Thirty years ago today, President Ronald Reagan outlined a new vision for American democracy promotion in an address to members of the British parliament in London. He declared that the United States should work “to foster the infrastructure of democracy—the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities—which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”
Congress established the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, in 1983 to implement President Reagan’s vision. The NED has since given out grants to non-governmental organizations working to promote freedom in more than one hundred countries. American democracy promotion efforts have also expanded outside of the NED. Today, the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department join the NED in giving out foreign assistance with the stated goal of advancing democracy abroad. Combined, their efforts represent a multi-billion dollar a year industry.
To date, the presidential candidates have not spent much energy in public explaining or debating their proposed democracy promotion policies. That lack of attention may be a result of the presidential election’s emphasis on domestic issues. It may also reflect the fact that—as I have argued elsewhere—there is no consensus within the American government on democracy promotion policy and so many decisions about how precisely to aid democracy abroad actually take place on the ground in other countries, at some distance away from the White House. But in the wake of what political scientist Marc Lynch refers to as the “Arab Uprising” of 2011—during which time protests swept from Morocco to the Persian Gulf and brought down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—how to support political reform in the Arab world will surely be one of the key foreign policy issues that the president will face.
The most discernible differences among the candidates thus far pertain to their rhetoric. President Barack Obama was often (and often derisively) described as “leading from behind” in the aftermath of the intervention in Libya. That phrase became a popular buzzword among critics of his foreign policy, which some Republicans have argued has neither been sufficiently assertive nor unified in a single grand strategic vision for the United States’ role in the world. According to Thomas Carothers, the Vice President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an astute observer of these issues, democracy promotion calls to mind the “larger issue of how assertive America should be in the world, especially toward hostile powers.”
President Obama entered office determined to take a “quieter approach to spreading democracy abroad.” But despite the change in tone from the President George W. Bush’s more bombastic statements on the subject, Obama’s administration has in many ways continued the United States’ long-standing policy of supporting human rights and democracy around the world—at least when doing so doesn’t conflict with other central American foreign policy interests (see: Bahrain). Indeed, President Obama worked hard both in front of and behind the scenes in 2011 to ensure a peaceful transfer of power from Hosni Mubarak. He said the following about the Middle East in an address in May 2011: “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”
Governor Mitt Romney has challenged the President’s tone on democracy promotion—if not his actual policies—in clear terms. The Washington Times quoted Romney in October 2011 as saying, “We’re facing an Arab Spring which is out of control in some respects because the president was not as strong as he needed to be in encouraging our friends to move toward representative forms of government.”
In terms of aid policies for the Arab world, though, it is less clear where the candidates differ. Although Governor Romney has said that foreign assistance should be cut, he has pledged democracy aid to Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya to help with their transitions. That pledge is in keeping with the current American approach, which recently included an unprecedented $100 million direct cash transfer to the Tunisian government.
The candidates’ rhetoric—humbler versus more assertive—is informative. To some extent, how American presidents talk about democracy promotion is democracy promotion policy. Research by the University of Pittsburgh’s Daniela Donno, for example, shows that condemning undemocratic political conduct is the most commonly used tool of enforcing democracy abroad—and, deployed under the right circumstances, “naming and shaming” democratic abuses can be an important tool for advancing democracy abroad. Thus, voters can glean important information from how the candidates’ talk about democracy promotion.
Still, hopefully in the coming weeks and months, the candidates will say more about their intended democracy promotion policies. What, if anything, do they think the United States can do to support the transition in Tunisia—which today appears to the region’s best hope for a true democracy but rests on getting the economy there going? How should the United States encourage freedom and human rights in its military ally Egypt, which the NGO crisis of February 2012 suggests is increasingly hostile to outside interference? Those are the questions that voters will hopefully have answered by the candidates as November approaches.
Sarah Bush is a Research Fellow in the International Security Program in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former Miller Center Fellow. Her website is www.sarahsunnbush.com and she tweets at @sarahsunnbush.