with pro-American autocracies because he believed that they, unlike communist dictatorships, could someday make the transition to democracy.

In the years since, both Democrats and Republicans have spoken about democracy promotion with exuberance, often turning to the military for help in achieving their goals. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush sent 22,500 U.S. troops to Panama to oust Manuel Noriega and, Bush declared, to defend democracy. At times, President Bill Clinton approached the issue in the same way. He announced in the 1992 presidential campaign that he believed in "an American foreign policy of engagement for democracy," and while he was in office he worked to expand the worldwide base of liberal democracies through a policy known as "enlargement."

Clinton put stock in various areas of democracy promotion, such as helping to develop independent legal programs in other countries, rather than mainly focusing on elections as Republican presidents had done. "It became not just a moral thing but a commonsense thing because it was going to promote global prosperity," explains Simon, who served as one of Clinton's counterterrorism aides. Like Reagan, however, Clinton was also willing to use force: The U.S. effort in Haiti to reinstate President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was known as Operation Uphold Democracy.

George W. Bush took military-enforced "democracy" to a new level. After failing to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush declared it was our national obligation to help Iraq become a democracy. "Our struggle is similar to the Cold War," he said in a 2002 graduation speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "America confronted imperial communism in many different ways -- diplomatic, economic, and military. Yet moral clarity was essential to our victory in the Cold War. When leaders like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan refused to gloss over the brutality of tyrants, they gave hope to prisoners and dissidents and exiles, and rallied free nations to a great cause."

Bush added that "America cannot impose this vision." But under his so-called Freedom Agenda, the United States sought to establish democracy at gunpoint and trampled on the rights of prisoners and terrorism suspects. Bush's language had "a self-righteous and theological flavor," as James Traub writes in his book The Freedom Agenda. According to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, Bush's top commander in Iraq at the time, Bush said during the Fallujah battle in April 2004, "If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! ... Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course!"


In Obama's speeches that mention democracy, he is careful to set himself apart from Bush's vision. In a Sept. 23 address to the United Nations, Obama said, "Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside. Each society must search for its own path, and no path is perfect. Each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people, and -- in its past traditions -- America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy. But that does not weaken our commitment; it only reinforces it."

Most of the people who work in the field of democracy promotion in Washington agree with Obama's positions. But they have made clear that one of the hallmarks of Bush's approach -- the promotion of free elections -- is not the most important way to foster democracy in other countries. In fact, they are quick to point out that free elections are often illusory because autocratic leaders rig the vote count.

Instead, democracy advocates argue, the U.S. government should help provide assistance for other forms of democracy-building, such as resources for women's groups, public-health initiatives, agricultural projects, and other ways to help strengthen a nation so that democracy may someday take root. Indeed, this is basically what Obama wants to do.

However, the people who work in democracy assistance would like Obama to restore the role of democracy promotion as a central part of the foreign policy -- minus the hysteria and warfare of the Bush administration. For the past three years, democracy has been on the decline in dozens of countries, according to Freedom House. In countries like Russia, Uzbekistan, Egypt, and Venezuela, "representatives of democracy assistance NGOs have been harassed, offices closed, and staff expelled," according to a report by the National Endowment for Democracy. The situation is worse for people who are living in other countries and have received U.S. grants for democracy promotion, since some of them "have been threatened, assaulted, prosecuted, imprisoned, and even killed." Democracy activists in Islamabad, Cairo, Addis Adaba, and in other cities around the world are justly concerned about whether they will continue to have the support of the United States as they push for reform.

While the budget for democracy promotion has increased overall, funding for important regional projects, such as independent civil-society groups in the Middle East and North Africa, has been reduced by 29 percent. In Egypt, where bloggers and journalists have been arrested, imprisoned, and even raped, U.S. funding for democracy programs has been cut by approximately 50 percent, to roughly $22 million. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has imposed restrictions on American funds for democracy groups. Only those organizations that have been approved by the Egyptian government are eligible for the money, providing Mubarak with "a local veto over U.S. aid," according to a June 6 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Bush pushed back against these restrictions, but Mubarak demanded they be reinstated earlier this year, and U.S. State Department officials accepted the change.

Several U.S. Embassy officials "have sought to distance themselves from civil society and human rights leaders who were not favored by the host government," according to a July 2009 report by Freedom House. Without the explicit support of the United States, these local leaders could be jailed, beaten, or worse. A Kabul-born psychologist who lives in Washington says that if Americans do not support the Afghan women who took to the streets earlier this year in order to secure rights, whether through government grants or public statements of solidarity, then "they will be lost."

The Obama administration has made a deliberate decision to focus on the overall relationship that the United States has with countries like Egypt, placing an emphasis on areas such as trade and terrorism and downplaying troublesome issues like democracy. "Look, I think it's an issue," says Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I think we should not allow the country in question to dictate how we spend our taxpayer dollars, but it shows that the Obama administration wants to see a relationship in its entirety. They're making these kinds of compromises."

Obama's more culturally sensitive approach to democracy promotion is clearly better than the cowboy stance that was favored by Bush. Some advocates defend Obama, explaining he has not turned his back on democracy promotion, just adopted a subtler way of discussing it. Administration officials understand that simply granting people the right to vote does not guarantee a free society, and they seem to believe that it is better to eschew symbols in favor of carrying out pragmatic work on the ground. And yet the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction, say other democracy advocates. Obama has become so restrained that he has allowed autocrats like Mubarak to get away with extraordinary demands on the awarding of U.S. aid, sending a signal to leaders of repressive nations that democracy abroad is not a fundamental concern of his administration.

Democracy promotion is an art, not a science. There is no empirical data that shows that authoritarian regimes respond to U.S. pro-democracy programs by scaling back repressive policies or that humanitarian missions are less effective at helping a country make progress toward democracy. As Michael McFaul, who is currently serving on the National Security Council, points out, "If the domestic conditions aren't ripe, there will be no democratic breakthrough, no matter how crafted the technical assistance or how strategically invested the small grants." That does not mean that U.S. democracy assistance is worthless -- just that the metrics for it are a bit fuzzy.

People like Marks who are experienced in on-the-ground democracy promotion know that sometimes it's better to take the long view. Over the past five years, Marks has visited Chad, Congo, and other countries in Africa and watched people take incremental steps toward more democratic societies. On one of his visits to Congo, as he recalls, he saw a clunky old car, a Peugeot that was built in the 1960s, on a highway, not far from the capital city of Kinshasa. A stick of wood was propping up the hood of the car, bags and people were piled inside, and it could "hardly putter along."

Still, the Peugeot moved, and watching it rumble down the highway captured the experience of democracy promotion in Congo as well as in other places around the world. "You could sort of throw your hands up, or you could look further down the road and say, 'It's gotten this far. Let's see how much more it can do.'"