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Democracy Promotion Reconsidered

Cambridge – President George W. Bush was famous for proclaiming the promotion of democracy a central focus of American foreign policy. He was not alone in this rhetoric. Most American presidents since Woodrow Wilson have made similar statements.

So it was striking when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified to Congress earlier this year about the “three D’s” of American foreign policy – defense, diplomacy, and development. The “D” of democracy was noticeable by its absence, suggesting a change in policy by Barack Obama’s administration.

Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush frequently referred to the beneficial effects of democracy on security. They cited social science studies that show that democracies rarely go to war with each other. But, more carefully stated, what scholars show is that liberal democracies almost never go to war with each other, and it may be that a liberal constitutional culture is more important than the mere fact of elections.

While elections are important, liberal democracy is more than “electocracy.” Elections in the absence of constitutional and cultural constraints can produce violence, as in Bosnia or the Palestinian Authority. And illiberal democracies have fought each other, as Ecuador and Peru did in the 1990’s.