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Why Would We Want to Spread Liberal Democracy?

In March 2009, Foreign Affairs magazine published the article “How Development Leads to Democracy,” [1] by Ronald Inglehart [2] and Christian Welzel [3], two of the most well-known political scientists in the field today.

Respected in academic circles for their studies on culture and modernization theory, the pair argue that democratic government—in the modern Western sense of the term—is prohibitively difficult to maintain in a country without a relatively developed economy, a desire for participatory government, or the rule of law. They contend that, without one of those favorable pre-existing circumstances, maintaining democracy will be a daunting task.

Yet many in government and the media have yet to learn this basic lesson.

As Inglehart and Welzel observe, among those countries that “democratized between 1970 and 1990,” democracy endured “in every country that made the transition when it was at the economic level of Argentina” or higher. But in the nations below that level, it endured for a dismal average of “only eight years” before foundering. Indeed, the more developed and socially “modernized” a country becomes, the more difficult it is to avoid the growth of democratic institutions.


“Today,” Inglehart and Welzel declare, “it seems clear that the causality runs mainly from economic development to democratization” rather than the other way around. Democracy, in other words, cannot be forced.

Democratization is foiled, according to Inglehart and Welzel, when the bulk of a given population remains, out of necessity, focused on mere “survival values,” as opposed to the “self-expression” values that place primacy on personal agency and make the establishment of democratic government more likely. Military intervention cannot alter this basic, structural, social fact.


In their article, Inglehart and Welzel also outline several of the historic iterations of modernization theory, and how each attempts to define and characterize the process by which “traditional” societies become “modernized.”

“At the height of the Cold War,” they write, a particular “version of modernization theory emerged in the United States that portrayed underdevelopment as a direct consequence of a country’s psychological and cultural traits. …The rich Western democracies, the theory went, could instill modern values and bring progress to ‘backward’ nations through economic, cultural, and military assistance.”

“By the 1970s, however,” they continue, “it had become clear that assistance had not brought much progress toward prosperity or democracy—eroding confidence in this version of modernization theory.” Yet to this day, it seems that some policymakers and pundits have never accepted the widespread failure—or at the very least, underperformance—of the development assistance strategy.

Even in the wake of President Trump’s long overdue reorientation of American foreign policy, some doctrinaire neoconservatives seem unwaveringly committed to a permanent and extensive—perhaps even expanded—American military presence across the world. In the past, they have explicitly coupled this commitment with the spread of democracy to “backward” countries.

To give the neocons their due, pundits do occasionally animadvert against the war in Iraq and other uses of the American military without doing sufficient research. And certainly American withdrawal from overseas involvements can pose serious dangers of its own. At the height of the Cold War, such an interventionist approach probably seemed much more reasonable. There are hardly ever easy solutions to geopolitical problems.

But war, in one way or another, always brings disaster. Even if, in a given conflict, one side is clearly in the right, no modern war was ever perfectly carried out. There are often grievous impacts on innocent bystanders whose ramifications last decades after hostilities are formally concluded. Consequently, America should only employ military force with serious forethought and a clear and legitimate objective in mind, in keeping with the stipulations of just war theory. No war should ever be conducted on the basis of political ideology, regardless of what that ideology might be. We must always, as Saint Augustine did [4], beware the “love of violence” and “lust of power” that war can engender.

We ought not imagine that 1941 can never repeat itself—we should maintain our armed forces and our overseas alliances, and actively defend our own governmental institutions. But we should also not be so naïve as to think that democracy can, or should, be spread at sword point across the earth. Catastrophe always accompanies such utopian pursuits.

There is no moral dictate that compels one to spread democracy qua democracy by force—let alone by Bismarckian blood and iron.


Inglehart’s and Welzel’s 2009 article advances a view of modernization that is arguably at odds with the basics of modern conservatism (let alone traditional conservatism or paleoconservatism). For example, they describe the decreased emphasis on “religion” and “national pride” that accompany “modernization,” along with other relativist and arguably anti-Christian trends, in seemingly indifferent and even positive tones.

Nonetheless, their work holds an important lesson. If one recklessly decides to advance the “cause of democracy” by force, one is bound to fail unless the country one targets is not already amenable to one’s aim. All else being equal, one might just as well wait for the trends of modernization to run their course, and maybe try to influence the process through peaceful, voluntary means.

As an aside, a question remains: if “modernization” and “democratization”—as Inglehart, Welzel, and the political left generally understand them—are even indirectly corrosive to religion and patriotism, should they be pursued at all? If they serve to attack the groundwork of Judeo-Christian morality and therefore of civilization itself, which is what “modernization theory” and democracy purport to interpret and represent, respectively, are they goals worth pursuing?

Moreover, is the United States—a representative republic whose Constitution and Declaration of Independence do not bear even a single use of the word “democracy”—bound to uphold “modern liberal democracy” as an axiomatic principle even within its own borders, let alone across the globe?

I think the answer to all these questions is categorically “no.”

Defending legitimate American national interests and supporting the fair treatment of others is quite different from insisting on the establishment of global secular democracy. The reality is that we have a duty, as William F. Buckley Jr. put it, to “stand athwart” that system’s radical excesses, not blithely encourage them.


In her 2000 book Democracy by Force: U.S. Military Intervention in the Post-Cold War World [5], Karin Von Hippel examined “four US-sponsored interventions (Panama, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia).” She attempted “to provide a greater understanding of the successes and failures of US policy,” and “to provide some insight into the conditions under which intervention and nation-building are likely to succeed.”

In his review [6] of Von Hippel’s book in Foreign Affairs, Philip Zelikow characterized American nation building and modernization efforts as representing a sort of “secular evangelism.” However improper, that description hits on a key truth. If one truly believes, in a quasi-theological way, that “liberal democracy” is the only legitimate form of government, why shouldn’t one spread that government with evangelistic fervor?

Yet nowhere does just war theory demand wars to “spread liberal democracy.” Neither does the U.S. Constitution bear an injunction to “guarantee to every state in this union a ‘liberal democratic’ form of government,” much less to coercively spread such a system across the world.

At any rate, the “democracy” that neoconservatives and many on the left want to spread today bears little resemblance to the idea of robust democracy that, say, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had in mind when he made his “Arsenal of Democracy” speech in December 1940, just before America entered the Second World War.

There is no equivalence between—on one hand—a philosophy that encourages same-sex unions, the killing of children in utero, and the establishment of secular socialism, and—on the other hand—the form of government enjoined by the U.S. Constitution. There is likewise no equivalence between modern liberal democracy and the core beliefs of Western civilization. To claim that democracy, even in its healthy state, ought to be spread by force is to undermine the most basic tenets of both legitimate government and civilization itself. We should recognize this misguided quest for secular domination for what it is. In short, we should “stand athwart” the idea, and ensure that it never again defines American foreign policy.

Jack H. Burke has contributed to National Review. He is also a former White House intern and served as a U.S. congressional staff member.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Why Would We Want to Spread Liberal Democracy?"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 14, 2019 @ 12:04 am

The primacy of delusion in the affairs of men is proven by their enduring belief in the falsehood that good is accomplished through evil means.

#2 Comment By polistra On March 14, 2019 @ 2:49 am

This basic point has been understood forever.

Decent government has very little correlation with the mechanisms of government.

In general hereditary monarchs serve ordinary people better than partisan squabbling. The monarch wants his sons to have a country to rule, so he tries to keep the country running and improving.

Partisans only care about their own campaign fund-raising, so they create problems instead of solving problems. A new problem means a new talking point and a new source of funds. A solved problem loses a talking point.

#3 Comment By Gene Smolko On March 14, 2019 @ 4:17 am

Secularized distortion? The United States was never intended to promote religious belief. It is a secular nation whose citizens are free to practice their religion or lack thereof.

The civil government functions with complete success by the total separation of the Church from the State.”

~ James Madison

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

– Thomas Jefferson

“Thirteen governments thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.”

~John Adams

#4 Comment By Kasoy On March 14, 2019 @ 4:18 am

Secularization always tends to chaos & eventually self-destruction. Only a true Christian democracy can thrive & remain stable, & peaceful. Secularization is subject to a never ending change in relativistic mores which makes it unstable. True Christian society whether it be democracy, oligarchy, aristocracy, monarchy, or theocracy will remain focused on the unchanging moral laws of God, the Perfect True, Beautiful, & Good.

The transition of America toward secular democracy is leading it to secular socialism, then finally toward secular totalitarianism because the ONLY WAY to enforce whatever the “current” social mores is BY FORCE. Secular socialism is a critical middle phase in order to make people dependent on government welfare, thus susceptible to government control.

True Christian society enforces its UNCHANGING moral laws, not by force, but by charity & a transcendent view of life. It is self-controlling.

#5 Comment By JonF On March 14, 2019 @ 8:37 am

Yhe problem with American “democracy” is not that it’s secular- it always was. Rather it’s that democracy has been subverted by a rapacious, short-sighted elite whose interests do not align with the interests of the rest of us.

#6 Comment By Seraphim On March 14, 2019 @ 9:12 am

From Roderic Braithwaite’s “Afghantsy: the Soviet Union in Afghanistan”, this interesting summary of remarks by Y. Andropov, then chairman of the KGB, at the Politburo meeting of 17 March 1979 (before the Soviet incursion), where current adverse events in Afghanistan were being discussed (the Afghan leadership that were being criticized were local communists):

“Andropov added a devastatingly bleak analysis. The main problem was the weakness of the Afghan leadership. They were still busy shooting their opponents and then had the cheek to argue that in Lenin’s day the Soviets had also shot people. They had no idea what forces they could rely on. They had failed to explain their position either to the army or to the people at large. It was perfectly clear that Afghanistan was not ripe for socialism: religion was a tremendous force, the peasants were almost completely illiterate, the economy was backward. Lenin had set out the necessary elements of a revolutionary situation. None were present in Afghanistan. Tanks could not solve what was essentially a political problem. If the revolution in Afghanistan could only be sustained with Soviet bayonets, that was a route down which the Soviet Union should not go.”

#7 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On March 14, 2019 @ 9:14 am

Excellent piece, even if it only serves to reaffirm in rational form what many of us have known all along if only on the intuitive level.

I would also add that absent a significant level of basic literacy among the populace, the chances of something even approaching what we would call “liberal democracy” ever taking root are essentially zero.

#8 Comment By Kent On March 14, 2019 @ 12:09 pm

“a philosophy that encourages same-sex unions, the killing of children in utero, and the establishment of secular socialism”

I am not aware of any philosophy that encourages those three things. Building a straw man here?

#9 Comment By Sid On March 14, 2019 @ 12:23 pm

Interesting “cart before the horse” take on our foreign policy misadventures.

Still, our missions to establish “liberal democracies” are usually a smokescreens for other geo-political ends. The cliche rhetoric trotted out is always loaded with promises of “freedoms” and “liberation”, with the purpose of selling the adventure to the naive or ill-informed public.

Ideological language is just another tool used by those in power looking for more.

#10 Comment By Kronos On March 14, 2019 @ 12:55 pm

Polistra says:
“In general hereditary monarchs serve ordinary people better than partisan squabbling. The monarch wants his sons to have a country to rule, so he tries to keep the country running and improving.”
That is why monarchy has been such a towering success throughout history, and hardly anyone has even thought of trying to overthrow one. Apart from, perhaps, people in the Thirteen Colonies (aka USA), France, Spain, China, Russia, Italy …

#11 Comment By Kronos On March 14, 2019 @ 12:56 pm

Polistra says:
“In general hereditary monarchs serve ordinary people better than partisan squabbling. The monarch wants his sons to have a country to rule, so he tries to keep the country running and improving.”
Of course. No-one ever tried to get rid of those wise and lovely monarchs, except perhaps in France, the Thirteen Colonies (USA), China, Russia, Spain, Mexico, Germany…

#12 Comment By Curt On March 14, 2019 @ 1:32 pm

Democracy is The Rule of Money-Power, that is why the creation of a rich business elite in any country will many times spur the movement for a democratic government. Democratic governments are extremely easy to corrupt by domestic or foreign forces, since corruption is essential to the very workings of a democracy. This is why the US is an evangelist for democracy abroad – it serves to bind the local business elites into the US orbit, against the geostrategic interests of the local national security infrastructure. It is soft power as its best. For a foreign state to resist this centrifugal force of the US is extremely difficult, since the US dangles ‘free access to the US market, free transport of all your supply chain, etc’ as a bribe for a foreign power.

#13 Comment By Myron Hudson On March 14, 2019 @ 1:44 pm

We don’t export liberal democracy. We export crony capitalism. The thing is: capitalism exports itself. No effort needed. Crony capitalism, on the other hand, does have to be forced and later maintained at gunpoint.

#14 Comment By Kouros On March 14, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

Interesting to see though how good bedfellows US makes with all the Arab monarchies.

I also bet that a full fledged democratic polity, where representatives are selected via sortition rather than election in a two party system, and maybe with an election system for the executive branch (CEO-President; including individual election of various ministers and agency heads), plus a more interaction between legislators and executive will not be condoned by the US. That type of polity and paradigm would be probably as radioactive as communism was!

#15 Comment By JR On March 14, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

So, the conservative idol, Churchill, was wrong when he said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other alternatives?

I guess there is always something that needs to be written to fill the pages, but there’s nothing original here at all. All these things have been argued for millennia and no one has discovered a more perfect government than a liberal democracy

#16 Comment By Hunter C On March 14, 2019 @ 8:12 pm

Kasoy: “Secularization always tends to chaos & eventually self-destruction. Only a true Christian democracy can thrive & remain stable, & peaceful.”

This is an incredibly blithe, axiomatic assertion which isn’t backed up by ANY statistical data. According to a report by the UN least year measuring self reported quality of life and happiness in various nations, the 10 happiest countries in the world are among the least religious and the 10 unhappiest countries in the world all have very high religiosity (75% or more said religion was “very/extremely important” in their lives).

It is very likely true that high levels of secularization are the result of higher happiness and quality of life instead of the cause. That doesn’t change the fact that statistics show the exact opposite correlation compared to what triumphalist social conservatives are claiming in the comment section.

Kasoy, do you have any numbers to support the assertion that you made besides some warmed-over narrative about the fall of the Roman Empire that substitutes copious use of the word “decadence” for any kind of hard numbers?

#17 Comment By Kasoy On March 16, 2019 @ 5:15 am

Hunter C,

You totally do not understand Christianity. Worldly happiness is not its goal, nor is worldly wealth, comfort, security, fame, glory. If this so, Jesus led a most miserable life that no man should imitate. The Christian saints were (& are) the happiest people in spite of their voluntary poverty. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was (& is) a happy person.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?

The statistics (or study) you mentioned is based on worldly happiness. See the questions used in such surveys. The Missionaries of Charity sisters would all be considered “unhappy” had they been asked those questions & rated according to the worldly standards.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 16, 2019 @ 12:08 pm

I am only going to quibble with one aspect of this at the moment, And that is the perspective that literacy is required in order to practice democratic governance. That is accepted as a principle in the western world. But Democracy doesn’t have anything to do with literacy. It’s the practice within which community members participate in the decisions that effect the same.

The answer to illiteracy has been the oral traditions of forums, speeches and public debate. I think the more accurate press is “informed” populace as opposed to “literate”. Of course the issue of accurate information remains at issue.

I don’t have a knee-jerk negative reaction to empire. But what one does with said Empire on attaining it is the question. In many respects democracy is overrated.