According to the readings for this chapter, the current international system has been described as one where limited unipolarity exists; where the United States still holds hegemonic power but not in an absolute or unchallenged way. As seen in recent events, the United States plays the role of an international hegemon—not only militarily and economically but socially and culturally as well. Nowhere is U.S. dominance more consequential (and more multifaceted) than in the current administration's goal of promoting and establishing democracy across the globe. But such a hegemonic pursuit is not without its drawbacks and burdens. This debate will focus on the whether the United States should continue to play the role of hegemon—bearing the burdens and reaping the rewards—particularly in terms of promoting democracy worldwide. Although promoting democracy was a central component of the Clinton administration, it has become a driving force for foreign policy decisions under the Bush administration. And thus it is a timely and important debate for the future polarity of the world system.
Yes: Democracy Abroad Is Worth the Cost
From this perspective, U.S. hegemony is not only justified on normative grounds but on very practical grounds as well. For some, promoting democracy abroad is simply what is right and just and that is reason enough to make it a top priority for the U.S. government. If the United States has the ability to promote justice and equality through democratic reform, then it not only has a right but also an obligation to do so.
Others who support this side of the debate point to more concrete and pragmatic reasons for the United States to bring democracy to the world. The core motivation for this rests on what has been called "democratic peace theory." According to this theory, accepted by many (but certainly not all) scholars and practitioners, democracies tend not to fight with one another but instead are generally highly integrated, both economically and politically. In this sense, the more democracies the world has, the fewer conflicts there will be and the more global economy will grow (for more on this concept see Chapter 6 of the text material).
The benefits for the U.S. hegemonic role in promoting democracy are clear—ethically driven and politically and economically beneficial at both the national and the international level.
No: The Cost of Democracy Abroad Is Too High
For many, the current administration's goal of promoting and establishing democracy in the world, particularly in the Middle East, demands too high a price from the American people. In the most recent war in Iraq, it is estimated that thousands of men and women will be killed or wounded. Beyond the human costs, there are the astronomical economic costs for the continued U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle Eastern countries "in need" of democracy. From this perspective, many argue that the U.S. government ought to be focusing its efforts at home rather than abroad.
There are also those who point to flaws in the democratic peace theory. Democratization is a far from smooth process, in which newly elected governments are not always able to deliver positive changes. Often during this process, Iraq being a prime example, we see political backlash against democracy, the rise of corruption, and economic instability. In this sense, while many scholars accept that established democracies may be less likely to fight each other, such scholars also point out that countries in democratic transition are more prone to conflict and are more unstable.
Promoting democracy abroad, then, is not inherently good for Americans or for the world. While democracy may be a worthy and lofty ideal, its costs are real and often enormous and for many not justified by the outcome.
Even though the world has seen a dramatic increase in the number of democratic governments—some 87 previously nondemocratic countries have made discernible advances toward democracy in the last 25 years—democracy is not a universally accepted truth or an inherent good. The 2006 democratic election of Hamas in Palestine in addition to the less than favorable, but democratically-elected leaders in Egypt and Lebanon have many questioning the U.S. democratic agenda. Is the election of such groups like Hamas worth the growth of democratic practices and processes in the long run? In other words, can a shot of democracy, albeit stinging at first, be trusted in the end to tame and ultimately change the forces it has set loose? As a top foreign policy goal for the United States, it remains very controversial domestically and globally. Further, the role of the United States in this global shift toward democratization has been under international scrutiny in recent years. The international credibility of the United States as a hegemon is on the line, particularly in terms of the U.S. success or failure in helping to establish a democratic Afghanistan or Iraq. Use the links below to better understand the United States as the current international hegemon and the implications for U.S. policy when it comes to promoting democracy worldwide.