US efforts to support human rights and democracy worldwide have long been seen as serving American interests and reflecting our values. In recent years, however, a debate has emerged among those who view democracy promotion either as too soft and idealistic as a response to threats facing the nation or as too bellicose, conflated with regime change and the use of military force in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others even view democracy support as a combination of the two: Wilsonian idealism propagated through the barrel of a gun.
The real issue is not whether democracy promotion is "hard" or "soft" or whether it fits neatly into either "realism" or "idealism" paradigms. Instead, the issue is simply whether democracy assistance continues to advance US interests in pursuit of a more peaceful, prosperous, and humane world. Too often, this debate centers on a false choice in foreign policy. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was NDI's founding Vice Chair in 1983 and its Chairman since 2001, has drawn an analogy between foreign policy and a hot air balloon, with idealism being the heat required to lift policy and realism being the ballast required to give the policy stability and direction.
As the Obama administration devises its own distinctive approach on this issue, it has taken steps to demonstrate a continued commitment to democracy promotion. It has done so rhetorically through a series of policy speeches delivered by the President and the Secretary of State in the United States and in capitals in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The administration has also enshrined democracy and human rights in the new National Security Strategy, which mentions democracy and related concepts more than 160 times, and it has requested increased funding for global democracy assistance through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of State, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Given past controversies and the ongoing debate over where democracy assistance fits into overall US foreign policy, it may be helpful to push a new reset button. This may help clarify misunderstandings and mischaracterizations about democracy promotion efforts, which have muddled what has historically been a long-standing and strongly bipartisan ambition of US foreign policy.
Democracy Assistance in US Foreign Policy
In the years since the United States became a superpower, the country has viewed the world through an ever changing series of foreign policy optics. Seen through the lens of the Cold War, US policy was focused on the containment of communism. During the 1970s and 1980s, as the so-called "third wave" of democracy was in its infancy, the United States began another change, viewing the global advance of democracy as serving US and global interests. The focus on democratization in foreign policy drew on a range of historical antecedents from the Atlantic Charter, the Marshall Plan, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the creation of the Helsinki process under President Gerald Ford and President Jimmy Carter's determination that international human rights be a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
In a 1983 speech at Westminster, President Ronald Reagan broadened the emphasis from a concern for individual victims of governmental abuse to a commitment to foster and develop democratic systems. This promise led to the establishment by Congress of the National Endowment for Democracy and its four affiliated institutes--the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the Solidarity Center. President Bill Clinton's administration identified the promotion of democracy as a principal pillar of its national security doctrine, and under the leadership of then-Secretary of State Albright and Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, a Community of Democracies, comprised of more than 100 countries, was convened in 2000. …