Paul Bonicelli repeats a common myth:
A nation like ours cannot do other than promote democracy and support democrats. It is in our DNA and it is the only way our foreign policy can make sense. Our failure to do so from time to time is the exception that proves the rule. Why else is it noteworthy when we fail to do so?
This is the sort of argument for democracy promotion that makes me so opposed to the idea. Democracy promotion isn’t a necessary or intrinsic part of being American, and it certainly isn’t the “only way” our foreign policy can make sense. The U.S. hasn’t failed to support democrats “from time to time.” For most of U.S. history, the U.S. government didn’t promote democracy, and during the Cold War in particular the government sometimes opposed and occasionally even worked to depose popular and elected governments. Those weren’t occasional exceptions to a general rule of promoting democracy. Democracy promotion became a priority for the U.S. government only in the last few decades, and even then it has been very selective and uneven in its implementation. There is nothing natural or innate about it. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but one of the reasons that skeptics of democracy promotion are so resistant to the idea is that its advocates present it as if it were the normal default of U.S. foreign policy when it has been anything but that. Democratists present their agenda as if it were integral to our identity as a people, but it isn’t and has never been that.
Support for democratic governments in other countries may be in our national interest in some cases, and it may not in others. At the very least, democratization in another country doesn’t ensure that U.S. relations with that country will be improved, and it may end up making it harder for the U.S. to secure cooperation from the new government. Arguments for democracy promotion would be more credible if its advocates were more willing to acknowledge that there are trade-offs and costs for the U.S. involved. In some cases, the interests of other states will diverge from ours no matter what form of government they have, and in other cases our interests with align with those of other states regardless of regime type.
If other nations wish to establish democratic governments of their own and the U.S. can render constructive, desired assistance, it may make sense to offer that assistance. Pushing for political change in other countries where U.S. efforts are neither welcome nor useful is a waste of resources and an unearned gift for the local regime. Democratists also consistently overestimate the value of U.S. support, which may be useful in some cases but which is hardly ever decisive or essential. The main objection to democracy promotion abroad that I have is that the U.S. government doesn’t have the right or responsibility to shape political conditions in other countries, and it shouldn’t try to do so unless our assistance is welcomed by most of the people in the other country. The debacle of the “freedom agenda” is a sobering cautionary tale of the kind of democracy promotion that harms the countries involved and backfires on the U.S.