Foreign Policy of the United States

The spread of democracy has always been a cornerstone of US foreign policy

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2006

11 Pages, Grade: A





A. Democracy
A. 1 Democratic peace theory
A.2 Democracy and free trade

B. US foreign policy

C. Debate

D. Unrealistic policy?




Since the period of American Revolution, the idea of democracy has become rooted in American culture and traditions. Democracy was and is still considered as a successful means for order, peace and prosperity in a country but also internationally among democratic nations. Prosperity is for instance found in the establishment of free trade, as it suggests that democratic countries would rather seek the benefits of trading with each other rather than waging a war and face its costs. Regarding US foreign policy, democracy has evolved as being a foreign policy objective, which implies contradicting types of interventions, i.e. the need to spread democracy and even wage war for it as opposed to the toppling of democratically elected government which are not keen to contribute to US interests. Democracy has thus raised criticisms and praises, with those seeing it as part of the US rhetoric to respond to corporations interests or that the US has been ineffective in spreading it, and those who see it as part of a US liberal strategy for international order. The export of democracy hence became a controversial question since it has been argued that democracy need to grow locally and thus a mission to spread it is part of an unrealistic policy. In the context of these different issues, this assignment will address the question as to whether “the spread of democracy has always been a cornerstone of US foreign policy.”


A. Democracy

It has been argued so far that the most viable source of democratic order remains liberal- representative democracy, which involves democratic institutions and political cultures engaging public opinion “within a framework of checks and balances that limits both majority rule and government power”. Advantages of this political system are for instance: the presence of representative bodies that oversee the executive with regard to control over taxation and budgets; the notion of transparency in public business and debate; the periodic transfers of power, which ensures “accountability while limiting the costs to those who lose the political contest at any given point”. The key aspect remains that “representative democracy allows people to rule themselves in polities beyond the smallest communities by enabling leaders to mobilize opinion, facilitate consensus, and develop policies they can implement”. Most important is still the internal aspect of the development of democracy, as being “a system within which potentially incompatible interests—whether classes, nationalities or sects—accepted an overarching code of law that guaranteed each a wide variety of liberties”. Democracy should not be exported and promoted as a package because it develops “organically and requires a supportive political culture to operate effectively”. In this manner, “copying superficial aspects of democracy typically brings either illiberal or simply unsustainable outcomes”.[1]

A. 1 Democratic peace theory

According to some historical evidence, this theory suggests that democracies never go to war with each other but rather entertain peaceful relations. However, according to Braden, this theory has some flaws. For instance, an aspect of democratic regimes is that they do not totally differ from authoritarian regimes when they incite their citizens to go to war. To illustrate this fact, a contradictory approach was somehow initiated by President Wilson, who despite being a staunch advocate of democratic peace, still sent US marines to Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua in order to “teach the South American republics to elect good men.” Another flaw is the unrealistic belief that “there will ever be an international system based on ideological uniformity”. Indeed, conflict may arise out of “the promotion of ideological conformity”. Besides, there is also the obvious fact that “the relationship between the occupier and the occupied is unlikely to result in peace because their interests are not the same”. In this context, a probable outcome of occupation is for the newly independent regime to become “highly nationalist, even radical”. This situation occurred in Vietnam and now in Iraq.[2]

A.2 Democracy and free trade

Another aspect of democracy as a foreign policy objective for the US is the relationship between democracy and free trade. The interrelation between these two concepts is regarded as important for the Liberals, whom consider “trade and open markets as a kind of democratic solvent, dissolving the political supports of autocratic and authoritarian governments”. Trade is then seen as fostering economic growth and ultimately encouraging democratic institutions. According to the political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset in the 1950s, “economic development tends to increase the general level of education, which promotes changes in political culture and political attitudes. These, in turn, encourage democracy.” In this context, the liberal materialist views economics as driving politics. Hence, it is ultimately suggested that “if grand strategy is defined as a coherent set of foreign policies aimed at the overall strengthening of the country's position in the world, then the promotion of democracy and the other liberal order-building impulses constitute such a grand strategy.”[3]

B. US foreign policy

The notion of democracy has been a key aspect of the US since the American Revolution and has become a valuable idea domestically and internationally under which wars have been fought, and thereby attempting to make the world safer for democratic countries.[4] However, according to H. Kissinger, US foreign policy still carries two seemingly contradictory approach though reconciling “a common underlying faith”, namely “America serves its values best by perfecting democracy at home, thereby acting as a beacon for the rest of mankind” and “America’s values impose on it an obligation to crusade for them around the world”; therefore since “the United States possessed the world’s best system of government”, it should ensue that “the rest of mankind could attain peace and prosperity by abandoning traditional diplomacy and adopting America’s reverence for international law and democracy”.[5]

The then president Wilson for instance justified America’s international role as an obligation “to spread its principles throughout the world”, these principles holding that “peace depends on the spread of democracy, that states should be judged by the same ethical criteria as individuals, and that the national interest consists of adhering to a universal system of law”.[6] In this context, the US had to intervene in the First World War since it “disdained the concept of balance of power and considered the practice of Realpolitik immoral”, and thus interfered in order to eventually shape an idealist international order under democracy, collective security, and self-determination.[7] Another American war underlying a degree of political interference so as to spread democracy was the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. For the then Senator John F. Kennedy, the twin pillars of America’s Vietnam policy were security and democracy as America indeed saw Vietnam “not just as the ‘keystone of the arch’ of security in Southeast Asia but as ‘a proving ground for democracy in Asia’”.[8] Kissinger in this line argued that “just as Wilson had believed that American notions about democracy and diplomacy could be grafted onto Europe in the form of the Fourteen Points, so the Kennedy Administration sought to give the Vietnamese essentially American rules by which to govern themselves.”[9] Some continuity therefore seems to shape US foreign policy with the notion of spreading liberal ideas as opposed to the doctrine of non-intervention.[10] The current President G.W. Bush is no exception as his second inaugural address reminded that “the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world”. By the 1990s, American foreign policy was mainly “premised on the goals of defending, supporting and even exporting democratic governance”. In order to achieve this aim amid obstacles, different means were used such as: “economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to pressure dictatorships to liberalize; investing in the development of civil society, rule of law and, more generally, democratic institutions, including elections, in emerging democracies; providing economic and political incentives to states that were perceived to be making progress in meeting democratic standards; monitoring elections; and using diplomacy and the military to end internal wars and promote democratic politics.”[11]



[2] Braden Susan, Promoting Democracy Won’t Necessarily Produce Peace



[5] Kissinger H., Diplomacy, p.18

[6] ibid., p. 30

[7] ibid., p. 221

[8] ibid., p. 639

[9] ibid., pp. 653-4

[10] ibid., pp. 743


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Foreign Policy of the United States
The spread of democracy has always been a cornerstone of US foreign policy
University of Malta
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Foreign, Policy, United, States
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Jennie Robinson (Author), 2006, Foreign Policy of the United States, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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