The Fallacies of International Democracy Promotion

Republicanism Better Represents US Values, Merits Backing of Top Global Power

The fallacies of international democracy promotion. Republican governance is what the United States should promote abroad, not democracy.

Republican governance is what the United States should promote abroad, not democracy. (Flickr)

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According to the Department of State (DOS), US foreign policy officially stands upon the pillar of human rights. This lofty, noble goal has led the United States to promote “democracy” on the world stage, even though the United States has a strictly republican form of government. As the DOS website affirms:

“Democratically governed nations are more likely to secure the peace, deter aggression, expand open markets, promote economic development, protect American citizens, combat international terrorism and crime, uphold human and worker rights, avoid humanitarian crises and refugee flows, improve the global environment, and protect human health.”

To many, contesting this affirmation of facts by DOS might seem pointless. On the other hand, all countries that are today considered modern democracies are, in fact, republics.

In a democracy, the people govern directly with no limits placed upon the will of the majority. In a republic, the people govern indirectly through their elected representatives. Often in a republic there are strict limits placed on the powers of the government to infringe upon the individual liberties of its citizens.

The above DOS statement would be truer to reality and US principles if one replaced “democratically governed nations” with “liberally governed republics.” DOS’s misplaced exaltation of democracy betrays a dangerous ignorance of the most fundamental principles of US governance. The word democracy does not appear once in either the US Constitution (USC) or the US Declaration of Independence.

The United States is a republic: placing individual liberties and natural rights above the tyranny of the majority. Republican governance is what the United States should promote abroad, not democracy.

The United States is, by purposeful design, not a democracy. Fearing the unchecked will of the majority as a form of tyranny and an existential threat to individual liberty, the Founding Fathers made clear that the United States should never become a democracy. The USC was enacted to limit the powers of government. Article IV Section 4 states clearly: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of government” (emphasis mine).

It is a gross error for the United States to promote to the world a form of government that the US founders specifically rejected for the union and for each of its present and future member states. Consider the following statements:

  • Thomas Jefferson: “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for” (1782).
  • James Madison: “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths” (1787).
  • John Adams: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide” (1814).

The US error of substituting the term democracy for republicanism has had negative consequences. International metrics now reference the existence and quality of democracies in the world as per the Index of Democracy, the Freedom House list of electoral democracies, and the Varieties of Democracy reports. Rarely do the international organizations ostensibly monitoring freedom employ the term republic in the same frame of importance as democracy. This is a frank error, rife with hypocritical biases against conservative, republican governments and policy initiatives.

As Richard Hanania has noted, these international organizations position themselves as monitors and qualifiers of democracy. However, they routinely score legislative initiatives in foreign countries as antidemocratic, even when they enjoy popular approval.

It is one thing to classify a political regime as an “electoral democracy” according to time-tested definitions. It is quite another to classify the quality of said democracies based on the preference-laden biases of those doing the scoring, which is what the self-described democracy watchdogs routinely do. To them, a high-quality democracy is one where progressive priorities monopolize public discourse and space. A country often gets labeled as a democratic backslider when it does not advance progressive policies.

Semantics and biases notwithstanding, a world dominated by constitutional republics trading with each other would be more in line with US national interests than a world hostile to individual liberty. To that end, the promotion of a liberal world regime (a rules-based international order) befits and benefits the United States, its allies, and the world in general.

With its hard power waning, the United States often acts where it can, not always where and how it should. This makes sense as the great rivals see the United States in absolute and relative decline. In 1960, the United States represented 40 percent of world economic activity and invested 9 percent of its GDP in military spending. Today, the United States represents less than 25 percent of world economic activity, and US military spending is about 3.5 percent of GDP. Meanwhile, interest payments on the US debt will soon surpass annual military spending.

The current figures are still impressive, but they do not invoke a shot-calling global hegemon. The United States needs every ally it can keep in all regions of the world, and nowhere more so than in Central America.

Central America—with maritime access to US Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific ports, and direct land access for illegal immigrants into the US underbelly—is increasingly important to US national security. Unfortunately, the United States is losing Central America. Nicaragua is closely aligned with China and Russia; El Salvador has made overtures to China; and the socialist-led government of Honduras is also inclined towards China. Even the democratic darling of the isthmus, Costa Rica, long ago abandoned Taiwan in favor of communist China.

Only Guatemala remains firmly in the pro-US camp, reiterating its strong support for Taiwan and Israel in the most trying times. Guatemala, moreover, has implemented strong migration control and drug interdiction policies. Nonetheless, the Guatemalan government has hardly been the recipient of effuse recognition, applause, or gratitude for its support of traditional US foreign-policy objectives. In the organized network of US diplomacy, Guatemala is branded a democratic backslider (see here, here, and here).

The future of bilateral US-Guatemala relations is evolving and is difficult to predict, as new administrations take office in 2024 and 2025. The bilateral relationship’s importance, though, is without doubt. If the United States loses Guatemala, it loses Central America. Those are big stakes riding on a small country.

This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Impunity Observer.

Nicholas Virzi

Nicholas Virzi is dean of the ASTRA Institute for Leadership and Governance.

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