CSAD Afternoon Panel #2: The Intent of Democracy Promotion


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.

5 comments on “CSAD Afternoon Panel #2: The Intent of Democracy Promotion”

  1. Mr. Przeworski’s America bashing has no place in this event. But for the record, sir, American exceptionalism has been well-earned with blood and treasure for generations. As for being “the best country in the world”, maybe you could get another of your fancy slides that shows how the number of people trying to get into this country compares with any other. And as for those slides the first one is staggeringly disingenuous. What you conveniently omit is that the large income gap ignores the tendency of individuals to have opportunities move up over time. This promise of upward mobility is another reason this is the best country in the world, and particularly so for those who are permanently consigned to the lack of opportunity in so many other countries. It’s natural that these individuals would start at the lower echelons of financial security, but they know they will not be constrained by the prejudices, class distinction, racism and sclerotic economies they left behind. The fact that it is the elites who “get turned off” by our success and well-being is nothing more than envy and resentment that they can’t get a piece of the pie. We tend to wear their winging as a sign that we must be doing something right, as the only way to earn their praise is to become a failing welfare state, of which they are very familiar.

    And as for the incarceration rates, I can only surmise that we also have a bunch of bad apples who thought they could find shortcuts up the ladder of opportunity.

    1. While I don’t disagree with you that there are a lot of great things about this country, to ignore the shortcomings and refuse to work towards improving them puts everyone at a disadvantage. The point was not whether America is or is not “the best country in the world,” but rather that when we take that attitude while interacting with other countries, it’s a disservice to everyone involved. I would argue that it’s not necessarily “envy and resentment” that turns other countries off from the United States, but perhaps what can be perceived as arrogance and a lack of appreciation for other cultures and ways of life. I’d like to suggest that this isn’t “America bashing” but rather an attempt to recognize that regardless of how great we may or may not be objectively, we are still far from perfect.

      1. I dont recall me or anyone else claiming the US is “perfect”, or that the topic of the conference was “What’s wrong with America”. But those implying that because the US still has usolved problems disqualifies it from applying its good and great attributes from attempting to improve countries that can benefit from our success in building the fundamental instituions for a functioning democracy. These include religious freedom, an independent judiciary, free and fair elections, women’s rights, property rights, freedom of the press, elimination of barbaric social customs in the more conservative regimes, and a resonably functioning market economy.

        Introducing random attacks on the the imperfections of the US is nothing more than straw man for the America Bashers who have little constructive to say about how we can use what does work here to benefit other countries.

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