Difficult Times for Democracy Demand New Approach, Adjusted Expectations

By Lee Hamilton for the Huffington Post
Oct 20 2015

If there's one common thread that ties together the foreign policies of each U.S. president in the modern era, it's the mission of promoting democracy abroad.

Democracy has defined U.S. global engagement for so long that it's sometimes hard to remember that it's not our only foreign policy objective. We have other important goals - counterterrorism, national security, nuclear nonproliferation, world peace and free and open trade, to name just a few.

Clearly, we cannot promote democracy exclusively and need to balance it with these other goals, but no goal cuts so closely to our core values than democracy. It's a major part of who we are as Americans. Indeed, we serve as the preeminent champions of the cause, and we aren't true to ourselves if we aren't affirming our commitment to government "for and by the people." Furthermore, we believe that our leadership in the world is the strongest when we remain true to our fundamental values, including democracy, which many of us view as central to the notion of "American exceptionalism."

We continue to pull out all of the stops in our effort to spread our democratic way of thinking around the world. Our arsenal includes foreign aid, such as the billions of dollars we supply each year to Egypt, political rhetoric and, of course, armed force in fragile nations like Iraq and in Afghanistan, where, as President Obama announced just last week, the U.S. will retain 5,500 troops beyond the end of next year.

Additionally, we continue to provide substantial amounts of assistance to civil groups and help organize foreign elections, all in the name of democratic reform.

Our most powerful democracy-promoting tool has been our example, but at a time when Washington is in gridlock, putting our house in order is a prerequisite to effectively promoting democracy abroad.

Increasingly, and at almost every turn, however, our efforts are met with strong opposition, even in countries we count among our closest friends. Some allies (Saudi Arabia, for example), whom we think should welcome our help, view democracy as a threat, while others (see: Congo, Egypt) routinely try to deceive us about democracy in their own countries. In order to secure U.S. aid, governments in those nations will tell us they're actively pushing for democracy, when in fact they're increasing their authoritarian rule and repressing activities that would lead to more democratic and civil societies.

It used to be that America was quite adept at the whole democracy-building game. Not long ago, we established the foundation for still-solid democratic governments in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Recently, though, the challenge of developing free and open societies has become much more formidable.

If you want to gauge just how well we're doing, it's fair to say that democracy is unquestionably one of the most powerful political ideas of the 20th century. It is, however, in the midst of difficult times.

While a lot of ruthless dictators have been driven out of office, too many of their successors have failed to establish viable democratic governments. Supporters of U.S. efforts will rightly tell you that around 40 percent of the world's population now lives in countries with free and fair elections. It's also fair to point out, though, that democratic growth has slowed, if not halted, and among other lessons we've learned is that democracies cannot stand on their own, at least not when people continue to seek ways to distort elections for their own purposes. Democracies require more than elections. They need a strong infrastructure, including a judicial system, civil societies, free media, fair and free elections, and culture. Without those foundations in place, elections will never be sufficient.

As we continue to promote democracy, we have to be pragmatic. We cannot demand or expect immediate transformations of closed governments into full-blown democratic societies. In the real world, we must accept progress in lieu of perfection. We have to push for more transparency, more accountability and more than one-candidate elections. We have to accept moves toward the rule of law rather than expect a mature judicial system. We should strive to build strong democratic institutions instead of expecting immediate Jeffersonian democracy. And we need to continue to push for far greater rights for women.

In striving for all of this, we have to have a little humility, and our expectations should be modest. It has always been incredibly difficult to impact the political direction of another country, and that is especially true in today's times. Our ability to bring about democracy (Are we good at this? Have we provided sufficient resources? Are we organized? Have we been sufficiently trained?) is in question.

We seemed to be much better at democracy-developing when we were working to establish the governments of Taiwan and South Korea, but the challenges we face are far greater now. We have to increase our game if we are going to be more successful.

More than ever before, democracy is a fragile flower that needs nurturing and tending like a garden. Right now, we're in the weeds, trying to cut through the tensions, including power-hungry politicians, partisan gridlock and the excessive influence of money, that prevent democracy from fully growing.

Over and over, I am impressed by the fact that democracy isn't inevitable. It has to perform and meet the needs of the people, who are pragmatic, not ideological. If you build it, they will come - but only if it works.

When considering the future of democracy, that's not reason for pessimism, but also we need to understand that the times have changed and, along with them, the challenges of advancing what will and should continue to be a focal point of U.S. foreign policy for years to come.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies, and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.