America's Democratization Projects Abroad

By Kurth, James | The American Spectator, October 2006 | Go to article overview

America's Democratization Projects Abroad

Kurth, James, The American Spectator


FOR ALMOST A CENTURY, the United States has been engaged in a succession of democratization projects abroad. President Woodrow Wilson in particular was an enthusiast in promoting democracy, first in the Caribbean basin and Central America ("I will teach the South Americans to elect good men") and then in Europe and beyond (the U.S. entry into World War I was supposed "to make the world safe for democracy").

Even earlier, during the 19th century, the United States had given rhetorical encouragement to democratic movements abroad, but it was not in a position to give them substantive support until it became a great power, a status that it achieved with its victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The Republican administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were quick to employ America's new power to promote regime change in the Caribbean basin, but their objective was merely to establish new governments that would make their countries safe for American security and business interests, i.e., regimes that certainly were liberal, but were not really democratic. With the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson, however, the United States embarked upon the promotion of democracy abroad in the full sense and in a big way. In the course of the 20th century, there ensued a great parade of U.S. democratization projects that marched around the world.

The Success Stories

SOME OF THESE DEMOCRATIZATION projects were great successes. The most famous cases, of course, were Germany and Japan after their defeat in World War II, but these two examples (and exemplars) were joined by similar successes in Austria and Italy. In these four cases, of course, U.S.-style democratization was imposed by U.S.-led military occupation.

Also famous are the cases of Eastern Europe after the transformation-really, the defeat-of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Here, of course, the United States did not impose a military occupation (but crucially the Soviets did withdraw theirs). Nevertheless, the result has been a wide swath of successful transitions to established liberal-democratic systems, stretching from the Baltic to the Balkans, or about a dozen countries in all. This has been a major achievement for U.S. foreign policy indeed.

Rather less sudden and dramatic, but still substantial and impressive, has been the U.S.-supported democratization of South Korea and Taiwan during the past two decades. Along with the earlier U.S.-imposed democratization of Japan, these two East Asian cases demonstrate that democratization projects can succeed not only in Europe (which, being part of Western civilization, might be expected to be receptive to liberal and democratic values), but also in at least one region beyond, one that has a very different cultural inheritance.

The Failure Stories

UNFORTUNATELY, OUR LONG, PARADE of U.S. democratization projects includes some rather substantial failures as well. Not surprisingly, given the normal American tendency to be optimistic and to look upon the good side of some new project, these past failures are not nearly as famous as the past successes. They have been important, however, and they may be more relevant to the recent project of the Bush administration to democratize the Middle East and the Muslim world more generally. These past failures also raise cautions about any future U.S. effort to promote democracy in other regions as well.

Ironically, given the common and contemporary identification of democratization with "Wilsonianism," the original democratization projects of Woodrow Wilson himself all ended in failure. By the late 1920s, every country in Latin America where Wilson had employed U.S. military forces or other kind of intervention to teach the local citizens to elect good men had ended up with a military dictator or some other form of authoritarian regime. The same outcome occurred in Europe, where the consequences of failure would be much greater and much graver.

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