The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America should support democracy — but we have to be smarter about it

People gather outside the international airport in Kabul, on Aug. 17. (Str/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Americans who were born after Sept. 11, 2001, have little reason to believe that the United States can successfully promote democracy. Today’s teenagers and college students have not witnessed a single major U.S. foreign policy success story that resulted in democratization.

Instead, they’ve watched botched interventions in Iraq and Libya, 15 consecutive years of rising authoritarianism abroad, and the steady erosion of democracy at home. The horrifying return of a medieval theocracy to Kabul marks the final nail in the tragically large coffin of the post-9/11 wars — wars that politicians wrongly claimed would replace murderous regimes with liberal democracies.

And that raises an obvious question: Should the United States just give up on making the world more democratic?

Concluding that U.S. efforts to support democracy abroad are useless at best and counterproductive at worst is the easy choice. It’s also the wrong one. For the United States’ national interest and for our most deeply held values, we must continue trying to support nascent democracies. But we need to radically rethink our approach.

The standard playbook of American democracy promotion and foreign aid policy is messy and often ineffective. The United States tends to dole out aid money to countries based on contradictory factors. We regularly fund authoritarian allies while claiming to stand for democracy. Elsewhere, we keep pumping money into countries where there’s been no movement toward democracy for decades. Lots of democracy promotion money is wasted on poorly designed programs in autocratic regimes.

As a result, the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid in recent years have been a muddle of rich and poor, authoritarian and semi-democratic. Topping the list: Afghanistan, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Ethiopia, Syria, Kenya, Nigeria and South Sudan. That’s not the list you’d choose if you actually cared about promoting democracy in places where assistance was most likely to work.

Afghanistan was a classic case of ineffective, wasteful democracy promotion mismanaged by bureaucrats and derailed by competing priorities. In one instance, American taxpayers spent $280 million to ostensibly empower 75,000 Afghan women in the country’s flimsy counterfeit democracy. An audit of the program later found it had no discernible effect. For the same price, the United States could have just handed $3,733 in cash to each woman. Given that the average Afghan earns about $500 per year, that would have been about seven years of average income — which would have had a far greater effect.

Democracies aren’t built with money. That’s one of the hard lessons from Afghanistan. Without the right institutions, the right homegrown reforms and the right security situation, even trillions in American aid won’t lead to a robust democratic system. And yet — an injection of properly allocated cash at the right moment during an organic democratic transition could tip a society away from authoritarianism and toward a durable democracy. Tunisia, for example, democratized after the Arab Spring and aid money started to flow in. But those hard-fought gains are now at risk because of economic decline.

That’s why American democracy promotion needs to narrow its focus — but also needs to go big with support when countries move toward democracy on their own.

For example, the United States could do much more to support the mass pro-democracy protests in Belarus, or the counter-coup protests in Myanmar, or the current democratic blossoming in Zambia. When there’s a groundswell of local support for democracy, the United States can throw its weight around — with punitive action against the authoritarian incumbent and in support of the broader popular movement. It’s far more likely to create momentum if the democratic wheels have already been set in motion by the people themselves.

When a transition succeeds and a new democratic government takes power, that’s when it’s time to open the floodgates for economic aid. Without that support, many fledgling democracies will collapse due to economic stagnation during the inevitably rocky transition.

Innovation is urgently needed. What about rewarding countries for progress toward democracy rather than paying for democracy training workshops in dictatorships that might not collapse for decades? Each year, some countries move toward democracy, while others slip further into authoritarianism. Providing substantial aid incentives to countries that make the biggest gains toward democracy each year could create a “race to democracy” — a race that pulls countries toward a more open society rather than pushing them into it. It’s not about spending more. It’s about spending smarter, with a laser-focused rather than a shotgun-style approach.

Unfortunately, none of these efforts will be effective if short-term realpolitik continues to overshadow U.S. support for democracy. Too often, the United States undermines its own pro-democracy efforts by bolstering a dictator for a separate security or economic interest. Our recent lurch toward authoritarianism hasn’t helped either.

We can either get serious about supporting democracy even when it conflicts with our short-term geopolitical strategy, or we can continue to pour money down the drain. There’s no third choice. Democracy promotion won’t work until we decide to stomach occasional short-term geopolitical hits in the longer-term fight for a more democratic world — a fight worth having even for selfish reasons. (See our trade flows and security cooperation with Germany, South Korea and Japan for proof.)

The current landscape of American democracy promotion is bleak. But giving up is not the right response. We should focus on countries where we can make a difference. The United States should support democracy — but we have to be smarter about it.