Role in the World
Promoting Democracy and Human Rights
Americans have complex attitudes about the idea
of promoting democracy. A majority thinks that promoting
democracy should be a goal of US foreign policy. However
there is a reluctance to make democracy promotion a
central theme in US foreign policy and an opposition
to using military force or the threat of military force
to that end. At the same time Americans do feel a moral
obligation to promote democracy and there is substantial
support for cooperative methods for promoting democracy
and for working through the United Nations. A modest
majority favors promoting democracy in friendly authoritarian
countries even if it may lead to unfriendly governments;
large majorities do favor putting diplomatic and public
pressure on governments to respect human rights.
In general, a majority thinks that promoting democracy
should be a goal of US foreign policy, but not a top
priority. For several decades the Chicago Council has
asked how important the goal of "helping to being a
democratic form of government to other nations" should
be for US foreign policy. A large majority-between 70
and 80%--have consistently said that it is important.
Most recently in July 2006 74% said it was important.
However the number saying that it is "very important"
has never been more than one in three and most recently
was only 17%.
Others have found similar results. A February 2005
Gallup poll using a similar scale found 70% saying that
"building democracy in other nations" is an important
foreign policy goal, with only 31% saying it is very
Pew has asked how high a priority "promoting democracy
in other nations" should be for the US among possible
long-range foreign policy goals. In October 2005 78%
said that it should have some priority, but only 24%
said that it should have top priority. This has changed
little since July 2004.
A September 2006 Public Agenda poll asked how important
"actively creating democracies in other countries" should
be to foreign policy, and found 69% saying it should
be important, with just 24% saying it should be very
Other foreign policy goals are given a higher priority.
In the case of the Chicago Council and Pew polls mentioned
above, promoting democracy is relatively low on the
list of priorities compared to other goals. When asked
to compare promoting democracy with protecting US security
as a primary goal of US foreign policy, promoting democracy
is given a back seat. The February 2007 Third Way survey
asked two questions on this issue. Asked whether the
main purpose of American foreign policy should be "protecting
the security of the US and our allies," "promoting freedom
and democracy," or "advancing our economic interest,"
two-thirds (66%) chose protecting security. Only 21%
opted for promoting freedom and democracy, while just
9% chose economic interests.
Posing the question a different way yielded nearly the
same results. Given two statements, 68% said they agreed
more that the "main goal of US foreign policy should
be to protect American security, whether it spreads
our ideals or not," as opposed to the 27% who said the
main goal "should be to spread our ideals, including
freedom and democracy."
Americans appear to want to take a fairly pragmatic
approach to promoting democracy, not making it a fixed
rule that the US will always promote democracy in every
situation. Offered two positions in the September 2005
PIPA-Chicago Council poll, only 38% said that "As a
rule, US foreign policy should encourage countries to
be democratic." Fifty-four percent preferred the position
that "As a rule, US foreign policy should pursue US
interests, which sometimes means promoting democracy
and sometimes means supporting non-democratic governments."
Americans appear to have resisted the Bush administration's
proposal to make promotion of democracy a central role
for the US as expressed in the 2005 State of the Union
address. Shortly after the address a February 2005 AP/Ipsos
poll found that 53% said it "should not be in the role
of the United States to promote the establishment of
democratic governments in other countries," while just
45% said it should.
In general questions that pose the option of the US,
by itself, establishing democracy in other nations elicit
relatively weak support. The German Marshall Fund asked
in June 2006 whether "it should be the role of the United
States to help establish democracy in other countries":
just 45% said that it should while 48% felt it should
not. This is slightly less supportive than the previous
year, when GMF found 51% believing the US should have
Americans do not support using military force for promoting
democracy. Asked simply in the September 2005 PIPA-Chicago
Council poll whether they favored or opposed using military
force to overthrow a dictator, only 35% were in favor
while 55% were opposed. Only 27% said that "using military
force to overthrow a dictator" "does more good than
harm," while a 58% majority says this "does more harm
The June 2006 GMF poll also found a majority 56% rejecting
"sending military forces to remove authoritarian regimes"
as a method to help democracy (only 34% would support
Americans overwhelming accept the premise that democracy
cannot be successfully instituted by force. Eight-three
percent in a February 2007 Third Way poll agreed with
the statement "The US cannot impose democracy by force
on another country." Just 15% disagreed.
Interestingly, promoting democracy through the threat
of force is even more emphatically rejected. In the
PIPA-Chicago Council September 2005 poll, a majority
of 66% said that "warning a government that the US might
intervene military if it does not carry out democratic
reforms" does more harm than good, compared to 58% who
said that "using military force to overthrow a dictator"
does more harm than good. When asked to think about
making such threats against to specific countries support
is even lower: 73-76% rejected doing so for each country
named (Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia,
China, and Burma, also called Myanmar).
Americans also show a reluctance to apply pressure
on countries to become more democratic. In the September
2005 PIPA-Chicago Council poll only 44% favored "withholding
development aid from a government that is not democratic
and is not moving toward becoming more democratic."[12a]
Polling conducted within the past few years clearly
indicates a lack of majority support for placing greater
pressure on countries in the Middle East, such as Saudi
Arabia or Egypt, to become more democratic. Asked in
the September 2005 PIPA-Chicago Council poll specifically
about putting "greater pressure on countries in the
Middle East like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to become more
democratic," 51% said the US should not do this, while
39% said that it should. The Chicago Council has asked
this question a number of times since November 2003,
no more than 41% have supported this policy, while majorities
of 51-57% have been opposed. 
Consistent with the uneasiness about getting involved
in the internal affairs of a country the June 2006 GMF
poll found a plurality of 44% rejecting "supporting
political dissidents" (39% would support it).
Response to Arguments
Americans have complex and subtle responses to questions
that implicitly and explicitly present arguments about
Americans have a wary response to arguments in favor
of democracy promotion based on American exceptionalism.
The February 2007 Third Way poll offered two arguments.
Only 36% chose "American is an exceptional nation with
superior political institutions and ideals and a unique
destiny to shape the world" while 58% agreed that "It
is a dangerous illusion to believe America is superior
to other nations; we should not be attempting to reshape
other nations in light of our values."
When the normative principle of non-intervention in
a country's internal affairs is elicited, support for
democracy promotion is especially low and has been drifting
even lower in recent years-perhaps in response to the
frustrations of Iraq. CBS/NYT have asked "Should the
United States try to change a dictatorship to a democracy
where it can, or should the United States stay out of
other countries' affairs?" Most recently in March 2007
only 15% favored intervention, while 69% said the US
should stay out. Opposition to intervention has grown
since April 2003 when 48% took this position.
Pragmatic arguments that it is not feasible to promote
democracy from the outside are quite effective. In a
September 2006 Public Agenda poll, nearly two-thirds
(64%) felt that democracy is "something that countries
only come to on their own when they're ready for it"
as opposed to the 31% who agreed that "The US can help
other countries become democracies."
Americans are wary of sweeping visions that portray
the movement toward democracy is inexorable and desired
by all people. A clear majority (64%) disagreed with
the statement that "eventually, nearly all countries
will become democracies," while just 28% agrees (PIPA-Chicago
Council September 2005).
In the same poll, while 78% said that democracy is the
best form of government only 50% said that it is the
best for all countries while 43% disagreed. Given two
statements in a February 2007 Third Way poll, only 40%
agreed that "People all over the world share the desire
to live in freedom and govern themselves democratically,"
while a majority of respondents (55%) agreed that "People
in some countries want freedom and democracy more than
people in other countries."
Despite the efforts of the Bush administration, Americans
are not widely convinced that expanding the number of
democracies will have wide ranging positive effects.
Americans have doubts on whether democracy makes the
world safer. The PIPA-Chicago Council poll presented
a number of these arguments. Presented two statements
only 26% chose the one that said "When there are more
democracies the world is a safer place." Instead 68%
chose the statement that "Democracy may make life better
within a country, but it does not make the world a safer
The case that democracy undermines support for terrorism
did a bit better but was not persuasive to a majority.
Forty-five percent concurred that, "democracies better
serve the needs of their people and thus people in democracies
are less frustrated and less likely to support terrorist
groups." Overall 46% opted instead for the view that
"people support terrorist groups because of their ideological
convictions, and having a democratic government is not
going to change that."
The popular view among political scientists that democracies
are unlikely to go to war with each other does not have
a wide public following. A plurality (49%) said democracies
are just as likely to go to war with each other as are
other types of government, compared to 46% who said
democracies are less likely to go to war with each other
than other types of government.
The one claim that did get modest majority support
(52%) was that democracies are more stable and less
likely to experience civil war than non-democracies.
Americans also remain unconvinced that increasingly
democratic countries will become more accepting of US
policies. Only 42% said that they believe that the likelihood
of agreement with US policies increases when countries
become more democratic (PIPA-Chicago Council September
At the same time Americans do express some sense of
moral obligation to promote democracy. When asked in
a November 2003 Gallup poll, 56% believed that the United
States has “a responsibility to help other countries
rid themselves of dictators and become democracies.”
Thirty-eight percent held the opposite view.
Furthermore, when placed in this moral context nearly
half respond positively to an argument that calls for
the readiness to use military force. A February 2007
Third Way poll offered the statement “The US has
a moral obligation to help free other peoples from tyranny
and to help create new democracies, even if that means
using military force.” Forty-eight percent agreed
with the statement (17% strongly, 31% somewhat), while
50 percent disagreed (22% strongly, 28% somewhat).
Support for Promoting Democracy Cooperatively
The combination of wariness about ambitious American
agendas for promoting democracy forcefully coupled with
a sense of moral obligation to promote democracy does
lead Americans to support quite strongly methods for
supporting democracy that are cooperative in nature
or multilateral in form.
Methods to promote democracy that are diplomatic and
involve cooperation with the country's government are
quite popular. In the PIPA-Chicago Council September
2005 study 74% favored "helping a government that is
having free elections for the first time," 66% favored
"sending monitors to certify that elections are conducted
fairly and honestly, and the same number favored "giving
more developmental aid to a government that is becoming
more democratic." In each case majorities felt these
methods did more good than harm.
A similar battery of options offered by the June 2006
German Marshall Fund poll found parallel results, with
significantly greater support for methods to help democracy
that were cooperative and interfered less with the jurisdiction
of the national government. Seventy-one percent favored
"supporting independent groups such as trade unions,
human rights associations, and religious groups," and
67% supported "monitoring elections in new democracies",
versus only 39% that favored "supporting political dissidents"
(44% opposed) and 34% in support of "sending military
forces to remove authoritarian regimes (56% opposed).
"Bringing students, journalists and political leaders
to the United States to educate them on how democracy
works" was widely seen as effective, with 66% saying
it does "more good than harm" and only 19% saying the
reverse. When asked about arranging such visits for
citizens from specific countries, support for doing
so ranged from 50% to 60%. Sixty percent supported exchanges
with Russia while 50% supported exchanges with Iran.
Consistent with their support for cooperative methods
for promoting democracy, Americans prefer working through
the UN to accomplish this goal. Sixty-eight percent
supported this option in the September 2005 PIPA-Chicago
Council poll and believe that "such efforts will be
seen as more legitimate," as opposed to the 25% who
believe that the US should promote democracy by acting
on its own because "the US can act more decisively and
In the same poll, half of respondents believed that
promoting democracy should be a goal of the UN. Forty-two
percent said the UN should not be involved in attempting
to influence what kind of government a country has.[29a]
Support for Democracy That Could Lead to Unfriendly
When asked how they feel if a country goes through
a democratic process of its own that results in a government
less friendly to the US, a plurality said they would
see it as positive. In the September 2005 PIPA-Chicago
Council poll 48% said they "would want to see a country
become more democratic even if this resulted in the
country being more likely to oppose US policies." Thirty-nine
percent disagreed. 
Asked specifically about Saudi Arabia, a majority (54%)
said that the US should support free elections in Saudi
Arabia even if it is likely that the elected government
would be unfriendly. Just 36% thought the US should
not. What is more, only a quarter (26%) actually thought
that "if Saudi Arabia were to hold free elections...the
elected government would be more friendly to the US."
A 48% plurality thought such elections would have no
effect either way on the degree of friendliness of the
Saudi government, while another 18% believed the new
government would be less friendly.
However support for elections is not reflexive. Fifty-four
percent felt that the US should not "support a country
becoming a democracy if there is a high likelihood that
the people will elect an Islamic fundamentalist leader."
This is probably not only because such a government
might be unfriendly to US interests but also because
there would be a considerable likelihood that it would
When presented the specific case of Pakistan, with
all of these value conflicts highlighted, the response
was divided. Respondents were told:
As you may know, Pakistan is now led by General Musharraf,
who came to power through a military coup, but made
a commitment to hold elections. General Musharraf
recently changed his mind and cancelled scheduled
elections. Here are two views of what the US position
should be about this.
Forty percent chose the pro-pressure argument that
"The US should pressure the Musharraf government to
hold elections. To simply ignore this would be contrary
to US values and would undermine US leadership in the
world." About as many--43%--chose the opposing argument,
which said "the Musharraf government has been helpful
in the war on terrorism, and if there are elections,
it is possible that Islamic fundamentalists may win."
When Americans are asked about whether the US should
try to spend money to influence elections in its interest,
a large majority takes a stance consistent with democratic
ideals. Seventy-five percent said the "US should not
spend money to try to influence elections in other countries
in order to help elect candidates friendly to the US,"
while only 20% said it should. For Americans, this is
simply a principle which should be reciprocal: 85% said
other countries should not be allowed to spend money
to try to influence US elections (PIPA-Chicago Council
Pressing for Human Rights
In contrast to more divided attitudes about pressuring countries to be more democratic, large majorities favor putting diplomatic pressure on governments to respect human rights, speaking out against human rights abuses, and encouraging other countries to do the same.
A significant majority favored pressuring governments
to respect human rights as a method to encourage greater
democracy. The September 2005 PIPA-Chicago Council poll
asked specifically about seven nations--Burma (also
called Myanmar), China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Russia
and Saudi Arabia--a majority--66% to 71%--in each case
favored putting diplomatic pressure on the government
to respect human rights, speaking out against the country's
human rights abuses and encouraging other countries
to do the same. Of five different methods that were
listed as possible ways to encourage democracy, including
pressure on human rights, warning of military intervention,
and economic sanctions, the most favored method was
pressure on human rights. 
Americans also appear to be ready to accept significant political costs as part of pressing for human rights. In another question in the PIPA-Chicago Council September 2005 poll on human rights, nearly three-fourths of respondents favored investigating possible human rights abuses even if it meant that the United States would lose the ability to utilize a foreign military base as a result. Asked whether the United States should have called for an international investigation of a protest in Uzbekistan in which the government shot and killed several hundred Uzbeks and as a consequence Uzbekistan ordered the U.S. to close its airbase and leave, 72% said the United States did the right thing.