From George W Bush to Donald Trump: The Exceptional Resilience of Democracy Promotion in US Political Discourse

John Ikenberry recently wrote: “the relationship between American grand strategy, democracy promotion and international security has been debated with great intensity ever since the unexpected collapse of Soviet power between 1989 and 1991.” According to Ikenberry, this is “a debate that shows no sign of vanishing off the political agenda any time soon.” Oz Hassan and Jason Ralph went even further arguing that the concept of democracy promotion and its place in US foreign policy have “been the subject of fierce debate since the founding fathers based the United States on principles that they believed to be universal and therefore exportable.”

In this context, Tony Smith’s book, America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century, represents a seminal work. In America’s Mission Smith significantly broke with the traditional research on US foreign policy. While authors like Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, William Appleman Williams, and Noam Chomsky had based their explanations of US international behavior on either power or profit (or both), Smith identified the idea of democracy promotion as an indispensable variable to understanding US foreign policy. Within the more recent literature, two books reflect the current state of the art in the academic debate on the relationship between democracy promotion and US foreign policy. Both are collections of essays and include the work of some of the major experts in the field.

One book is The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century by John Ikenberry, Tony Smith, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Thomas Knock. The Crisis of American Foreign Policy tackles questions of enduring importance. First, is US foreign policy really about the spread of freedom and democracy? Or is democracy promotion a sort of fig leaf used to cover more pragmatic geopolitical ambitions? Second, what role does democracy promotion play in the broader tradition of US liberal internationalism, also known as Wilsonianism? Third, what can we make of the complex dynamics existing among the concepts of democracy promotion, humanitarian intervention, state sovereignty, and liberal imperialism? Finally, is the Wilsonian tradition still relevant in the twenty-first century?

One of the many strengths of The Crisis of American Foreign Policy is that it does not put forward a single answer to these critical questions but instead each essay offers different, and sometimes diametrically opposed, views on the issue.

The other book is US Foreign Policy and Democracy Promotion: From Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama edited by Michael Cox, Timothy Lynch, and Nicholas Bouchet. US Foreign Policy and Democracy Promotion provides an up-to-date overview of the evolution of the US policy of promoting democracy abroad from the early twentieth century to present day. The authors especially explore the difficult foreign policy decisions US leaders must face when national material interests conflict with their country’s ideal values. Since each chapter discusses the democracy promotion record of a specific US administration, the book also advances the “fairly self-evident fact that American presidents matter a great deal when it comes to determining the country’s foreign policy.”

This article contributes to this consequential debate in at least two significant ways. First, it explores an important aspect of the relationship between democracy promotion and US foreign policy that the existent literature has not sufficiently analyzed –namely the rhetoric of democracy promotion. As noted by Guy Emerson and others, the rhetorical aspect of democracy promotion has been generally dismissed as merely a “cover for maintaining US control and the continuation of its long history of intervention.” However, I contend that the role of the rhetoric of democracy promotion in US politics is much more complex than its critics have been ready to acknowledge. In this article, I specifically investigate the causes behind democracy promotion’s enduring presence in US political discourse in the face of repeated announcements of its imminent demise. Proclamations of the end of democracy promotion in US foreign policy have been frequent in recent US history. Tellingly, they accompanied the election of all the last three presidents: George W. Bush in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008, and Donald Trump in 2016. In the cases of Bush and Obama concerns about the demise of democracy promotion were eventually proved wrong. As for Trump, I argue that there is reason to believe that the rhetoric of democracy promotion will outlast also his presidency. I maintain that the especially resilient nature of US democracy promotion can be explained by the fact that the rhetoric of championing democracy has an instrumental value even for those US leaders who do not share the Wilsonian belief that promoting liberal democratic values abroad increases US national security and improves the chances for a more peaceful world. The second contribution of this article is a study of the possibility of change in the place occupied by democracy promotion in US political discourse. Without dismissing the importance of the agency of distinct US presidents in defining US foreign policies, I suggest that the election of a new leadership alone is insufficient to significantly alter the status of democracy promotion within US political discourse. Instead, structural change in the values associated with US national identity and/or in the international distribution of power is more likely to do so.


Speaker bio 
I am Lecturer and Coordinator of the Masters Program in American Politics and Foreign Policy, at the Clinton Institute, University College Dublin. My research has primarily focused on issues of US foreign policy, the Middle East, terrorism, and democracy promotion.

Previously, I lectured at King’s College London, UK, (2015-16), at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, part of the UK Defence Academy (2011-13), and at John Cabot University in Rome (2016). I was also Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at City University London (2015-16).

From 2014 to 2016 I was the founding chairperson of King’s College London’s US Foreign Policy Research Group. Moreover, I contribute to media outlets such as Al-Jazeera and The Telegraph. I also peer review book proposals on US foreign policy and international affairs for Routledge and SAGE.

Twitter @EugenioLilli

Personal Blog “Web Agora”
Check out my new book New Beginning in US-Muslim Relations: President Obama and the Arab Awakening Palgrave Macmillan.


SPIRe Seminar Series
This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series. Eugenio’s seminar ‘Investigating the Resilience of Democracy Promotion in U.S. Political Discourse’, discussant Dr. Vincent Duracm will be on Wednesday, Oct. 4th, 14:00-15:15.

The full schedule for the SPIRe seminar series semester 1 can be found on our website.

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