During the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump declared that many of America's foreign-policy problems began with the "dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy." As on a number of other issues, the president-elect's dramatic statement broke from not only establishment views within his own party, but the dominant perspective of America's political and foreign-policy elites. But what does Mr. Trump's apparent skepticism toward democracy promotion mean in practice? Should the United States abandon democracy as an element of its foreign policy? Or are there better ways to do the job?
The modern origins of America's democracy-promotion efforts can be traced to Ronald Reagan's 1982 speech to the British Parliament, in which he proposed a comprehensive effort to "foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means." A year later, Congress passed legislation establishing the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to implement this vision. All of this occurred during a peak period in U.S.-Soviet competition, when the NED was not merely a humanitarian project, but a weapon in America's war of ideas against Communism.
When the Cold War ended, Francis Fukuyama and others argued that democracy had "won" the war of ideas and appeared to expect gradual democratization everywhere--the so-called "end of history." Boosting democracy rapidly evolved into an instrument of American security policy. As President Bill Clinton remarked in his 1994 State of the Union address, "Democracies don't attack each other. They make better trading partners and partners in diplomacy." His successor, George W. Bush, went even further in his second inaugural address, asserting, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."
They were mistaken. For one thing, conflating democracy with security was doomed to fail because ordinary Americans have never seen promoting democracy as a high priority--a quick review of annual surveys by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs makes this clear--and because the U.S. government could not and cannot quickly build foreign democracies. This week's party building or media training will not prevent next week's terrorist attack. The politicians and pundits who made such inflated claims did a disservice to the practitioners in the field, who know that building democracy can contribute to security, but takes generations to do so. Lorne Craner, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration and was twice president of the International Republican Institute, has observed that if a country is so troubled internally as to pose significant security challenges for America, it is...