CAMBRIDGE – President George W. Bush was famous for proclaiming democracy promotion as a central focus of American foreign policy. He was not alone in this rhetoric. Most US presidents since Woodrow Wilson have made similar statements.
So it was a striking departure when US 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 glaringly absent, suggesting a fundamental policy change by President Barack Obama’s administration.
Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush frequently referred to democracy’s benefits for security. They cited social-science research showing that democracies rarely go to war with each other. But, more carefully stated, what scholars have shown is that liberal democracies almost never go to war with each other. Indeed, it might be that a liberal constitutional culture is more important than the mere fact of competitive elections.
While free and fair 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 in fact gone to war with each other quite recently, as Ecuador and Peru did in the 1990’s.