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Explaining the Politics of US Democracy Promotion

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             Democracy, a political system rooted on people empowerment through organized elections, is the mark of the United States’ growing influence and eminence in world politics.  This has replaced the “cross and sword” the old Western World used to build empires across continents, from Asia Pacific to the Cape of Good Hope.

            Just like the “cross and sword” used by conquistadores to subdue token resistance by “uncivilized” natives, democracy is the new weapon to bear down “tyrants” and “terrorists.”  Democracy is the new symbol of the world’s undisputedly most dominant economic and political power around which American interests revolve.

            The United States’ apparent policy to promote democracy abroad is inspired by its unprecedented success in Japan and Germany, its bitterest rivals during World War II.  After the war, efforts were undertaken to revive the two countries’ war devastated economies and to install a new political order anchored on democracy. The two countries’ meteoric rise from the ashes of war, their apparent ease to adapt to a new political system, their resurgence as economic powers, and their emergence as two of America’s staunchest friends and allies in the world stage of politics and trade, have convinced America to believe that, indeed, as President Woodrow Wilson would put it:  “A steadfast concert of peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations” (Ikenberry, 1999).

            Democracy represents the United States’ apparent vision of a “stable, legitimate, and secure, and prosperous new order,” although it could also be argued that such vision is not an exclusive representation of America’s foreign policy that sits first and foremost on its national interest.  Even this so-called Wilsonian idealism, a perspective anchored on the spread of democracy, has been widely criticized as “overly idealistic, and can lead to unnecessary military interventions, putting lives at risk for abstract concepts rather than direct threats.”

            But scholars have found a new use for democracies – they are important not just in advancing the cause of peace, but in making international agreements and institutions work.  This new perspective is stressed in the following 1995 statement of Anthony Lake, then the director of the U.S. National Security Council:

“We led the struggle for democracy because the larger the pool of democracies, the greater our own security and prosperity.  Democracies, we know, are less likely to make war on us or on other nations.  They tend not to abuse the rights of their people.  They make for more reliable trading partners.  And each new democracy is a potential in the struggle against the challenges of our time – containing ethnic and religious conflict, reducing the nuclear threat, combating terrorism and organized crime, overcoming environmental degradation.” 

            The United States’ strategic policies in advancing its interest are not solely anchored in the establishment and promotion of democracies around the globe.  While it looks like the official stand of the United States is always on the side of democracy, there are clear instances when it veers away from this policy altogether to cavort with notorious tyrants who are willing to cooperate with the wishes of the United States.

In a world full of ambiguous talks, double entendre, and indistinct diplomatic facade, democracy is often used as a convenient excuse to unseat leaders and crush governments that do not adhere to America’s self-directed interests.  It is also used to extol leaders of obviously undemocratic regimes, like when then Vice President George Bush Sr. hailed then Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, a US ally, as an exemplary democratic leader, just before the late dictator was ousted in a “people power” revolt in 1986. Such a scenario illustrates a glaring gap between the U.S. commitment to the promotion of democracy and the reality of its foreign policy.

In the same vein, the Indonesia government lost considerable aid from the United States as a result of its atrocious human rights records in recent years, including the participation of Indonesian soldiers in massacres in East Timor.  But when the U.S. needed assistance to uproot the training camps of Jemaah Islamiya, a Southeast Asian-based terrorist network with links to al-Qaeda militants in the Middle East, American officials proposed a financial grant of $50 million to help fund the training of police officers against threats from terrorists.  U.S. military officials lamely explained the deal by saying that the money would be used to train Indonesian police officers, not just in combat training but also in human rights observance.

The United States has likewise entered into an agreement for joint military exercises with the Philippine government that has reaped success in the fight against terrorism.  Major personalities from the bandit group Abu Sayyaf, a band that has also been confirmed to have links with the al Qaeda and was involved in deadly kidnap-for-ransom operations to raise funds, have been neutralized largely through this cooperation.  US authorities offered military equipment and funds for the Philippine army to step up its drive against terrorists.

In an apparent foreign policy shift, the United States, which used to view China as a threat, has adopted a much friendlier U.S.-China relationship in the wake of a new security model drawn out of 9/11.  Indeed, the United States appears to be in a diplomatic frenzy over its choices of friends and allies representing extreme ideologies, yet bound to fight a common enemy for both.

The Southeast Asian region is both economically and strategically important to the United States.  The region has a combined gross domestic product of over $750 billion and is the fifth biggest market for U.S. exports.  With over half a billion people, the region is a strong multi-billion market for various U.S. products and supports, directly and indirectly, millions of American jobs in all sectors of the American economy.  The U.S. direct investment in the area reached over $90 billion in 2003.  Southeast Asia holds a great strategic importance to U.S. interests as the region sits astride the sea routes from Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean to the Pacific, a natural passage way for much of the world’s trade and energy shipments flow.  U.S. interests in the region are bolstered by long-time allies the Philippines, Thailand, and free trade partner Singapore.

The region is home to many religions, but the most dominant one is Islam.  Indonesia, with a population of 245 million, is the country that has the biggest Muslim population in the world.  It ranks fourth, behind China, India, and the United States, as the world most populous country.  Observers believe that the Americans were drawn to Southeast Asia and offered to support and train the local military precisely to neutralize not just the Abu Sayyaf, but also the Jemaah Islamiya, whose stated goal is to create an Islamic state comprising of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Southern Philippines, and Southern Thailand.  The Jemmah Islamiya is responsible for at least five major bombing attacks in the region, including that of a disco house in the resort island of Bali in Indonesia which left more than 200. More targets were uncovered by police authorities in a JI plot to attack the US and Israeli Embassies and British and Australian diplomatic buildings in Singapore.  Even after the arrest of its top leaders, the JI continues  to maintain its ability to target Western interests in the region and to recruit new members through a network of radical Islamic schools based primarily in Indonesia that have placed local authorities within the region and American servicemen in a constant state of alert.

The United States has had a long history of presence in the region that started when the Americans took over the Philippines from Spain in 1898.  Filipino revolutionaries led by Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo assisted the Americans in the battle against Spain, but also took arms against the United States when the rein of government was not transferred to the Filipinos after the fall of Spain.   It took the United States almost 50 years before handling the rein of governance to Filipinos on June 12, 1946, only after having made sure that American interests were deeply entrenched in the country and in the region through trade and military agreements that were clearly lopsided in favor of the United States.

This strategy has never changed.  “US commitment to the promotion of democracy has always been more of a public relations ploy than an achievable or maybe even desirable goal for US foreign policy.”  If this is what they want to do in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East where the sense of  American resentment is very strong, then this is a certainly going to be a dangerous ploy that could cause a far greater damage in the future not only for Iraq but for the United States.  For democracy to work, there should a deep understanding of the concept and desire to make democracy work as what Japan and Germany did.

Democracy is not just a matter of holding an election and proclaiming the winners as the U.S. is wont to do in Iraq. “Unless democracy is combined with social reform then democracy gets undermined in the medium term.  Without social reforms, the term democracy is largely devoid of meaningful content.”

But then again, on the basis of historical evidence, this is just what the United States wants to achieve – to prop up a semblance of democracy where American interests can revolve.  Democracy promotion has not really been a real goal of the U.S. foreign policy in the 20th Century.  A token commitment, but not quite a commitment.  While it has supported democracies in the past, the fact that it supports despots only means that support for democracy is not a total commitment; it’s a token support, a variable to America’s primary commitment – its own interests.

When a democracy evolves into something deeper, “an ideology responsive to popular demands for immediate improvement in the standards of living” as what has happened in Malaysia, then this becomes not the democracy envisioned by America because it interferes with its efforts to encourage private investment and repatriation of profits.   While this is the ideal democracy, this is the democracy that the U.S. will not want to promote as it will not serve American interests.


The United States apparent notion that a “stable, legitimate, and secure and prosperous new order” is possible through the propagation of democracy is valid.

It is certainly not a utopia, but it is a good enough foundation from which to build a newer and more deep-rooted democracy founded on a shared blueprint of the past to reach a collective goal for future that is founded on peace, freedom, and prosperity.

The colored revolution in Eastern Europe makes for one ideal setting because of the spontaneity and collective longing for democracy to work.  The same could not be said of Iraq in the Middle East or perhaps Burma in Southeast Asia because the promotion of democracy has already been viewed with skepticism.  There is likewise distrust about the true motivations of the people promoting democracy, if not outright perception of interference.

The status of the United States as a promoter of democracy is damaged not just by recent abuses committed by U.S. soldiers, but by a history of indifference and disinterest  to countries with a long history of democracy but are unable to move ahead until a need arises.

The United States no longer has a monopoly of a working ideology, thus is unchallenged, but is confronted by new, strong-handed approach of other countries, like China and Russia, which have moved ahead over the years with unparalleled success even if some of their individual liberties are curtailed.  Many citizens are willing to sacrifice their individual freedom for the chance of better economic development.

 Despite the availability of an option to democracy, some countries still vote for other political approaches, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and PLO’s Hamas.  Perhaps, another issue that needs to be addressed is whether such ideology, if you may call it that, is compatible to a democratic setting.

However, these issues will have to be addressed on a case to case basis.  What is important right is for the United States to be unequivocal about the ideology or ideologies it wants to project.  Will the U.S. deal only with democracies?  Or will it dance as well with “tyrants?”

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