The term democracy is almost synonymous with the foreign policy of the United States. As American influence spreads across the world, through either political, economic or military means, the US presence is generally accompanied by announcements of democratic purpose. Be it to prevent an authoritarian regime from oppressing its citizens in Iraq, or to urge China to further open its markets, the United States has almost always conducted its foreign policy under the banner of democracy. Why then, has the United States behaved contrary to its founding democratic ideals by challenging the spread of democracy within its allies?
Forming an alliance with another country is not a simple decision for the United States. Strategic and normative considerations play a huge influence in determining whether a formal alliance would bring desired benefits to the United States. Aside from salient strategic benefits such as consolidating a greater US regional presence and gaining access to crucial sea and land lanes of communications, an alliance can also help spread democracy. The democratic peace theory dictates that democratic states are more likely to establish a liberal peace than a group of authoritarian states (Russett & Oneal 2001). By this logic, the United States would be especially driven to spread democracy within its allies to create a more cooperative and peaceful relationship. This would enable the United States to reap more strategic and economic benefits from the alliance while extending the reach of US power.
Ambivalence, Subversion and Promotion
However, there is growing evidence against the US foreign policy of democracy promotion. While the academic literature has yet to develop concepts to describe these deviations, history points to cases where the United States has adopted ambivalent and subversive postures in response to allies that are undergoing democratization processes.
The ambivalent posture can be observed in the US response to pro-democracy protests that were met with heavy and bloody repression by South Korean military forces in 1980. Here, the United States neither supported the popular calls for democracy nor helped South Korean leader Chun Doo-Hwan to protect his authoritarian rule. In this case, the United States was found ‘sitting on the fence’. Chae-Jin Lee observes that “the Carter administration did not allow [US Ambassador to South Korea] Ambassador Gleysteen to serve as a mediator in Kwangju. Nor did it [the US Administration] threaten to impose any sanctions on South Korea’s “new military group” led by General Chun in the event of a violent crackdown”(Lee 2006, p.107).
More worrying is where the United States subverts democratization by using forcible action such as military intervention and covert measures to prevent an ally from becoming a fully democratic political system. This was the case in 1969-1973 in Chile, where US President Richard Nixon stifled Chile’s democratizing process by attempting to intervene in the election of Salvador Allende as the next popularly elected leader. Over US$400,000 was authorized to fund covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations to oppose Allende’s candidacy and attempt a coup to overthrow Allende in October 1970 (Fagen 1975).
Yet, we cannot discount genuine attempts by the United States to promote democracy through providing conditional aid and diplomatic and military support. In response to the popular calls in 1986 for authoritarian leader Ferdinand Marcos to step down and relinquish power to Corazon Aquino, the United States adopted a coherent democracy promotion posture. Throughout the Philippines’ democratization process, the United States persuaded Marcos to step down, provided economic aid to Aquino and even authorized US jet fighters to deter opposition rebel forces from threatening her rule (Fisher 1999; Pforr 2013).
Does threat drive inconsistency?
The academic literature argues that this inconsistency can be explained by changing levels of threat in the international system, where threat can be understood as the point at which national strategic and economic interests are at risk. This realist argument is first and foremost steeped within the assumption, made by Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder, that democratizing states are more likely to enter into conflict than other kinds of states (Mansfield & Snyder 2002). Democratizing states contribute to regional instability and risk further jeopardizing US strategic and economic interests that are already at stake. As a result, when US national interests hang in the balance, the United States is forced to maintain regional stability by preventing a nearby ally from proceeding with democratization.
To put it simply, when the United States perceives a higher level of threat in the regional environment, this means that US national interests in the region are at stake. The United States is thus more likely to challenge democratization in its ally in order to maintain regional stability and protect US national interests. This was the case in the Middle East, where the sudden Arab Spring drove fears of regional instability and shaped the US posture to stop promoting democracy (Powel 2009). On the other hand, when US strategic and economic interests are no longer at risk as the threat level decreases, then the United States is more likely to promote democracy in its allies. This was the situation in the Philippines, where the United States was more eager to support democratization only after the Soviet Union imploded and receded as a regional threat.
This argument therefore suggests that protecting national interests will always override the imperative to spread democracy. As formal allies bring crucial strategic and economic benefits to the United States, the United States is more willing to adopt a subversive or ambivalent posture towards its democratizing allies, especially when these benefits are at stake.
It can be concluded that the United States is likely to challenge democracy by being ambivalent or subversive during higher levels of threat. However, the academic literature has yet to present an argument that can explain at what point the United States will choose to be ambivalent or subversive. It can be suggested that another level of analysis can differentiate the US decision to adopt an ambivalent or subversive posture. This level of analysis lies in the domestic conditions of the United States, which has yet to be closely studied by the academic literature and contemporary commentaries.
Unpredictability damages alliances
The more the United States varies in its response to the democratization efforts of its allies, the more tainted the US foreign policy record becomes. Inconsistent foreign policy postures shape the United States as an unpredictable and unreliable ally. This view threatens the strength and longevity of US alliances and can also jeopardize the US commitment to democracy worldwide.
Without a theoretical model that can identify when the United States is likely to promote or challenge democracy, the United States will continue to appear irregular in its response to democratizing allies. As US allies view the United States as unpredictable, they will become increasingly wary of US maneuvers. No longer can pro-democracy citizens feel that they can rely on the United States for consistent democracy assistance and political support. Meanwhile, both democratic and authoritarian leaders of US allies will become increasingly skeptical of the level of support, or resistance, that they can expect from the United States in the event of a civil upheaval.
As the United States faces growing challenges from emerging powers such as China, democracy is at risk of losing its appeal to US allies. For this reason, it is crucial that policymakers of US allies quickly understand when the United States is likely to promote or challenge democratization, or risk subjecting democracy to become a mere memory of the heydays of US hegemony.
- Brieg Tomos Powel, “The Stability Syndrome: US and EU democracy promotion in Tunisia”, The Journal of North African Studies 14, no.1 (2009), pp.57-73
- Bruce Russett & John Oneal, Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence and International Organizations (New York, USA: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001)
- Chae-Jin Lee, A Troubled Peace: U.S. Policy and the Two Koreas (Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006)
- Chris Pforr, Coca-cola, Krags and Uncle Sam: A Brief History of US Imperialism in the Philippines (Quezon City, Philippines: KEN Incorporated, 2013)
- Edward D. Mansfield & Jack Snyder, “Incomplete Democratization and the Outbreak of Military Disputes”, International Studies Quarterly 46, no.4 (2002), pp. 529–549
- Richard R. Fagen, “The United States and Chile: Roots and Branches”, Foreign Affairs 53, no.2 (January 1975), pp.297-313
- Richard D. Fisher, Rebuilding the US-Philippine Alliance no.1255, (Washington D.C: Heritage Foundation, 1999)