Summary and Keywords
Democracy promotion has been a key aspect of U.S. identity and foreign policy, though Washington also has a long history of supporting non-democratic forms of governance; it has both consolidated democratic regimes and intervened to overthrow democratically elected governments. Democracy promotion is a broad term encompassing different activities, undertaken as part of a nation’s foreign policy, which intend to initiate and foster democratic governance abroad. Democracy promotion efforts may include, among other strategies, “traditional” diplomacy, targeted foreign aid and assistance, and both covert and overt military intervention. While democracy promotion has now become an accepted foreign policy norm among many nations, numerous issues and debates continue to surround its deployment, ranging from granular questions concerning how to best distribute foreign aid up to larger, more fundamental disputes centered on the effectiveness and legitimacy of democracy promotion.
Such issues have a particular relevance to the history of U.S. foreign policy: the meta-narrative of U.S. foreign policy and its grand strategy is axiomatically associated with democracy and with democracy promotion. Indeed, given its self-characterization as a shining “city on a hill,” charges of inconsistency and double-standards frequently attend U.S. efforts at democracy promotion. Certainly, despite the rhetorical positions of many presidents, democracy promotion has never been the driving factor behind U.S. foreign policy but rather one component of a wider picture. The United States has frequently supported authoritarian regimes, undermined democracy, or supported a form of “low-intensity” or limited veneer of democratic practice.
That said, the institutionalization of U.S. democracy promotion has not only set it more firmly on the agenda but also made it a more visible feature of U.S. policy. The democracy promotion efforts that served the Reagan administration’s goals in Latin America—mainly funding quasi-governmental groups that sought to foster opposition to unfriendly governments and strengthen civic society in target countries more generally—have provided a model for the basis of a large democracy promotion industry, providing a genuine substance to U.S. democracy promotion rhetoric in the process. The “industrialization” of democracy promotion, however, has created its own issues; namely an uncritical environment in which the promotion of a relatively shallow form of U.S.–style democracy has been presumed to be best, no matter the individual circumstances and nuances of target countries. The problems formed by such biases, along with a host of other challenges, will likely ensure that U.S. democracy promotion remains a contentious issue for some time to come.
Keywords: democracy promotion, democracy assistance, foreign aid, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, diplomacy, United States, polyarchy, authoritarianism, narrative, exceptionalism, political philosophy
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