A few days ago, somebody (an American citizen herself) asked in class: “Why does the US support democracy abroad?” After some discussion back and forth (American citizens all of them) about liberal institutionalist and neocon arguments that would justify an American pro-democracy foreign policy, I asked: “Who said that America defends democracy abroad?”. As an example, I reminded them that the US was the most loyal ally Franco counted with. The US found in Franco an unconditional support against communism in Western Europe (possibly, the most dedicated one). Besides, strategically speaking the US needed the Spanish air and land space to set up some of its largest military bases in Europe. Therefore, the choice was rather easy: For nearly 30 years the US protected a dictatorial regime that violated the most basic human rights. And not many in Washington seemed to care much about it.
Second recent anecdote: Last week I visited a high school in Denver with a university colleague of mine. We went there to speak about what university looks like, why college is a nice option… (I´m still not sure that college is necessarily the best place to go when you are 18, but let´s leave this issue for another occasion, if you don´t mind). My colleague told the 15-18 year old students that he was studying how to promote democracy and freedoms across the globe. His idea, in a nutshell, was this: ‘We Americans enjoy certain rights and freedoms; others are not so lucky; we must do something about it’. Very compelling argument. Indeed.
Why do Americans believe that they support democracy across the globe? Where is the evidence? Let’s take Egypt as another example. I recognize that Mubarak wouldn´t have left power if Obama hadn´t intervened. But neither Obama nor Reagan, Bush Senior, Clinton or Bush Junior were concerned about Mubarak over the last three decades. Obama only reacted when the situation had turned unsustainable in the country, when Egyptians could not stand the regime anymore and blood was being shed in the streets. When that happened, Obama and Ms. Clinton rushed to join the train of democracy. Mubarak resigned himself and gave up. ‘Egypt will never be the same‘, concluded Obama. Egypt could have changed some years ago, but apparently it wasn´t ready for democracy exactly until a week ago. (We´ll still have to wait some months or even years to see how everything turns out in Egypt). As the ‘Arab revolution’ (as has been framed by the media) extends to Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, etc., Seph Brown observes in a recent post:
Unsurprisingly, realpolitik is very much alive in the Obama administration, but it will inevitably lead to equal retorts of hypocrisy as those levelled at Iran. It cannot be right that the US supports the courage of protesters in some states, but only demands that they are not to be shot in others.
I have the impression that Americans live with the hangover effects of the Super Bowl for as long as a whole year, exactly the right time until the next Super Bowl edition and, from there, so on and so forth. The Super Bowl (for those of you who haven´t had the chance to enjoy this show of muscly nationalism) is the gathering of the whole of a nation around a collection of pizzas, beers, US flags, big US flags, even bigger US flags, and allegedly funny commercials. Since the S-11, some ‘random’ Americans also read the Declaration of Independence on TV… The whole of it, yes. I believe some guys play American football this very same day.
Anyway, the Super Bowl is a fantastic occasion for Americans to remind themselves how great their nation is and how many important things they have done and are sure to do in the future. One of them is the promotion of democracy. It really sounds good: ‘We have always been a democracy; we are a role model; we inspire others; we have a responsibility to export democracy’… and all the rest of it.
Unfortunately, though, reality is stubborn and insists on showing that the US is not a particularly strong supporter of democracy beyond borders. (I really recommend to check some of the writings by Noam Chomsky; see for example a recent interview in Democracy Now). This is not good news, I know, but it is not an exception. Does China support democracy abroad? Does France? Does the UK? Does Spain?
Let me come back to my first anecdote. After my reference to Franco’s regime and some other interventions here and there, eventually somebody acknowledged that the US supports democracy when democracy matches our (their) national material interests. That’s very honest and I appreciate that. But let´s be clear: That statement is tantamount to saying something like ‘I´d love to speak Swahili but I can´t be bothered to spend a minute learning the language’, or like ‘I support equality as long as I don´t have to give up any of my privileges’ or like ‘I think universal health care is a good thing but, please, cut my taxes now!’.
The US still is the hegemonic power in the global system. The ‘price’ of this condition is the need to keep the status quo at almost any price. That’s fine. Really. I get it. But don´t even try selling the idea that American administrations consistently promote democracy. I simply can´t buy it.
Nevertheless, I don´t intend to destroy anybody’s dreams. This reality is not immutable. If my good Americans friends really want to make a difference in the world and expand democracy to every corner, they only need to organise and lobby US officials and corporations in this direction. It will require time, money and a huge collective effort. But it can be done. At the end of the day, the US is the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’, right?