Should, How, Why and Can?

This post was originally published in the April 11 print edition of The Kenyon Observer.

This week, the  Center for the Study of American Democracy will hold its bi-annual conference. This year’s topic will be sure to raise innumerable compelling questions about America and its role in the world. The conference title itself is structured as a question: “Should America Promote Democracy Abroad?” and it is exactly that question that we should be asking. Before we begin exploring the “hows” of what is labeled democracy promotion (in all its various forms, from military intervention to economic aid, etc.) we should ask “should.”

We cannot address ‘how’ honestly until we have explored the inextricably linked “should” and “why” first. These questions are similar and often conflated, but it is important to distinguish between them. The complexity and scope of the “how” question draws us in. Some of us may go into careers that seek to address, and/or actively engage in the possible answers to “how.” Though obviously related, “should” is a different question and it requires a different mindset and approach; it is a fundamentally different inquiry. Asking “should” requires stepping outside the heavily politicized rhetoric of “exceptionalism” and  asking real, hard questions about what America is, what she represents, and what our international role can, is and should be. It requires an examination of intention, one that may be particularly uncomfortable for the general public, or idealistic liberal arts students.

To engage the process honestly requires locating oneself in relation to the questions and places you are examining. This should ideally occur both internally (who am I? What factors comprise my identity relative to others? In what ways and in what areas do I possess relative power or privilege?) and against others engaging in the discourse. For example, of the presenters at this weekend’s conference, there will be 19 male presenters, and 5 female presenters. The ratio of those without European ancestry is similar.  How does this compare to the global population (who are themselves the subject of the conference?) And, if anything, what does this suggest about the process of democracy promotion relative to those its policies affect? If we are interested in promoting democracy, then it should follow that those who are affected by policies are also consulted in the formation of said policies.

After that assessment, the questions we are asking need to be broken down further: What do we mean by promote? What do we mean by democracy? Then, regarding the question of intention that underpins the “should” question: Are we actually interested in supporting democracy or are we interested in advancing our interests? In my experience, possible answers to that question vary depending on who is answering them. On a populist level, Americans would like to envision some mutually beneficial intertwining of the two. But on the ground implementation of these ideals is never quite so neat.  The Obama Administration’s’ virtual silence regarding the violent crackdown by Bahraini and Saudi ruling classes of non violent demonstrations in Bahrain has had everything to do with our vision of regional stability, and the Fifth Naval fleet in Manama, and very little to do with the violence and ruthlessness being inflicted by the regime, or the legitimacy of the democratic aspirations of the Bahraini people.

Examples like the uprising in Bahrain make it clear that when we ask should, why and how, the question of “can” arises inevitably. America is a nation who was founded with this simple but profound Declaration:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

How can America’s self-projected image as the gold standard of freedom and democracy hold water when we selectively support various democratic and non-democratic regimes, based on national interest rather than principle? In the last year, global citizens in places like Egypt and Nigeria, marching peacefully to decry the corruption of their regimes, have been met with “Made in America” tear gas canisters and tanks financed by our Congress. Incidents like these not only embarrass the United States, but damage our credibility. One important lesson that may emerge from America’s evolving role in the Arab uprisings is one of humility. At least as many people have died from U.S. drone strikes in the last decade than died on September 11. Meanwhile, three to four times that number have died while opposing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the last year. In reconciling ideology and reality, the Obama Administration has, at least internally, been forced to acknowledge the untenability of the status quo. External support of stability over genuine democracy will no longer be acceptable to a region whose people have been harassed, monitored, arrested, beaten, tortured and killed in the name of self-rule. I believe America should construct a foreign policy that respects the autonomy, self determination and agency of all peoples (and the governments that serve them secondarily). Does what is called “democracy promotion” actually achieve this?

The questions of can, how, should and why America promotes democracy abroad are not simple. Balancing the nuances and pressures of individual conflicts, while maintaining a moral standard that upholds the value and dignity of all people is a daunting task. This weekend presents an incredible opportunity for Kenyon students to unpack and re-examine the processes, structures and policies that shape international politics and their relation to them.The theoretical and tangible implications of the construction of American exceptionalism, the idealist/realist debate, and America’s historical legacy are vast, and speak to a personal and collective representation of what America is and can be.

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