Book review: “American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies and Impacts”


american democracy promotion g john ikenberry paperback cover art

Edited by Michael Cox, G. John Ikenberry and Takashi Inoguchi

What is the future of liberal order in a Post-Western World? In tomorrow’s multipolar order, who will promote and defend the liberal concepts and ideas that make our current system to unique? One of the topics for which these questions are particularly pertinent is democracy promotion. We are witnessing a notable shift of power towards countries that are more reluctant when it comes to democracy promotion or reject it entirely. Although some of tomorrow’s global powers, such as Brazil and India, are democratic, it is far from certain that waning Western powers can simply pass the torch of democracy promotion to Brasília and New Delhi. In addition, the consequences of the Arab Spring remain uncertain, and democratic regimes seem highly fragile in Afghanistan and Iraq, countries where the United States spent great resources to plant the seeds of democracy.

Before addressing these questions, however, it is necessary to gain a better understanding of democracy promotion itself, something generally frowned upon outside of Europe and the United States. Even though this collection of essays has been published twelve years ago, it probably remains one of the best studies on this topic.

At the very outset, the analysis shows how much our thinking about democracy has changed in the past decade: Prior to September 11, the War on Terror, and an Iraq War that would severely taint the idea of democracy promotion, the editors confidently assert in the introduction that “democracy has triumphed”, and that democracy was “increasingly the only legitimate means by which we can manage our political affairs effectively.” And yet, as if they had foreseen what was about to come, they warn that the United States “has to understand the limits of its power. If it fails to do so, it could very easily get involved in the same quixotic crusades that cost it so dear during the Cold War.”

In part one, Michal Doyle, Randall Schweller and Steve Smith provide thorough theoretical accounts of the practice of democracy promotion. Doyle warns of the pitfalls of buying into a simplistic worldview made up of Wilsonian liberals who support democracy promotion versus realists (such as Kissinger) who reject it. Rather, there are multiple strands of each tradition, and their conceptions and worldviews can differ significantly. Kant of course plays a key role in the analysis, and his insights about the ‘liberal peace’ provide, until today, a crucial intellectual foundation for those arguing in favor of democracy promotion.

Schweller offers a potent critique of democracy promotion by arguing that even in an ideal world full of democracies and perfectly equally distributed resources, the underlying causes of war remain firmly in place. Smith’s chapter provides a scathing assessment of US democracy promotion. He argues that democracy promotion has been present throughout in US foreign policy makers’ rhetoric, but actual US foreign policy had usually little to do with noble Wilsonian ideas, for example in Latin America. G. John Ikenberry revisits some of these ideas about the “imperial elements” of today’s order in his book ‘Liberal Leviathan’, reviewed in a recent blog post.

In part two, which consists chapters by Tony Smith, G. John Ikenberry and Henry Nau, the authors look at democracy promotion as an American ‘Grand Strategy’. Smith sees democracy promotion as more than a fig leaf that merely exists to disguise true US national interests. Rather, democracy promotion is part of a greater American narrative, an important element of the United States’ “mission” in the world. US culture is thus an important factor in explaining democracy promotion. Ikenberry largely supports this claim in his chapter.

For those seeking to understand the future of democracy promotion and whether emerging powers will be willing and able to support democracy, Smith's chapter is highly relevant. The cultural factors Smith identifies are almost certainly unique to the United States, and it seems unlikely that Brazil or India will feel the urge to promote democracy. Exceptionalism is an important element of India's identity, but it certainly does not see itself as a 'city on the hill' that serves as referenec to others. On the other hand, one could argue that greater economic and political power may change emerging powers’ world views in the same way that the United States’ rise a century ago had a profound impact on the way US society sees its own role in the world. Henry Nau’s chapter is more concerned with the practical side of democracy promotion, and he argues that rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach, the US must adapt its strategy to the specific characteristics of the host country – a claim similar to that made by Steve Smith earlier.

In the third part, which consists of chapters by Ole Holsti, Thomas Carothers, Jason Ralph and Michael Cox, the authors look at how public opinion and domestic politics influence US democracy promotion. Holsti shows that many US citizens are wary of the practice. This is remarkable given that the year 2000 can, in many ways, be seen as a high point in global thinking about democracy promotion. James Traub’s Foreign Affairs article about the U.N.’s success in East Timor, for example, symbolized the West’s great confidence in its capacity to spread democracy. The experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to have reduced public support for the practice even further.

In addition, growing collective frustration with the United States’ political system may have begun to reduce confidence in the strengths of democracy itself. Thomas Carothers, the leading analyst of the US democracy promotion strategies, reiterates Nau’s arguments and says US democracy promoters are often unaware of the fact that a successful democracy does not necessarily have to look exactly like the United States’ political system. It is here in particular that emerging powers such as India and Brazil may be more pragmatic: Brazilian and Indian thinkers tend to much more aware of the flaws of their own democracy and perhaps more modest when speaking of their democracy as a model for others. In this part’s final chapter, Cox reflects on the Clinton administration’s democracy promotion record and confirms an idea confirmed by many other authors: Democracy promotion is far more than the idealist icing on an essentially realist cake. Rather, it is often an essential part of defending US nationalist interest.

The fourth and final chapter provides insights into different regions’ experience with US democracy promotion. Peter Rutland points to the deep flaws in the United States’ decision to push for both democratization and the introduction of capitalism in Russia at the same time, thus contributing to the failure of both. In the same way, Georg Sorensen is highly critical of US efforts to promote democracy in Africa. William Robinson and Barry Gills provide the book’s most frontal assault on US democracy promotion, arguing that it merely meant to serve US economic interests. The two last chapters in particular are very interesting in the light of the United States’ reaction to the recent revolutions in the Middle East.

None of the authors consider that the United States could one day ‘outsource’ democracy promotion to other actors such as Brazil or India. Still, this book is required reading for all those who seek to understand the future of democracy promotion in a Post-Western Word.

Read also:

Book review: “Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve” by Thomas Carothers

Book review: “No One’s World” by Charles A. Kupchan

Book review: “Liberal Leviathan” by G. John Ikenberry

See a list of other book reviews here