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Human Rights Quarterly 22.4 (2000) 988-1010

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US Foreign Policy and Enlarging the Democratic Community

David P. Forsythe & Barbara Ann J. Rieffer 1

The Clinton administration proclaimed that enlarging the democratic community abroad was one of the basic pillars of contemporary US foreign policy. This statement built on initiatives from the past, and it was difficult to imagine any future Administration saying it was uninterested in democracy abroad. Moreover, modern international law called for popular participation in public affairs, and many other actors operated across borders to further democratic policy making. Thus, the US emphasis on democracy in foreign policy was not likely to end with this one administration.

This article offers a brief but broad overview of US efforts to advance democracy abroad during the 1990s. No other article of which we are aware has attempted this type of summary evaluation. 2 We argue that although it is not possible to chart the overall US influence and impact in this domain, because of the range of decisions taken and the other actors involved, the general orientation toward advancing democracy should remain--as long as Washington works to advance liberal democracy, and places its concern for civil and political human rights within an appropriate economic context. But the creation and consolidation of liberal market [End Page 988] democracies with a human face may depend ultimately on social factors not susceptible to immediate manipulation from Washington.

I. Introductory Overview

Americans generally see themselves as an exceptionally good people who have compiled an enviable record of protecting personal freedom. 3 This national self-image affects the American world view. Since the time of George Washington, 4 and despite certain traditions of isolationism and non-alignment, the United States has professed to want to teach the rest of the world--at least by passive example if not active policy--about the benefits of human rights and liberal democracy. The trend toward an active policy of support for democracy abroad has accelerated in the Twentieth Century. 5

It is against this historical background that the Clinton administration proclaimed that enlarging the global democratic community was one of the fundamental principles of contemporary US foreign policy. 6 The United States now spends over 700 million dollars per year to promote democratic openings and transitions in foreign countries. 7

A. Types of Democracies

Democracy requires that people participate substantially in governing their polity and that the average citizen potentially exercise a relatively high degree of influence over who governs. 8 Institutionally-speaking, democracy demands public policy making based on some type of majority (or plurality) rule through free and fair elections for most of the potential electorate. But [End Page 989] there is such a thing as the tyranny of the majority. Some elected governments, broadly popular, persecute minorities and otherwise practice illiberal democracy. 9 As illustration one has only to recall El Salvador in the 1980s. If we assume for purposes of discussion that Salvadoran national elections were basically free and fair, despite US financial involvement both overtly and covertly, those elections did not guarantee either personal freedom or national stability. Various civil rights were widely violated, such as freedom from summary execution, forced disappearance, and torture. Salvadoran elections were essentially an attempt to legitimize continued repression of those dissenting from governmental policy. Elections have performed a similar role in places like Croatia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, and Iran, among other places. 10

Presumably then, when the United States speaks of support for democracy abroad, Washington means not support for elected despots (a nice oxymoron) but rather support for liberal democracy that combines some type of popular rule with restrictions on that rule to protect basic human rights. Essential are laws and especially independent courts to establish meaningful civil rights to protect the individual, and in some cases groups of individuals, from dominant repression, oppression, and persecution. The international law of human rights follows this liberal philosophy, endorsing a political right to participation in public policy making (which implies rule by majority or plurality), but establishing certain civil rights that...


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