The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Democracy’s empire

February 27, 2006

Oxblog’s David Adesnik and Michael McFaul just published an article (PDF) in the Washington Quaterly entitled “Engaging Autocratic Allies to Promote Democracy.” They discuss how, during the 1980s, US influence facilitated democratic transitions in the Philippines, South Korea, and Chile.

Its an evenhanded and thoughtful piece.

But I can’t read it without thinking that their examples of how American diplomatic pressure, triangulation, and prudence aided the cause of democracy make sense… in states that were, during the Cold War, parts of an American informal empire–or, if you prefer, its hegemonic order.

Democracy promotion through diplomacy demands a very delicate sort of engagement. In this context, it does not mean establishing cordial relations in the hope that perhaps someday friendship and prosperity will eventually result in democratization. The historical record contains only a few examples of this strategy’s success.3 Engagement instead refers to using close ties with a regime to exert effective pressure for political liberalization. Once in motion, liberalization can develop an unstoppable momentum. If used strategically, the power of the U.S. government is especially great in countries ruled by dictators who are friendly toward Washington. These regimes often rely on the United States for legitimacy, arms transfers, economic assistance, and even security guarantees. U.S. diplomats often underestimate their leverage vis-à-vis these regimes because their preference for stability blinds them to the regime’s vulnerabilities (p. 8).

The Cold War, ironically, limited the “exit” options that many autocrats had vis-à-vis the United States. All three of the regimes Adesnik and McFaul use as examples couldn’t have turned to the Soviets for assistance. In the current international environment, how many states have this kind of dependent relationship with the United States? How many regimes have no other options for external support? Adesnik and McFaul have important things to say about diplomatic strategy, but strategies cannot be isolated from the conditions that make or break them.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.