Nov 10, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

When Voices Filled the Streets: A New Era for Democracy Promotion

“We begin by rejecting the false choice between progress and stability.” – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
On November 9, at the National Democratic Institute’s Democracy Awards Dinner, Secretary Clinton stated emphatically that democracies “channel people’s energies away from extremism and toward political and civic engagement.” Service members, democracy activists, civic educators, and public servants in war zones, parks, classrooms, and parliaments around the world should cheer the Secretary’s recognition.
The speech is a watershed moment for the Clinton State Department and the Obama Administration. In an acutely practical way, she articulated the most fundamental question of how to balance order and chaos in political transitions and in governance. She recognized that while “toppling tyrants does not guarantee that democracy will follow,” when it does, “democracies make for stronger and stabler partners.” Clinton noted the practical nuances of citizenship that many educators and activists have embraced for decades – namely that polities with knowledge, skills, and dispositions of democratic citizenship can and must ensure a more peaceful, just, and secure world. Yet she argued beyond established policies, and for this reason, the world should take note.
Through Clinton, the United State government declared in no uncertain terms that it is in America’s self-interest to recognize the universal right of individuals to be free: “opening political systems, societies, and economies is not simply a matter of idealism. It is a strategic necessity.” She recognized the uncomfortable truth that US foreign policy is different in every country and that the promotion of popular sovereignty, freedom, and human rights abroad will forever be intertwined with other strategic interests. While she did not enumerate these specific interests, one might make a convincing case that US policy has been softer on fundamental freedoms in states like Saudi Arabia, where the US has economic interests, and in Uzbekistan and Djibouti, where the US maintains military bases deemed critical to the ongoing wars on terror. Clinton addressed this critical paradox of our time, a paradox that unfortunately has given a platform to radical Islamists and lent credence to those who might argue that democracy promotion is merely a cloak for darker American interests.
The new frontier covered in her remarks, ground that US foreign policy is now beholden to defend, is the recognition that the promotion of democracy and fundamental freedoms is a strategic interest and will be treated as such. Her own words in relation to the Middle East region must now be reflected in our own foreign policy: “The truth is that the greatest single source of instability in today’s Middle East is not the demand for change. It is the refusal to change.” While her examples included regional governments, Syria and Yemen in particular, transforming US policy to support the demands for greater freedoms in the Middle East is also integral to actualizing demands for change. The creation of an Office of Middle East Transitions at the Department of State in September 2011 is a belated but critical start.
In her remarks, Clinton attempted to answer four critical questions: “Do we really believe that democratic change in the Middle East and North Africa is in America’s interest?”“Why does America promote democracy one way in some countries and another way in others?” “What is America’s role in the Arab Spring?” and, “What about the rights and aspirations of the Palestinians?” In answering those questions, she shone a much needed spotlight on the idiosyncrasies of foreign policy while arguing that the realities of economic prosperity and security at home can reinforce democracy promotion abroad. Her assertions, while complex, are in good company. Neville Isdell, former chairman/CEO of Coca-Cola, has embraced the métier that global corporations must now embrace social responsibility rather than “philanthropy” to regain public trust and justify their existence. Corporations, he claims, do not gain legitimacy through altruism but instead gain the right to operate through a social contract with the communities in which they work. Clinton and Isdell, in both words and in action, have begun to apply Montesquieu’s concept of individual “enlightened self interest” to government and the corporate sector.
Secretary Clinton is to be commended for recognizing that we cannot stand on the sidelines of what is right simply because we think it easy; further, in doing so, we act against our own self interests and our country’s best interests. It is incumbent on the US government to answer the hard questions and to match the rhetoric to the reality; this speech is a significant and realistic step forward and should be treated as such.
“…there are going to be a lot of bumps along this road. But far better that we travel this path, that we do what we can to make sure that our ideals and values, our belief and experience with democracy, are shared widely and well. It’s an exciting time. It’s an uncertain time. But it’s a good time for the United States of America to be standing for freedom and democracy.” – Secretary Clinton


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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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