The Paradox of Democracy in US Foreign Policy

There’s a famous saying that we should “be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

A car burns outside the US Embassy in Libya on Tuesday.

A car burns outside the US Embassy in Libya on Tuesday.

Last week was a difficult one for the US foreign policy establishment. On Tuesday, the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was stormed by militants, who killed the US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other American personnel. Stevens had worked closely with the rebel movement that overthrew Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in last year. Fluent in French and Arabic, he was, in many ways, the ideal US representative to the troubled region.

It is now believed that the attack was launched by Islamic militants who used ongoing protests against the United States in Benghazi as cover to launch their operation. But the protests which were initially exploited to cover the operation have since spread. By Friday, US, German, and British embassies in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen were the scenes of often violent protest by demonstrators who objected to an obscure online video produced by an American mocked the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, child molester, and ruthless killer.

The growing protests have been strongest in countries which experienced the Arab Spring, where longstanding dictatorships were overthrown and replaced with fledgling democracies. The leaders of those countries must play a dangerous balancing game. While seeking to retain good relations with the United States, they must also keep an eye on reelection campaigns. When Anti-Americanism runs high, one of the two competing goals has to give.

This tension marks an interesting turn from the historical foreign policy of the United States. During the Cold War, the United States was often criticized for supporting dictators who, while not democratic, were certainly anti-communist. While the promotion of democracy often remained an ideal objective of US foreign policy during the Cold War, in many cases, such as that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the United States was willing to overlook democracy for a firm commitment to anti-communism. Now, the emphasis on democratization has raised new questions arising from the competing demands faced by the fledgling democracies in the Middle East. How do we reconcile those demands?

What do you think? How should US foreign policy engage with democratically-elected governments expressing anti-American sentiment? What is the most effective way to engage with governments like those of Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan, where leaders balance a desire with closer ties with the United States against popular expressions of anti-Americanism? And more fundamentally, what role should the promotion of and support for democratization play in US foreign policy? Let us know what you think.

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