The irrelevance of democracy promotion

As Sam Moyn has pointed out in his previous post, the events in Tunisia and Egypt have triggered a revival of sorts of “democracy promotion.” Yesterday, the New York Times ran a feature about “the return of pushing democracy” that explored how current events are used by some supporters of the previous administration to suggest that George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” was on “the right side of history,” after all — and somehow paved the way for the democratic transformations currently unfolding before our eyes.

Yet what is striking about these debates, and indeed about the entire Times article, is how “democracy promotion” has become largely a matter of political rhetoric. Back in the 1980s, democracy promotion was not only a rhetoric — as I’ve shown in The Democracy Makers, it was an assertive policy, pursued by a set of institutions (from the militant National Endowment for Democracy to the more technical USAID), and implemented through hundreds of projects. More recently, under the Bush administration, it became associated with military intervention and nation-building. Failure on both counts and a principled decision to break with interventionism and unilateralism certainly explain why the notion was not something Barack Obama’s administration could pick up where its predecessors had left it. The debate about “democracy promotion” these days seems mainly to be about the extent to which the administration calls for or endorses democratic change – and not much else.

But there is another reason why attempts at establishing a linkage between previous calls for democracy in the Middle East and current events in Egypt may be misleading. What has happened in Cairo has happened independently from U.S. policy choices and, indeed, largely against them. Excluding countries currently involved in military operations (i.e. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel. And this aid has been largely going to one institution, the army, which was one of the main social pillars of the Mubarak regime and which has an interest in maintaining its strategic political and economic position. If, despite such massive obstacles, the Egyptian people have managed to oust their leader and initiate a process of democratization, then there were few policy options left for Obama but to jump on the bandwagon and endorse democratic change, whatever its ultimate result, lest the United States alienate its previous ally.

In that sense, the remarkable consensus around Egypt and in particular the presence of major neoconservatives among the enthusiasts (unlike the French neoconservatives, who obviously lack the political intelligence of their American counterparts) reflect not so much the bipartisan revival of democracy promotion as a pragmatic stance given the powerlessness of the current administration before these events. Even if in the very near future the Obama administration will be able to exercise considerable leverage on the Egyptian army, the current talk about the Freedom Agenda or democracy promotion very much sounds like the rooster Chanticleer convincing himself that his singing makes the sun rise every morning.

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About Nicolas Guilhot

Senior researcher at the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) and deputy director of CIRHUS (Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences) at New York University. He has previously taught at the London School of Economics and at Columbia University. His books include The Invention of International Relations Theory: Realism, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the 1954 Conference on Theory (Columbia, 2011); and The Democracy Makers: Human Rights and the Politics of Global Order (Columbia, 2005). He is currently working on a history of international relations theory titled Morgenthau's Flight: International Relations from Decisionism to Rational Choice.