Why Export Democracy?

Why Export Democracy?

G. John Ikenberry

Far from a quixotic crusade, U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad are part of a pragmatic "hidden" grand strategy.

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1m 51sec

To hear critics tell it, the American preoccupation with promoting democracy around the world is the product of a dangerous idealistic impulse. In his recent book, Diplomacy (1995), Henry Kissinger cautions against this neo-Wilsonian impulse, under which American foreign policy is shaped more by values than by interests. He joins a long line of American writers, from Walter Lippmann to George Kennan to Charles Krauthammer, who call on the United States to check its idealism at the water's edge and accept the necessity of a more sober pursuit of American national interests abroad. At best, in their view, the American democratic impulse is a distraction, a nettlesome inconvenience that forces the nation's leaders to dress up needed measures in democratic rhetoric. At worst, it unleashes a dangerous and overweening moralistic zeal, oblivious to or ignorant of how international politics really operates. It fuels periodic American "crusades" to remake the world, which, as President Woodrow Wilson discovered after World War I, can land the country in serious trouble.

This "hardheaded" view, however, is a misreading of both past and present. The American promotion of democracy abroad, particularly as it has been pursued since the end of World War II, reflects a pragmatic, evolving, and sophisticated understanding of how to create a stable and relatively peaceful world order. It amounts to what might be called an American "liberal" grand strategy. It is a strategy based on the very realistic view that the political character of other states has an enormous impact on the ability of the United States to ensure its security and economic interests. It is also an orientation that unites factions of the Left and the Right in American politics. Conservatives point to Ronald Reagan as the great Cold War champion of the free world, democracy, and self-determination--but rarely recognize him as the great Wilsonian of our age. Liberals emphasize the role of human rights, multilateral institutions, and the progressive political effects of economic interdependence. These positions are parts of a whole. Although "realist" critics and others complain about drift and confusion in U.S. foreign policy, it actually has a great deal of coherence.  

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About the Author

G. John Ikenberry, currently a Wilson Center Fellow, is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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