This afternoon, the Center for the Study of American Democracy continued with its second afternoon panel, “Democracy Promotion Beyond the Middle East,” where panelists addressed not only this topic, but also issues brought up earlier in the conference. Morton H. Halperin, Nadia Diuk, Adam Przeworski and John D. Sullivan each offered their own unique perspective to the discussion, but I would like to focus on a few key points brought up during the panel:
Morton Halperin began the conversation by pointing out the important difference between “democracy promotion” in general and the support of countries that are struggling to maintain or establish a democratic government on their own. He argued that it is the obligation of democratic countries to help the citizens of other nations who are already attempting to establish democracy on their own, but did not argue for the active promotion of democracy in countries that are not already struggling to implement such a government.
I thought this point was fair, but struggled with at what point we can discern whether a country is attempting to establish democracy without being involved in the inner-workings of the country beforehand or relying solely on the media. How can we decide which of these countries to aid; and should we help them preemptively, or should we wait to be asked to intervene? Should we aid attempts of democratization regardless of the amount of danger it could put our country in, or is there a point at which aiding every democratic rebellion is impractical? These are questions I still struggle with, and would love to have seen addressed more thoroughly.
But beyond that, I struggled with Halperin’s suggestion that the United States should give preference to democratic countries in regards to development and humanitarian assistance. Many of the countries which need humanitarian aid the most are also non-democratic countries, and this suggestion seemed to contradict Halperin’s original objection of “democracy promotion.” How is withholding aid anything other than a tactic to coerce other countries into changing their systems of government in order to receive humanitarian aid? How is it anything other than the very kind of “democracy promotion” in nations that were not asking for democracy that Halperin cautioned against? We should provide aid to the countries who need it the most, not just the ones whose governments look like ours.
Later in the panel, Adam Przeworski focused on tendencies that Americans have when approaching questions of democracy promotion, in particular what he called “ethnocentrism” associated with democracy itself. He highlighted the issue of American exceptionalism, or the tendency for Americans to tout America as, among other things, “the best country in the world,” and to consider this a legitimate reason to promote democracy. This mindset, he argued, is counterproductive as it only serves to turn other countries off to the idea of democracy. Why would other countries adopt our practices when America itself still deals with staggering inequality and the highest rate of incarceration of any other nation and refuses to admit it?
If America is going to promote democracy, we need to be honest in our intentions, avoid over-idealizing and to listen to the will of the people living in these countries. And, as Przeworski stated, we cannot legitimately do so until we acknowledge and work to fix our own problems at home.