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US 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%.[1]

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 important.[2] 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.[3] 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 important.[4]

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.[5] 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."[6]

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."[7]

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.[8]

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 this role.[9]

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 than good."[10] 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 it).[10a]

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.[11]

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).[12]

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. [13]

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).[14]

Response to Arguments

Americans have complex and subtle responses to questions that implicitly and explicitly present arguments about democracy promotions.

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."[15]

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.[16]

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."[17]

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).[18] 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."[19]

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 place."[20]

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."[21]

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.[22]

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. [23]

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 2005).[24]

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.[25]

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).[26]

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).[27]

"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.[28]

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 effectively."[29]

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 Governments

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. [30]

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.[31]

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 become undemocratic.[32]

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."[33]

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 September 2005).[34]

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. [35]

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.[36]



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