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The Problem with Demo-Promo is Not Demo-Promo Per Se

by Gordon M. Hahn

A recent media report indicated that Foggy Bottom is considering removing support for democracy-promotion from the U.S. State Department’s mission statement. According to the article:

“The existing mission statement reads: ‘The Department’s mission is to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere. This mission is shared with the USAID, ensuring we have a common path forward in partnership as we invest in the shared security and prosperity that will ultimately better prepare us for the challenges of tomorrow.'”

“The new draft version says the State Department’s mission is to ‘Lead America’s foreign policy through global advocacy, action and assistance to shape a safer, more prosperous world,’ according to the internal email.” (

The problem with the US and the overall Western policy of democracy-promotion (DP) in relation to Russia is not in having a democracy-promotion policy per se. Rather, the problem lies in what kind of DP should be undertaken and in several related assumptions and policies that have accompanied Trans-Atlantic DP, especially since the end of the Cold War: regime change policy, EU expansion, and most onerously NATO expansion.

First, democracy-promotion has often been part of a regime change policy that pursues the overthrow of regimes or at least rulers who are authoritarian and/or antagonistic to US and/or Western interests. There can be no doubt that at least in some cases the Western intent in targeting a country for DP is to destabilize and overthrow unsavory or inconvenient regimes. At a minimum, destabilization is envisaged as a goal of DP in order to induce regime transformation, whether transitional or revolutionary in nature. Recently, DP all too often ends wittingly or unwittingly in non-evolutionary, destabilizing regime changes that give rise to chaos not just in the target country but across entire regions and even continents. The blowback from regime change in Iraq and attempted regime change in Syria are just the most obvious examples. 

The American experience of revolution leading to a democratic outcome (as well as perhaps some poor French assessments of its own and subsequent revolutions) has left the US elite with an far too sanguine view regarding the wisdom of fomenting or inducing revolutions. The misperceived, mis-conceptualized nature of the Soviet revolution as a revolution from below rather than as something much more akin to a revolution from above combined with an excessively optimistic teleology about where the anti-Soviet revolution would lead led to a post-Cold War sense that revolutionary regime changes or, using the catch-all term, ‘transitions’ — especially those in the post-Soviet space and communist/post-communist world — would yield democratic outcomes. This informed the policy of supporting either through direct instigation or inducement, intentional as well as ‘accidental’ regime changes in a host of countries in the post-communist and post-Soviet space. In almost all cases destabilization in order to induce a transition has become the goal, and in many cases regime overthrow by revolutionary means is the plan. In both cases, once the seed of democracy-promotion is planted, there is no way of ensuring that evolutionary and peaceful rather than revolutionary and even violent regime transformation occurs.

This policy is sometimes justified within the US and EU elite by way of cleverly disguised self-deception: The West’s ‘influence operations’ are democracy-promotion. Democracy is good, so the West is performing a service to mankind by destabilizing and overthrowing authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. It just follows naturally, almost accidentally that numerous benefits accrue to the West in cases of successful DP regime change ops: access to natural resources, the penetration to new weapons and other markets, the maintenance and growth of bureaucracies and budget flows to certain policy communities in Washington, Brussels and elsewhere, and the like. It is hard even for the analyst to discern which is the real motive on the national level. Various actors representing different sectoral, business or bureaucratic interests can all support DP since it facilitates opportunity for them, whether one is an oil man, natural gas lobbyist, defense industry executive, NATO officer, Defense Department procurement officer, or a USAID bureaucrat specializing in human or LGBT rights. There is something in DP down the road for just about everyone in policy. However, in the long-run the national and international security interest may suffer profoundly.      

Second, DP has been embedded in the European Union’s policy of EU expansion. That expansion added economic costs to democratization’s spread eastward for Russia and some other post-Soviet and post-communist states. Witness the tussle between the EU, on the one hand, and Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union, on the other hand, over states outside their unions. The most teachable moment as to the risks involved in this contest came in autumn 2013, when Ukraine’s decision to delay signing an EU association agreement sparked a democratic revolutionary wave that was quickly hijacked by oligarchs and violent neofascist groups, leading to Russia’s overreaction in Crimea, and counter-revolution, separatism and ultimately war in Donbass and a ‘new cold war.’ 

Third, DP has been most unwisely combined with Washington’s and Brussels’ policy of NATO expansion. Regime changes and color revolutions in countries near Russia geographically, politically and culturally are routinely followed by EU then NATO membership. This policy of de facto militarization of DP and EU expansion over the course of now a quarter of a century has driven Russia into the arms of China, Iran, Syria and other states which to one degree or another either challenge Western capitalist democracy as the global model or pose a threat to Western interests and/or security. EU and NATO expansion became inextricably intertwined. For example, the EU association agreement with Ukraine originally included clauses on developing military-to-military cooperation between Kiev and Brussels. On average, countries that sign an EU association agreement become NATO members eight years later.

Nevertheless, democracy-promotion of the right kind can be a morally justified and valuable foreign policy tool for building stability and security in Europe-Eurasia and globally. But it should be de-linked as much as possible from robust regime change, humanitarian intervention, and EU and, most especially, NATO expansion. The last can be de-linked only by terminating NATO expansion without Russia and either proceeding further with it only when Russian can be successfully integrated into the alliance or a new European-Eurasian security architecture can be designed, perhaps by partnering with the CSTO and SCO under OSCE auspices.

Moreover, implementation of DP should be undertaken in such a way that revolutionary change, violent or non-violent, is discouraged, except in the most extreme of cases, involving the most authoritarian/totalitarian regimes or those that present an imminent security threat. Indeed, given the ubiquity of the Internet, it seems that actual US and USAID presence abroad is superfluous and only adds to the sense of foreign interference. Those who want to democracy are most likely to achieve it, and they should be more than capable of Googling the information they need to build their own ‘shining city on the hill’ and doing so in ways that do not go against the grain of local complexities and culture.  

Within these parameters, DP constitutes a legitimate policy. It pursues the betterment of people’s lives through greater political participation and protection of political, civic, and human rights. It leads to a growth in the number of democratic regimes, which are less likely to go to war with one another, minimizing inter-state violence and creating a democratic community and zone of peace and prosperity. However, when accompanied by the expansion of destabilization, economic division, and military alliances, DP undermines international commerce, economic prosperity, and national and internationally security and is all too often morally unjustifiable.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California,; an expert analyst at Corr Analytics,; a member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles),; and an analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago),

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, and three well-received published books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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