U.S. Democratization Assistance

By Cohn, Elizabeth | Foreign Policy in Focus, July 30, 1999 | Go to article overview

U.S. Democratization Assistance


Cohn, Elizabeth, Foreign Policy in Focus


With the end of the cold war, U.S. policymakers sought a number of rationales to justify continued engagement in the world and to promote American interests. Republicans and Democrats alike were attracted to a framework developed by the Reagan administration: the U.S. promotion of democracy. The Clinton administration went further than Reagan and Bush, announcing in 1993 that all U.S. foreign policy would be guided by the doctrine of "enlargement," aimed at expanding the community of democratic states.

Although this rhetoric indicated a shift in thinking from the former policy of containment (no longer necessary after the collapse of the Soviet Union), it was not backed up with significant policy initiatives designed to implement it. There were minor bureaucratic rearrangements such as the creation of the Center for Democracy and Governance at the Agency for International Development (AID) and the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department. Clinton's attempt to create a position of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Democracy and Peacekeeping at the Department of Defense was thwarted by Congress, but a special Assistant for Democracy was named at the National Security Council (NSC).

Promoting democracy, the Clinton administration has argued, is valuable not only for its own sake but also because it enhances free trade and economic growth and promotes global security. As President Clinton said in his 1994 State of the Union address, "Democracies don't attack each other," and therefore "the best strategy to insure our security and to build a durable peace is to support the advance of democracy elsewhere." However, academic Michael E. Brown and others contend that this "democratic peace theory" is based more on wishful thinking than empirical evidence.

Among policymakers, analysts, and the public there is a broad consensus supporting democracy promotion. The consensus, which builds on the U.S. national identity in global politics and the idealist tradition in foreign policy, has emerged with little critical examination of the objectives, methods, and impact of democratization programs. 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.

During the cold war, government democracy assistance programs were largely housed within the CIA and run covertly. Since the Reagan administration, a number of government agencies have begun democracy programs under the rubric of strengthening civil society.

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