Fighting for Freedom: Promoting Democracy the American Way

By Cox, Michael | Harvard International Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Fighting for Freedom: Promoting Democracy the American Way


Cox, Michael, Harvard International Review


The relationship between US foreign policy and the promotion of democracy has never been simple. That great champion of democracy, Woodrow Wilson, never thought that Asians or Africans were ready for it after World War I. Franklin D. Roosevelt more often than not backed dictators in Latin America, and later struck a deal with the Saudis over oil. Eisenhower hardly ever thought about it at all. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of students of US grand strategy once believed that democracy was never a major US foreign policy aim.

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To the contrary, its mission was either to expand its power while denying it was doing so, promote its economic interests (hardly the same thing as extending freedom to others), or maintain stability and the balance of power. For many years, in fact, authors as ideologically diverse as Hans J. Morgenthau and Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Waltz and William Appleman Williams could write, sometimes with great verve, about the international role of the imperial republic without even contemplating the possibility that the promotion of democracy mattered at all--and one could readily understand why, especially during that longue duree known as the Cold War. The conflict with the USSR may have been fought under the banner of defending or extending the "free world," but in the pursuit of this entirely laudable goal, Washington more often than not found itself supporting regimes that were anything but free. So long as they were anti-communist, the United States was more than happy to support authoritarian states as far apart as South Korea in East Asia to the Pinochet junta in Chile.

But this would not have come as a surprise to serious students of US diplomatic history. As David Schmitz argued in his outstanding 1999 study Thank God They're on Our Side, the habit of backing right-wing autocracies is a long-established feature of the US foreign policy tradition. Justified on grounds ranging from protecting "moderate" elites from irrational mobs to that old imperial favorite that only people at the top of the ladder of civilization were mature enough to run their own affairs, the US record on democracy promotion was not always the positive legacy some later claimed for it.

Yet, as Tony Smith was to argue in one of the most challenging books written on US foreign policy--significantly, a few years after the Cold War had come to an end--trying to understand US foreign policy through the 20th century without reference to US democracy promotion was almost impossible. As one of his many admirers noted at the time, Smith's book America's Mission showed that liberal internationalism was not just a cultural quirk of unsophisticated US citizens, or some veneer stuck on to obscure the United States' more nefarious intentions, but rather, was central to the way the people of the United States thought about themselves and their role in the wider world.

This generated all sorts of tensions between the way many in the United States viewed the republic's ultimate purpose in the world, and the ability of policy-makers to make good on the United States' claims about the forward march of freedom. But as Smith was to show, this understudied dimension of American thinking not only provided the raison d'etre for waging war against imperial Germany after 1917 and the Axis powers during World War II, but significantly contributed to the creation of a liberal world order after 1945 as well. Marginalized for too long in a debate dominated by realists and radicals who could only think of foreign policy in terms of either power or profit (or both), Smith's focus on what he saw as America's underlying purpose reinstated something that had for too long been missing from the discussion.

After the Cold War

However, the end of the Cold War did more than just make Smith's book seem timely. It also opened up a wider space for the first serious debate about the role of democracy promotion in US foreign policy.

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