When Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, he promised a more hardheaded foreign policy. Some of his supporters thought this meant jettisoning Carter’s emphasis on human rights, which they saw as a symptom of weakness. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s first secretary of state, declared: “International terrorism will take the place of human rights in our concern.” Accordingly, the Reagan administration proposed as assistant secretary for human rights someone who had declared flatly that human rights had no place in foreign policy.
When the Senate shot down that nomination, Reagan left the post vacant for months while his team deliberated more carefully over the issue. In the end, it repudiated Haig’s view, declaring: “Human rights is at the core of our foreign policy.” Other aides more sensitive to soft power than Haig, whose background was military, persuaded Reagan to overrule him.
Reagan, however, refined the policy to place more emphasis on democratization. There was often little to gain, he concluded, by merely criticizing or punishing autocrats for abuses here and there. The more meaningful goal was to erect systems of government in which abuses were rarer and subject to redress — in other words, democracy.
Thus, our government set to work more systematically than ever to foster democratization. The policies and mechanisms Reagan put into place furthered a global tide in which the world went from about one-third democratic to nearly two-thirds, according to Freedom House and various scholarly studies. Of course, U.S. actions alone did not cause this transition, but they contributed to this. U.S. support for Poland’s Solidarity movement and dissidents elsewhere in the Soviet bloc helped bring down that empire, while American arm-twisting persuaded generals to abandon military rule in El Salvador and other Latin countries. More gentle pressure did much the same in South Korea and the Philippines.
This tide brought better life chances to millions. It also made the world more peaceful, prosperous and friendly to the United States. And it washed away the Soviet Union, ending the Cold War. That denouement was the greatest boon to American security since World War II.
Nor was this the first instance in which the spreading of democracy overseas redounded to America’s profound benefit. Following World War II, President Truman faced the question of what to do with Japan and Germany, the defeated enemies that we now occupied.
Germany had experienced democracy only once, briefly, during the Weimar Republic. The closest Japan had come to democracy had been an era in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when political parties came to the fore. In both countries, these progressive experiments had collapsed, enjoying too little popular support. Thus, knowledgeable observers doubted that democracy could be implanted in either country. As the eminent anthropologist Ruth Benedict put it, the United States could not “create by fiat a free, democratic Japan.”
Nonetheless, Truman decided on a policy of democratization, and it succeeded beyond expectation. As the scholar Robert Ward quipped about Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his aides who transformed Japan, “had they known more [about Japanese history and traditions] they would have accomplished less.”
Aside from making it possible for generations of Japanese and Germans to live in freedom, their democratization turned them into cornerstones of America’s security policies in Asia and Europe and of the post-World War prosperity on which America battened.
Needless to say, America’s democracy-building efforts, whether during the occupations or the Reagan years or since, have been replete with failures and mistakes. Errors abounded even in the great success story of Japan, and they were even more abundant in the debacle of our more recent occupation of Iraq.
No formula explains adequately why democracy takes hold some places and not others. Some countries where conditions seem ripe — say, Russia or China with high education levels and growing economies — prove stubbornly resistant. Others where the odds seem daunting — say, India or Botswana — have long practiced democracy.
Nor is democracy promotion a science. Some approaches have proved fruitful in some places, not in others. We can all agree that, despite the brilliant success of the period immediately after World War II, America should not invade countries solely to impose democracy. Rather, this project must advance by peaceful means, and often in ways that will be constrained by other considerations, since democratization will rarely be our only objective.
Slogans aside, every American president has naturally put America first. But our wisest and most effective leaders have recognized that a more democratic world does not merely gratify our ideals but also admirably serves our national interests.