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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Spirit of Freedom

Charles Fletcher Dole was a well-known Unitarian Minister from Jamaica Plain. In 1906, Dole wrote a book called The Spirit of Democracy, in which he noted that democracy was “on trial in the world, on a more colossal scale than ever before.” Dole was referring to democracy both at home and abroad, and in some ways his ideas ring true today:

“Every nation stands ready to follow America in the ideal of national expansion, as every nation is ready to fear and hate her, if once she plays, though in the most delicate fashion, the part of the bully or the braggart. In short, the great nation is like the great man. He is not the greatest whom others obey, but he who persuades the others by effectual and friendly good will.”

In 2006, spreading democracy and freedom in the world is the most outstanding theme in the Bush Administration’s foreign policy rhetoric; democracy promotion is supposed to play a role in U.S. relations with all countries of the world. But should it? More importantly, will it work?

Democracy promotion functions on four levels: acting upon American ideals and core beliefs; achieving other foreign policy objectives; building domestic support; and as what Joseph Nye calls soft power.

Our foreign policies have not always reflected our values and core beliefs, but they are reflected in the tradition of promoting individual freedom and liberty. President Carter said that U.S. democracy promotion “is rooted in our moral values, which never change.” President Bush said in his second inaugural address that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” This does not mean, however, that democratic reforms should become an all-or-nothing prerequisite for maintaining U.S. relations. Some countries do not have the internal popular support necessary for democratic change. With others, we have pressing economic and security interests that need to remain at the top of the diplomatic agenda.

The second function of democracy promotion is as a tactic, one among many, for achieving U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives. Curbing violent extremism, pursuing a global free-market economy, ensuring stability in failed states, and seeking peace between nations are all goals for which democracy is supposed to be the key. Unfortunately, issues like Guanta Photo by John Kane namo Bay and Abu Ghraib, as well as U.S. efforts to undermine democratically elected yet uncooperative regimes, have weakened our credibility overseas. In turn, the potential of democracy promotion to achieve these important objectives is also weakened.

Third, the ideal of democracy typically enjoys popular support among the American public. In this way, combining democracy promotion with other foreign policy goals may offer a basket of policies, such as the War on Terror, an added measure of domestic support. Presidents have tried this approach for years. Today, however, it doesn’t appear to be working as domestic public opinion toward promoting democracy abroad is declining. Unrealistic expectations, as well as an association between democracy promotion and the frustrations of the War in Iraq, may have undermined this support.

Finally, democracy promotion has the potential to provide us with soft power. Soft power allows a country to achieve its foreign policy goals more efficiently by co-opting, rather than coercing, other countries into supporting its policies and interests. Liberal democracies like ours reflect attractive values and a culture based on individual freedom and autonomy. Democracy promotion can provide us with soft power, but only if implemented correctly. Associating democracy promotion with military intervention, as we’ve done in Afghanistan and Iraq, looks like we’re forcing others into democracy rather than attracting them to it. Even Reagan knew the danger in this approach, having once stated that “Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.”

Democracy promotion has great potential to reflect the core beliefs and ideals of the American people, to further our foreign policy goals, to build domestic support, and to increase our soft power and influence in the world. But under the Bush Administration, democracy is again on trial. In order to reach its full potential, we would do well to remember that democracy promotion must reflect effectual and friendly good will rather than play the part of the bully or braggart.