US and Illiberal Democracies: The Cost of Non-Engagement

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Critics of American involvement abroad generally cite the high costs of engagement, the difficulty of imposing changes from the outside, or the historical inconsistency of American policy. In other words, American policies are criticized for being expensive, unpredictable, or hypocritical. The debate over American policy toward illiberal democracies is thus doubly complicated. After all, an American policy of passivity toward a country such as Turkey could be just as costly, unpredictable, and hypocritical as one of liberal democratization.

It has not always seemed so perplexing. In 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams justified American inaction toward newly independent South American republics on the grounds that these countries were not suited for liberal democracy. These republics were destined to be autocratic, Adams felt, by their culture and history. Because of this, the United States could expect little benefit from interacting with them. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson stated that the world had awoken, and that all of mankind was aware of its rights. Consequently, America’s duty was to reassure the world of its engagement, and to spread democracy and justice globally. Adams and Wilson based their arguments on cultural and historical determinism, and both seem misguided in retrospect – Adams, for his tacit condescension, Wilson, for his outsized sense of ambition. Even so, the two provide a useful framework for evaluating American policy.

Democratic movements around the world have shown that the desire for political representation is not a function of culture or history. At the same time, Washington has a history of tolerating illiberal behavior by democratically elected leaders, and may incur criticism for failing to live up to its own ideals. For example, in response to a recent U.S. report on human rights abuses in China, Beijing released a report condemning American drone strikes, government spying and gun violence. How, then, can the United States craft a policy toward illiberal democracies that is ideologically coherent?

One concrete measure is an increased emphasis on international cooperation and law. As long as the United States refuses to ratify international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, or the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it undermines its commitment to liberalism more broadly. Yet another measure is to galvanize support for promoting liberal democracy abroad by highlighting the instability of illiberal democracies. The case of Ukraine, for instance, shows what can happen when a democratically elected government does not stem corruption, implement free market principles or uphold the rule of law.

Finally, because the difference between illiberal and liberal democracies is not usually clear-cut, the United States can reform illiberal democracies by providing more support to global civil society initiatives and sponsors, such as grassroots organizations and the United Nations Democracy Fund. While the process of changing illiberal democracies is neither costless nor precise, it is a project consistent with the nation’s heritage and interests.

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