America’s Democracy Promotion Mechanisms

America is arguably the most powerful nation in the world. Its wealth and military capacity is almost incomparable with those of other powerful nations. For instance the United States’ annual military budget, is larger than the total of the world’s top 26 military budgets combined. With this great wealth and power comes great the responsibility of national security. This responsibility often entails eliminating all threats to the liberty of the nation, often by promoting external peace and stability to counteract the unstable political structures around the world that often give birth to and facilitate said threats.  Being a democracy, the United States sees the spread of democracy abroad quite beneficial to its own interests. Although not all autocracies are enemies of the United States, as Fukuyama  and McFaul point out “every American enemy has been an autocracy.”  One cannot disagree with the fact that the US efforts to transform former dictatorships such as Japan, Germany and Italy into democracies have served not just the US well, but also the world, making it more secure and peaceful. There is undoubtedly a great case for the United States promoting democracy around world. However, certain controversial means of doing it, mismatches and misestimating of situations in recent times have clouded the world’s opinion on the US ability to create a more peaceful, prosperous world through democracy promotion. The most important feature of democracy promotion is its inability to work as a fixed model for every country. Each country/ autocracy and situation is unique and has to be treated that way. The policies and means for democracy promotion abroad should be carefully designed according to the political, social and economical context of each country and how they affect its region and the United States. Although each case is unique and it is nearly impossible to standardize intervention strategies for democracy promotion, Peter J Schrader lays out seven prominent interventionist tools that the United States can implement.  In this post I hope to extensively analyze these seven strategies to explore how each strategy has been used by the United States in the past, their successes and failures, in the hope of conveying how each tool matches a different context.

The seven tools that Schrader describes are: classic diplomacy, foreign aid, political conditionalities, economic sanctions, covert intervention, paramilitary intervention, and military intervention. They are listed in the level of coerciveness, each more coercive than the preceding.   Classic diplomacy covers a broad range of democracy promotion activities from US authorities such as the President, Secretary of State using the powers of their office as a platform or as Theodore Roosevelt put it, a “bully pulpit,”   to speak up for democracy promotion in different parts of the world, to sending US funded teams to monitor elections and oversee the democratic conduct of them. Let’s consider the United States’ classic diplomacy efforts in Nigeria. In 2014 when 276 Nigerian girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, an Islamic Jihadist group, the First Lady of the United States among other senior government officials backed a campaign titled “Bring Back Our Girls”, demanding the return of the girls. This brought the issue to the world’s attention, causing a massive outpour of national leaders to speak up, pressurizing the Nigerian authorities to speed up the search. Governments of the China, Iran, Canada, Israel, the EU   and many others came forward with military and intelligence aid to support the Nigerian government in the search.   Earlier this year when Nigeria held its elections, the US funded a large election monitoring/ observation mission that helped maintain ingenuity of the election to a large level. The election saw Nigeria’s lowest reported number of election violence related deaths and was successful to a large extent.

Foreign aid is another effective tool of intervention that serves the US’ intentions of foreign policy and democracy promotion. Israel, Afghanistan and Pakistan respectively top the highest US aid receiving countries in the world. Although there’s much controversy and debate over how these countries use the billions of US aid allocated to them, in theory, the aid is meant to strengthen civil society and promote a pluralistic, vibrant political culture supported by a robust economy.  Being conflict-ridden countries, the United States’ relationship with them is strengthened through aid. This gives the United States an upper hand in conversations with the governments of these nations.

Political conditionalities are negotiated agreements between governments. These agreements demand for a change or sustenance of policies by certain governments in exchange for incentives such as investment in development, military aid, intelligence aid etc.  Pakistan is the third largest receiver of US aid in the world. Since 2001 the US has been pumping in over $20 billion worth of aid to Pakistan.

The US aid to Pakistan is built on a conditional relationship. US Congress has always made economic and security aid conditional upon Pakistan being an ally in its war on terror. Although this may seem more like the purchase of an ally than an approach to promote democracy the conditional relationship between Pakistan and the United States has done much good to Pakistan. For instance the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, promises $7.5 billion over the course of five years to help strengthen the young civilian government and the people. However Congress has raised questions about the loyalty of the Pakistani government following the incident of finding Osama Bin Laden residing in a location very close to a Pakistani Military base.  The U.S. already suspended $800 million after the Pakistanis deported American military trainers following the bin Laden killing.


Moving up the chain of least intensive to most intensive tools of intervention it is fair to say that political conditionalities definitely make a solid middle ground. It is not as invasive as economic sanctions, para-military or military intervention but gives just enough leverage to manipulate governments in setting up sustainable democracy promotion in their countries while bringing down the threats to American national security; a win-win situation. However in some cases political conditionalities alone do not work. You can’t clap with one hand and political conditionalities cannot be implemented without the corporation of both parties.

Covert intervention, involves using intelligence agencies in a covert manner to  disseminate specific information to advance foreign policy goals. Although United States Constitution prohibits, however, “the use of intelligence agencies to influence domestic media and opinion;” a massive contradiction and double-standard on the United States’ part.

Economic sanctions, arguably, is the most ineffective form of democracy promotion out the seven intervention tools. Economic sanctions isolate the countries that they are  imposed on and takes away the leverage that the United State previously had on it. It also brings down the said country’s economy, further derailing its chances of democratization. The population of countries with economic sanction impositions may feel abandoned by the so called “promoter of democracy” at their time of need and may have to rely even more on their incumbent autocracies, which could make the autocracies stronger than before. For example when the US imposed sanctions on Cuba against the Cuban government’s nationalizing America companies with no compensation, the US reaction did little to no good to both parties. If anything it let the United States feel dominant, through an impulsive reaction. The Cuban government’s losses due to the sanction add up to over 70 billion today. This has not only brought down the Cuban economy and the standards of living for its innocent civilians, it has also completely isolated Cuba from the United States, achieving the complete opposite of what democracy promotion tools are meant to achieve.

Military and para military intervention are two of the most disapproved forms of intervention. In extremely desperate cases of foreign conflict ( for instance when genocide or use of weapons of mass destruction are involved) the United States finds it their responsibility as the leading democracy in the world to intervene and restore democracy by means of military  intervention.    Para military intervention would involve the United States using a counter insurgency mechanism, such as using rebels, insurgents already in place in the conflict zone. The US could fund the rebel groups in non-democratic countries to overthrow the the existing autocracies, train, plan and fund local insurgents instead of sending in their own troops. The US  used counter-insurgency training to reduce violence in war-ridden Colombia.  Academics and political scientists argue that the intervention in Colombia is  “the most successful nation-building exercise by the United States in this century” Para military intervention processes also used to involve assassination plots. However in 1981 President Raegan banned the use of assassination plots as an intervention mechanism through executive order.

The US after September 11, 2001 found itself intervening militarily in Afghanistan to bring down the Taliban government. In 2003, the US in a multi-national coalition put boots on the grounds of Iraq to end Saddam Hussein’s rule. To date Afghanistan remains under US military occupation. The Iraqi war came to an end in December, 2011. America still engages in drone warfare in West Asia. US has launched many  drone attacks on Pakistan and Yemen against suspected terrorist targets which have quite often taken the lives of innocent civilians, bringing the US foreign policy and democratic ethic into question and much unpopularity.

Democracy promotion is undoubtedly a worthy moral and strategic interest of the United States. However when choosing intervention tools it is crucial that decisions are made carefully and calculatedly. Tools such as political conditionalities can be very effective, with little damage to both parties, if well-negotiated. In order to make sure high levels of success are achieved, it is important that the intervention decisions are backed by robust support structures that ensure efficiency. In other words, aid much be supported by accredited auditing and observation teams to avoid mishandling of funds and resources, military and para military missions must be supported by intensive intelligence to avoid collateral damage and mission failures and even classic intervention tools must be used only after careful examination of each country’s political culture, under the advisement of regional specialists.  In today’s world, if any nation has the financial, military and intelligence capacity to establish sustainable democracy and world peace, it is the United States. It is both a privilege and responsibility that must be made use of wisely.


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