The relationship between US foreign policy and the promotion of democracy has never been simple. That great champion of democracy, Woodrow Wilson, never thought that Asians or Africans were ready for it after World War I. Franklin D. Roosevelt more often than not backed dictators in Latin America, and later struck a deal with the Saudis over oil. Eisenhower hardly ever thought about it at all. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of students of US grand strategy once believed that democracy was never a major US foreign policy aim.

To the contrary, its mission was either to expand its power while denying it was doing so, promote its economic interests (hardly the same thing as extending freedom to others), or maintain stability and the balance of power. For many years, in fact, authors as ideologically diverse as Hans J. Morgenthau and Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Waltz and William Appleman Williams could write, sometimes with great verve, about the international role of the imperial republic without even contemplating the possibility that the promotion of democracy mattered at all—and one could readily understand why, especially during that longue dure?e known as the Cold War. The conflict with the USSR may have been fought under the banner of defend- ing or extending the “free world,” but in the pursuit of this entirely laudable goal, Washington more often than not found itself supporting regimes that were anything but free. So long as they were anti-communist, the United States was more than happy to support authoritarian states as far apart as South Korea in East Asia to the Pinochet junta in Chile.

But this would not have come as a surprise to serious students of US diplomatic history. As David Schmitz ar- gued in his outstanding 1999 study Thank God They’re on Our Side, the habit of backing right-wing autocracies is a long-established feature of the US foreign policy tradition. Justified on grounds ranging from protecting “moderate” elites from irrational mobs to that old imperial favorite that only people at the top of the ladder of civilization were mature enough to run their own affairs, the US record on democracy promotion was not always the positive legacy some later claimed for it.

Yet, as Tony Smith was to argue in one of the most challenging books written on US foreign policy—significantly, a few years after the Cold War had come to an end—trying to understand US foreign policy through the 20th century without reference to US democracy promotion was almost impossible. As one of his many admirers noted at the time, Smith’s book America’s Mission showed that liberal internationalism was not just a cultural quirk of unsophisticated US citizens, or some veneer stuck on to obscure the United States’ more nefarious intentions, but rather, was central to the way the people of the United States thought about themselves and their role in the wider world.

This generated all sorts of tensions between the way many in the United States viewed the republic’s ultimate purpose in the world, and the ability of policymakers to make good on the United States’ claims about the forward march of freedom. But as Smith was to show, this understudied dimension of American thinking not only provided the raison d’e?tre for waging war against imperial Germany after 1917 and the Axis powers during World War II, but significantly contributed to the creation of a liberal world order after 1945 as well. Marginalized for too long in a debate dominated by realists and radicals who could only think of foreign policy in terms of either power or profit (or both), Smith’s focus on what he saw as America’s underlying purpose reinstated something that had for too long been missing from the discussion.

After the Cold War

However, the end of the Cold War did more than just make Smith’s book seem timely. It also opened up a wider space for the first serious debate about the role of democracy promotion in US foreign policy. There were several fairly obvious reasons for this. The most important was connected to developments going on in the real world itself. Before World War II the international system had largely been composed of colonial empires. These then collapsed in fairly quick succession. However, instead of fulfilling their liberationist promise, the new nations in the now-renamed Third World (with perhaps the notable exception of India) nearly all ended up ruled by either one-party states with some ideological affinity to socialism or military juntas closely supported by the West. Nor was democracy to be found everywhere in Europe after 1945. Indeed, communism once looked to be rather secure on one side of the Iron Curtain, while dictatorships in one form or another continued to prevail in many European countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Greece (significantly, all close allies of the United States).

Then, something rather extraordinary happened. First, the last dictatorial holdouts in Western Europe fell during the 1970s, though not without a struggle. Authoritarian rule was then swept away in most of the Third World during the next decade. And all this was then followed by the quite unexpected implosion of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. Democracy, at last, was becoming the global norm—sometimes due to US policies, particularly in Eastern Europe, and sometimes in spite of them.

These successive political changes, referred to in 1991 by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington as the “waves” of democratization, not only raised several important questions as to why this might all be happening; it also had massive implications for US grand strategy. After all, if it was agreed that democracy represented the future, and moreover that powerful forces were pushing the world in a democratic direction, then it would behoove the United States, as Bruce Russett put it, to “grasp” the opportunity offered by the “democratic peace” and make it a central part of its foreign policy mission.

The idea was not a new one, of course. It had been discussed in the pages of scholarly journals for some time, at least ever since the liberal political theorist Michael Doyle had first suggested that there was indeed a liberal tradition that had much to say to US policymakers. But it was only by the 1990s that the discussion moved from the classroom to the corridors of US power. Indeed, by the middle of the decade, one could not attend a major IR conference or policy briefing in the United States without hearing yet another discourse on the pros (and sometimes cons) of the democratic peace theory and what this meant for the country.

Whether or not analysts in other countries were fix- ated on what to many looked like a very US-centric debate about US foreign policy with very little reference to what was taking place in other parts of the world, such as the newly enlarged Europe, remains a moot point. Yet as John Owen later noted, having been of marginal interest to international relations scholars before the 1980s, the idea of democracy promotion—more precisely the notion of the democratic peace—became one of the most hotly debated topics.

From Clinton to Bush

The 1990s thus saw the emergence of democracy promotion from under the rubble left behind by the dark days of the Cold War. With a liberal president now in the White House, advised by some very influential people who insisted that the idea of a democratic peace was as close to being a “law’’ as any known theorem in international affairs, it very much looked as if a new foreign policy dawn was about to break. Clinton, however, was assiduous in distinguishing between his own carefully calibrated approach to democracy promotion and what was frequently referred to as nai?ve “Wilsonian” idealism.

Indeed, whenever he spoke in favor of democracy promotion he invariably did so by linking it to either the United States’ core national interests (thus legitimizing it in classically realist terms) or the promotion of market relations (thus justifying it on economic grounds). If democratic enlargement became the Clinton doctrine by any other name, it was rarely pursued for its own sake.

Clinton’s immediate successor, George W. Bush, did not even show this degree of commitment initially. Indeed, if the new Bush administration had a foreign policy at all in early 2001, then it tended to be defined less in terms of a positive democratic vision for the world and more as a power struggle between competitive states in which the United States would have to retain full spectrum dominance in an international system that would (and should) remain unipolar for perhaps another “American century.” Thus, if the Clinton team had practiced multilateralism, the United States would now do the opposite. If the Democrats had valued international organizations, the Republicans would be altogether more skeptical. And if Clinton had been a starry-eyed liberal ever keen to reshape the world by building new nations here and there, the United States would now return to the basics of statecraft where one did not go around intervening hither and thither in order to do good. States were what mattered and power was the currency of international relations in a world where there were rivals like China and Russia, enemies like Iraq and Iran, and friends (some in Europe but most in the Middle East).

We all know, of course, what then happened. In- deed, having at first rejected Clinton’s presumed liberal humanitarianism, following 9/11, Bush felt compelled to do a 180 degree turn. Now the only way of combating the global threat posed by radical Islam was not by pursuing a classical realist strategy—least of all in the Middle East by working closely with established elites—but rather by allowing the pure waters of democracy to cleanse the nations that had become the breeding ground for extremist ideologies. Taking inspiration from lessons drawn from the end of the Cold War (and, without embarrassment, from a whole range of liberal theories too) President Bush very quickly became a convert to the idea that freedom held the key. Freedom would unlock the door in a region whose dysfunctional character not only threatened to destabilize a part of the world controlling much of the world’s oil, but might even destroy the world itself. Whether all of his advisers were converted to the democratic cause remains a moot point. Some would even insist that Bush only discovered this particular argument after he had failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Still, if any “doctrine” attaches itself to his name, it is that very “American” one which insists that the United States is not like other countries and has a very special mission— the liberation of others from the bonds of tyranny.

Obama and the Democracy Problem

Much has been written about the controversial years of the Bush presidency. But however controversial his policies may have been, there is at least agreement about one thing: that by associating his intervention in Iraq with the idea of democracy promotion, he did a great deal of damage to the idea itself—not only amongst the United States’ normally staunch allies in Western Europe where popular anti-Americanism now began to spread like wildfire, but even more poisonously in the wider Middle East, the one region that Bush had once claimed would and should welcome his freedom agenda. In fact, by linking democracy promotion with what many now came to regard as a deeply flawed foreign policy, democracy promotion almost became a dirty word—synonymous in the view of some critics with imperialism and in the eyes of others with an adventurism that could only lead to dangerous overstretch and ultimately, a loss of US influence in the world. In short, the United States had a democracy problem and the sooner it addressed it the better.

The almost professorial Barack Obama was very well aware of these issues. He was even more sensitive to the fact that the United States was in deep trouble and that changes would have to be made to its foreign policy which would, he hoped, restore US standing in the world while helping it deal more directly with its own economic problems at home. It is too soon to make any fair-minded judgment about Obama’s record. But it is not too soon to make an assessment of his foreign policy outlook when he first came into office. Liberal he may well have been, but adventurous abroad he was not. If Obama had any inclination at all, it was not to go forth and slay those undemocratic dragons; rather, it was to bring the United States’ ambitions more closely in line with what he saw as its diminishing capabilities. This was not only likely to lead to a more modest foreign policy, but it was also bound to compel the US to seek rapprochement with those states (often undemocratic in character) who could help it shore up the world order in an era of uncertainty. Obama’s early foreign policy language clearly reflected this shift.

In his famous Cairo speech of 2009, he seemed to reject democracy promotion altogether. “No system of government”, he argued, should be “imposed by one nation” on another. Not only did this smack of arrogance, he opined, but there was every chance that such a policy would fail. Moreover, whereas Bush had talked of well-defined friends and clearly targeted enemies, of an undemocratic “them” and a “democratic” us, Obama engaged in no such moralizing. In fact, whereas Bush had seen the world in terms of allies and enemies, Obama now referred increasingly to a range of new “partners” that could just as easily include China and Russia as it could the United States’ more established friends in Europe. The wheel appeared to have come full circle: the realists looked like they were back in power. Forcible regime change and confrontation with states that denied freedom to their own people had been consigned into that proverbial dustbin of history.

Surprise, as they say, is the stuff of real history, and in the same way that Bush was quite literally ambushed by 9/11, so too was Obama by the upheavals in the Arab world that have since gone under the somewhat simple- minded heading of the “Arab Spring.” Dealing with this challenge has proved just as difficult. Initially, the Obama team clearly did not know how to respond to a movement that within months had destroyed the old political order in a good part of the Middle East. However, Obama was nothing if not a fast learner. He may not have shared Bush’s rhetorical fervor—indeed, he had earlier insisted that his approach to the world in general and to the Middle East in particular would be closer to that of George W. Bush’s father rather than to George W. himself—but under pressure at home to do something, and faced with a torrent of events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, one thing became increasingly clear: if the United States did not align itself with forces for political change—even forces it had earlier opposed like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—it would in the end be the political loser. In this way the Arab Spring helped reform and reshape Obama’s foreign policy. Still, the caution remains, and it very much looks as if he will require a lot of persuasion before arriving at the conclusion that the United States’ promotion of democracy throughout the region—as opposed to certain countries—is the miracle medicine that will cure all of the Middle East’s many ills.

The Future

What then of the future? How will the United States confront the world during the rest of the 21st century?

Perhaps the most obvious answer is, with a great degree of caution and circumspection. Certainly, we are unlikely to witness any more crusades designed to make the world safe for democracy. Indeed, if the years since the end of the Cold War have taught US policy-makers anything, it is that promoting democracy requires more than just a lot of US will power and vast sums of dollars. Iraq and Afghanistan serve as proof of that. The people of the United States have also learned that successful democracies (as opposed to merely formal ones) presuppose many things which many countries simply do not possess, including a strong civil society, an adherence to the rule of law, and the recognition that minorities have as many rights as majorities. For these many reasons, and no doubt many more, the United States may be more than happy to coexist with repressive regimes for the foreseeable future so long as the alternative looks worse or those regimes do enough to make themselves indispensable to the West.

Yet the story cannot and should not end there. Indeed, as we enter the second decade of the new century—one likely to be a little less “American” than the last one—democrats can at least take comfort in the fact that even if the “real world” might be governed by its own harsh realist logic, the same “real world” is now far more democratic in character than it was twenty, thirty, or even a hundred years ago. The 20th century may have been a bloody and inhumane one, but when it came to an end there were many more democratic states in the international system than there had ever been before. Furthermore, the demand for greater political participation and human rights from peoples around the world remains a constant one – and so long as it does, the United States will be compelled (often against the advice of the realists) to “promote” its values, enthusiastically or not. Nothing is guaranteed. Nor are the choices ever going to be easy for those in power—including President Obama as he faces his second term. He might though take some comfort from reading (or in his case possibly re-reading) the great German sociolo- gist Max Weber. Weber talked of politics as a vocation involving very difficult choices between what he termed an ethic of responsibility based on considerations of power and pragmatism and an ethic of conviction growing out of one’s ideals.

According to Weber, having “convictions” was all well and good, and pursuing these was perfectly fine, as long as one did so responsibly after having assessed the world as it really was and then having thought long and hard about the costs of taking a particular policy decision. All perfectly logical; all perfectly reasonable. But one could just as easily turn Weber on his head and make the equally compelling case that by ignoring its own convictions and its ideals, the United States would not only be betraying its very purpose but could very easily find itself turning up on the wrong side of history. Pursuing democracy within the bounds of reason may not only be the right thing for it to do: it may well turn out to be the smartest course of action as well.