The democracy tradition in US foreign policy and the Obama presidency



This article proposes a three-level analysis of the democracy tradition in American foreign policy that identifies its ideational, strategic and policy dimensions and situates Barack Obama's presidency to date within it at each level. At the heart of this approach is the understanding that the motivations and practice of the United States' democracy promotion are shaped by its ideas about national identity, political order, national interest and international relations. This is the ideational source of the democracy tradition, which, as US power has grown, has led increasingly to decision-makers setting strategic goals that include democratization abroad as a facilitator of other US goals. Only slowly has this led to the development of specific policies to that end, though, and democracy promotion as a discrete policy field mostly developed from the 1980s onwards. Democracy promotion went through a ‘boom’ after the end of the Cold War as the United States enjoyed unparalleled power on the international stage. It is clear that Barack Obama and his administration belong firmly in the democracy tradition at the ideational, strategic and policy level, and they have given no cause to expect any major change in his second term as far as democracy promotion is concerned. It is in any case a mistake to think that changes in the democracy tradition come from particular leaders; rather, it is the changing international environment confronting US foreign policy that is more likely, in the longer term, to lead to a shift away from democracy promotion.