FPI Bulletin: American Power and the Future of Freedom

February 9, 2015

In the issue that marks the 25th anniversary of its founding, the Journal of Democracy has published an article by FPI Board Member Robert Kagan that examines the relationship between American power and the spread of democratic government. FPI believes these selected insights from Dr. Kagan’s article will be of value to lawmakers and their staff as they examine U.S. global strategy for 2015.


The Challenge Today

“We live in a time when democratic nations are in retreat in the realm of geopolitics, and when democracy itself is also in retreat.”

“Meanwhile, insofar as there is energy in the international system, it comes from the great-power autocracies, China and Russia, and from would-be theocrats pursuing their dream of a new caliphate in the Middle East.”

“What is to say that Putinism in Russia or China’s particular brand of authoritarianism will not survive as far into the future as European democracy, which, after all, is less than a century old on most of the continent? Autocracy in Russia and China has certainly been around longer than any Western democracy.”

Learning From the Cold War

“The United States imposed democracy by force and through prolonged occupations in West Germany, Italy, Japan, Austria, and South Korea. With the victory of the democracies and the discrediting of fascism—chiefly on the battlefield—many other countries followed suit.”

“Even the great wave of democracy following World War II was not irreversible. Another ‘reverse wave’ hit from the late 1950s through the early 1970s … Few spoke of democracy’s inevitability in the 1970s or even in the early 1980s.”

“That Central and East Europeans uniformly chose democratic forms of government [after the Cold War] was not simply the fruit of aspirations for freedom or comfort. It also reflected the desires of these peoples to place themselves under the U.S. security umbrella.”

Power Can Tip the Scales in Favor of Freedom

“It should be clear that the prospects for democracy have been much better under the protection of a liberal world order, supported and defended by a democratic superpower.”

“Nations may enter a transition zone—economically, socially, and politically—where the probability of moving in a democratic direction increases or decreases. But foreign influences, usually exerted by the reigning great powers, often determine which direction change takes.”

“Skeptics of U.S. ‘democracy promotion’ have long argued that many of the places where the democratic experiment has been tried over the past few decades are not a natural fit for that form of government, and that the United States has tried to plant democracy in some very infertile soils. Given that democratic governments have taken deep root in widely varying circumstances, from impoverished India to ‘Confucian’ East Asia to Islamic Indonesia, we ought to have some modesty about asserting where the soil is right or not right for democracy.”

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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