Past and Present
Democracy Promotion: Competing Perspectives with Grave Consequences
“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”1 This statement by former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger explicitly demonstrates the ambiguity in American policy to support and promote democracy around the world. The tension between the perceived moral imperative to promote an “exceptional” political system abroad and realist American self-interest (or national interest) has greatly influenced, and at times limited democracy promotion efforts in U.S. foreign policy.2
The inconsistency in democracy promotion policy can be partly seen when one examines the discourse of U.S. presidents on the subject, from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush. Each administration had varying ideas of how to promote democracy in practice – whether through coercive diplomacy, international institutions, or non-governmental organizations – but also differences in its specific definition of democracy, i.e. the political model that should be promoted.3 Even though the various perspectives diverged in many aspects, the main cleavages ← 287 | 288 →were never merely partisan. They rather reflected (and continue to reflect) the much-discussed dilemma about where U.S. foreign policy should be placed along the idealist-realist continuum.4
In short, the issue of democracy promotion is rooted in the interplay of two opposing approaches to U.S. foreign policy – isolationism and interventionism. The desired scope of American involvement abroad is a divisive issue in any political discourse or elections, and democracy promotion is at the center of this cleavage that is present within the...
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