The Clinton administration's stand on the promotion of human rights and democracy abroad pleases no one. Some criticize the president for lacking the courage of his repeated conviction that America should take an active role on behalf of these principles; not even the intervention in Haiti satisfies them that he has finally found his voice in foreign affairs. Others, to the contrary, fervently regret that he has such convictions at all and hope that the Haiti involvement will leave him chastened.

Those who criticize the president's convictions call on him to stop making impractical pledges to sponsor unrealistic reform abroad, commitments that serve no vital interests while requiring substantial outlays of power and prestige without clear promise of success. In their view, Washington should restrain its emotions over human rights abuses in China, limit itself to humanitarian assistance to Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa, and offer little more than diplomatic good offices for Bosnia. Involvement that includes armed intervention, as in Bosnia or Haiti, or harsh economic sanctions, as with China or North Korea, is quite unlikely to produce the desired political outcomes. America will bog down in imbroglios of no real importance to the national interest.

From this point of view, the current involvement in Haiti may well turn out to be a difficult and in many ways futile undertaking. Such a negative reading is only somewhat mitigated by the president's good fortune at securing a last-minute victory thanks to the efforts of the team led by former President Jimmy Carter to secure an agreement for a peaceful transition from the regime of General Raoul Cedras to a restoration of Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The hope should be that Clinton has learned his lesson from a brush with armed invasion and will rein in any remaining enthusiasm for future adventures.

By contrast, those of us who share the president's convictions lament his failure to stand more forcibly by them. Whether with respect to Bosnia, China, Rwanda, or Haiti, we deplore the way the White House has struck rhetorical poses in favor of protecting oppressed foreign citizenries from governmental or military abuses, only to back down at the first sign that those who deny human rights or attack democratic order might seriously challenge its policy or that public opinion polls show the American public is unconcerned by these outrages. Much suffering could be spared if the United States, working with other countries through multilateral institutions like the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), or NATO, took a clear position on what is not tolerable in world affairs and then moved decisively to enforce the collective will in areas where such efforts could produce results. A historically critical opportunity to give structure and meaning to the post-Cold War world is being missed and will be ever more difficult to recover later.

In this view, the current Haiti intervention is to be welcomed, as are U.N. Security Council resolutions 917 and 940 authorizing American action. But the decision to act came so late and was surrounded by so many hesitations - including not only those of the president but also of Congress and most U.S. allies - that it scarcely appears able to set the kind of precedent that might intimidate Cuban President Fidel Castro or warn the Bosnian Serbs of Washington's toughness. To many of us, it appears that Clinton bungled his way into Haiti and so will fail to make the best use of an opportunity he should have more willingly embraced.

In the case of Haiti, how much can the American intervention accomplish if a general amnesty covers the military and if plans for the country's reorganization involve a continued political role for many who worked under Cedras? Studies of Panama five years after the U.S. invasion there show how threadbare a "democratic restoration" may be if it lacks comprehensiveness. By contrast, the best model for how to proceed in Haiti might be to follow the example of Costa Rica, which long ago disbanded its standing army. If events in Haiti redound to America's credit, if the OAS ends up revitalized by a worthwhile mission successfully accomplished, then the groundwork may have been laid for a new beginning in U.S.-Latin American relations based on a common adherence to human rights and democratic government. What the Clinton administration must avoid is ending the occupation before a credible start has been made toward constitutional rule (a process that should allow the Americans to leave by early 1996). At the same time, Washington should do its best to involve the OAS as much as possible in the process of democratic reconstruction.

Most critically, the Clinton administration needs to articulate a clear definition of the American self-interest to be served by defending human rights and democracy in a place like Haiti. The American public needs to understand that good relations with Latin America have historically been in the American interest, but that the nationalist sentiments of many Latin countries - understandably suspicious of American power and hence reluctant to support action even in a case like Haiti, where standards to which most of the hemisphere subscribes have been flagrantly violated - have long precluded the kind of close relations that exist between the United States and Western Europe. Today, consolidation of democracy in Latin America offers the best prospect for good relations since American gunboats first appeared in Latin American waters almost a century ago. The most important reason to defend democracy in Haiti is therefore that it promises the United States a positive role in the historic transformation of Latin America and a new beginning to hemispheric relations.


Unique as the current debate is in many respects, its basic points recapitulate familiar positions. Whether the United States should promote democracy abroad has been one of the major questions of twentieth-century American foreign policy. From debates over Cuba and the Philippines in the late nineteenth century through the debates over the democratization of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Americans have argued the relevance to their own national interest in encouraging democracy for others, and the proper means for doing so where appropriate.

Promoting democracy abroad has served America's national security interest in three distinct ways. First, goading peoples oppressed by powers hostile to the United States to dream of their eventual emancipation through democratic government is to channel nationalist energies in a direction favorable to this country. Here was the tactic Eisenhower adopted when he encouraged nationalist forces in the "captive nations" of Eastern Europe to continue the struggle against Soviet domination.

The tactic is still used today in messages to the Cuban people and those under Iraqi domination, reminding them that a proven alternative to the political system they now endure exists outside, if only they can find a way to dislodge the power that governs them. However, because the United States today has no great power rivals, such appeals to resist oppression are not so often heard as they were from the 1940s through the 1980s.

A second and more enduring reason to foster democracy abroad was particular to Latin America. Washington hoped that democracy would provide modern, constitutional government and stability where civil conflict threatened to open the door for rival powers to enter the Western hemisphere, a preoccupation first expressed by the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. In the second decade of this century, Woodrow Wilson believed that democratic governance could provide political stability and end the region's chronic civil strife that had long presented a security concern to the United States. American interventions were poorly handled, however, and the local social and economic facilitators of democratization were weak.

With the Cold War and successful communist revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua, Washington was once again challenged to find a political solution to a problem that defied easy military response. Presidents Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, and Bush found themselves imitating Wilson and calling for the creation of democratic states. As these later policies imply, the term "Wilsonian" has described those who have insisted that ultimately democratic governments alone could provide the stability the United States needs abroad in areas where its security interests are compelling. But as with the first reason to promote democracy abroad, so too with the second: the end of the Cold War significantly reduces American concern over Latin America's civil upheavals.

There is, however, a third traditional reason for America to promote democracy abroad, one which remains operative today. The expansion of democratic government should create better relations with our neighbors to the south and provide an improved framework for hemispheric understanding. With the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the outlook for increased economic exchange with Latin America has brightened substantially, and the region's increased prosperity may well have the important collateral advantage of reducing the flow of economic refugees to the United States. Democratic government increases the likelihood that the United States can build trade with Latin America and better control its own borders.

But the critical goal for the United States has little to do with commerce or borders or military security. Instead, its major interest should be to seek a greater sense of mutual respect and understanding with Latin nations based on a common hemispheric adherence to democratic institutions and values. In the past 15 years, democracy has shown new vigor throughout Latin America. This strength reflects not only domestic forces, such as the strong support of the Roman Catholic Church for human rights, which moderated the region's right. It also reflects international changes, including the end of the Cold War, which moderated the region's left, and the consolidation of democratic states in Spain and Portugal, long the political lodestars for many Latin elites. Now is the moment for the United States to weigh in.

America's Cold War victory rested on expanding prosperity and democratic institutions in Europe and Japan and linking those political values to the character of its allies, allowing them to overcome the worst vanities and suspicions common to nationalism. The promotion of democracy provided the moral and institutional framework for cooperation in the past, and it promises the creation of a peaceful world community in the future. Democracies tend to be less militaristic than authoritarian states, and their relations with each other have been especially pacific. The intuitive feeling of many Americans of the importance of the successful consolidation of democracy, especially in countries as significant as Russia and Mexico, is validated by a growing body of social science analysis.1

Similarly, the United States should now strive to overcome the nationalist jealousies and suspicions that remain as obstacles to better relations with Latin nations. The reconciliation of political forms that made Germany suitable for the European Union, and later brought Spain and Portugal into that community, might be duplicated in the Western hemisphere. Such a process of nurturing mutual respect and cooperation in this region is to be all the more hoped for because by the year 2025 as much as a quarter of the American population will be of Latin ancestry.

Admittedly, the obstacles to consolidating democratic government in Latin America are many. The region's authoritarians may be exhausted; George Bush put it well in May 1989 when he declared that in Latin America "the day of the dictator is over." And communism has suffered a serious decline nearly everywhere. Yet by no means is the success of democratic government a foregone conclusion, least of all in Haiti, with its poverty, lack of democratic traditions, and organizational and spiritual devastation caused by three years of cruel military dictatorship.

Indeed, at the time of the September 1991 coup against Aristide, the region's wave of democratic successes was cresting. The return of democracy to Argentina, Chile, and Brazil in the 1980s suggested what might be achieved. The election of Violeta Chamorro as president of Nicaragua in 1990 was still more evidence of the success of the ambition. The trend culminated in a June 1991 agreement in Santiago, Chile, by the OAS to take joint steps in defense of democratic government in the hemisphere. Unfortunately, when Aristide fell only three months later, no effective action was taken. The weakness of the OAS may have contributed to Alberto Fujimori's coup the following April in Peru and to the coup attempts in Venezuela and Guatemala.

Hence the disappointment of Wilsonians today. After decades of successful cooperation among the democracies, problems like those of Bosnia appear to defy multilateral solution, aid to emergencies like Rwanda has been distressingly meager, and where action has occurred, as with Haiti, it has been done in a manner that does not encourage the expectation that it will readily be duplicated elsewhere. One can understand why Czech President Vaclav Havel may fear how the fine words of NATO's "partnership for peace" will sound if ever Eastern Europe is menaced by a new wave of Russian imperialism.


The Clinton administration initially gave good reason to think that it would act forcibly to promote human rights and democracy. And the administration itself helped build the expectation that multilateral institutions like NATO, the OAS, the United Nations, and various government-backed international economic organizations might reach new levels of maturity by working aggressively for those ends.

As a candidate, Clinton had declared that "no national security issue is more urgent than securing democracy's triumph around the world." Less than three weeks after the new administration took office, Secretary of State Warren Christopher spoke of a "broader imperative" moving the president "to become actively and directly engaged in the multilateral effort to reach a just and workable solution" to conflict in the Balkans. "The world's response to the violence in the former Yugoslavia," Christopher said, "is an early and crucial test of how it will address the concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities in the post-Cold War world."

But in short order the prolonged spectacle began to unfold of a presidency whose warnings were merely bluffs. In due course, the multilateral institutions that, thanks to American support were presumably to find a new role in world affairs, were instead used by Washington as scapegoats or excuses for inaction.

For two critical reasons the Clinton presidency may now be ready to enter a new phase in its foreign policy that puts this unhappy record behind it. First, while Clinton's priority has been to get the national economy moving again, there is a general consensus that a substantial recovery is underway. Perhaps the improvement began at the end of the Bush presidency; perhaps it should be more robust; perhaps its character has little to do with the economic design that the new administration initially claimed would guide it. None of these observations is relevant to the point that after nearly two years in office, Clinton is presiding over a healthy economy, thus alleviating his major concern about reelection and presumably freeing him to act more boldly in world affairs.

The second consideration is that the administration surely came to realize that it badly needs to demonstrate that it can act forcibly in foreign affairs. Clinton did not need an engagement on the scale of Bush in the Arabian peninsula, but a "splendid little war," like the American action in Cuba in 1898, in which Theodore Roosevelt showed himself to be an effective commander in chief, would do his presidency no harm. Something had to be done to reverse the image of a president whose backing down over Bosnia surely contributed to a successful resistance to American power in Somalia, which in turn presumably emboldened the Chinese, then the Haitians, next the North Koreans, the Cubans, and finally the Iraqis to test American intentions.

For an intervention such as that in Haiti to be more than a political quick fix for the administration, however, it should be done with the intention of promoting democracy and strengthening the ability of international institutions to defend human rights in different parts of the world. Critics charge that the United States cannot become the moral policeman of the world, and they warn darkly against exaggerated reliance on multilateral institutions that might compromise American sovereignty. But the contentions that if Washington responds to some problems abroad it must act on all, or that the United Nations might one day usurp presidential or congressional powers, need to be rejected as groundless objections against the exercise of American leadership. America can recognize the intractability of some problems given the limits on its power without becoming isolationist.

The advent of democracy throughout the Western hemisphere holds the promise of bringing political and economic stability to Latin America and, in the process, to serve at once America's commercial interests, the need to control its borders, and the goal of creating a community of feeling that might one day rival that which now exists with much of Europe. President Clinton was fully justified in his speech of September 15, when he declared his determination to restore Aristide to power:

History has taught us that preserving democracy in our own hemisphere strengthens America's security and prosperity. Democracies here are more likely to keep the peace and to stabilize our region, and more likely to create free markets and economic opportunity and to become strong, reliable trading partners, and they're more likely to provide their own people with the opportunities that will encourage them to stay in their nations and to build their own futures.

Admittedly, there is something to the argument that the United States in effect sponsored refugee flows from Cuba and Haiti with its embargoes on those two countries. But the human rights abuses of Castro's regime and its economic ineptitude have been continuing for 35 years now, while the brutal treatment of the Haitian population by the Cedras regime began the moment the Haitian military toppled the Aristide government. To see the refugees as the creation of American policy is substantially to understate the responsibility of these dictatorships for the desperation of their peoples. When hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the Cedras or Castro dictatorships may arrive suddenly on America's shores, the United States has a right to act to establish legitimate governments in those lands as a way of controlling its own borders. In these circumstances, American tradition and interests dictate that a new order in Haiti (or in Cuba, in the unlikely event that the Castro regime should fall soon) be democratically constituted.

Long-term security requires not only that Washington's policy be credible but also that America inspire multilateral alliances and institutions with a sense of mission. While leadership may require unilateral action on occasion, multilateral institutions are the most effective way to address ethnic, nationalist, and religious hatreds, the human rights abuses of neofascist governments, the critical environmental and economic decisions needed in an era of galloping demographic expansion, and the rising threat of nuclear proliferation. If, despite its enormous relative power and prestige, Washington's leadership is seldom to be found setting and enforcing the rules and norms of world order in the aftermath of the Cold War, it is not only the weak in Haiti or Bosnia or Somalia or Cuba who will suffer but the very idea of an international community with a shared sense of duty and direction, and ultimately the United States itself.

It is an extraordinary spectacle, after all, that the alliance put in place by the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and their allies in the Pacific should not respond more effectively to crises of the proportion of those in the Balkans or the Caribbean. Despite the problems at its doorstep, NATO appears unable to find a new mission for itself in the post-Cold War world. Some wonder if the OAS is any more effective than the Organization of African Unity in protecting human rights in the region. Why did Poland, Israel, and Bangladesh offer to second an American intervention in Haiti when, with the exception of Argentina, all the prominent countries in Latin America remained silent?

Wilsonians fear that the United States has won the Cold War only to lose the opportunities that its power provides, as was the case after 1918. They recall events after 1945, when America stepped forward with a political agenda for world order capable of providing for the nation's security through a recognition that leadership was required to affirm an international rule of law embodied in a host of effective international institutions. Trying to remedy the evident weakness of many of these institutions, they point out that a willingness and an ability to work multilaterally is most likely to occur with fellow democracies that themselves respect the rule of law and understand the historical challenges facing their way of life. They assert that contemporary Americans would do well to recall Woodrow Wilson's words on April 2, 1917, as he asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany:

Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles.


A serious problem with making support for human rights and democracy a cornerstone of American foreign policy is that the American people generally require a clear statement of the national interest before they will support prolonged and costly interventions. And calling on the nation to rally round the flag simply for the sake of doing good for others has never persuaded many Americans to respond.

As a geographically and militarily secure democratic country with a liberal, anti-expansionist culture, the United States has a strong tendency toward isolationism. Historically, America has had to believe itself directly menaced before it would act, and even then, as events of the 1930s demonstrate, it may be slow indeed to see the challenge. Here is a part of today's problem, much as it was after World War I: the United States enjoys a preeminent role in world affairs, but many see no self-evident stake in world affairs bidding it to act. Human rights may be trampled on in Bosnia, China, Rwanda, Cuba, or Haiti, yet lacking a rationale for action spelled out in national security terms, Americans are reluctant to engage in more than humanitarian gestures. American democracy itself will put a stop to quixotic calls to sponsor democracy worldwide; any president who fails to recognize the force of public opinion will lose his mandate.

In the face of these obstacles, leadership is called for to articulate the American interest in fostering democracy abroad in terms the American public will accept. The historical record shows that such an ambition has been intrinsic to the country's greatest successes in foreign policy since the Second World War. Victory in the Cold War has contributed directly to the strength and prestige of democratic government around the world at the end of the twentieth century. Most recently, until the current disagreements broke out over policy toward Haiti, efforts to promote human rights and democracy abroad have had bipartisan support and had become an integral part of America's established framework for foreign policy. (Whatever the objections raised by Republican Senators Robert Dole of Kansas and Richard Lugar of Indiana to Clinton's policies in the Caribbean, the most Wilsonian of Wilson's successors was Ronald Reagan.)

Wilsonianism's success in world affairs depends on its resonance with international history in the twentieth century. By trying to foster democratic government abroad, Washington was in step with the times, responding to the desperate need of nationalist forces for some blueprint of popular sovereignty that might give their people dignity. The genius of Wilsonianism has been that it has not tried to challenge so much as to channel this upsurge of nationalist sentiment. Admittedly, the effort has at times been destructive, as when Wilson's own efforts to promote the democratization of Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic in the second and third decades of this century ended up creating the circumstances that led to the Somoza and Trujillo dictatorships.

But the argument that efforts to encourage democracy are sometimes mistaken does not mean that they are always fruitless, as the history of American involvement in Europe and the current strength of democratic government in Latin America and parts of the Far East clearly illustrate. By suggesting that democracy be the framework for stable constitutional government, the United States has countered the appeal of fascism and communism and helped bring stability to parts of the world where imperialist struggles or the triumph of hostile nationalist forces might otherwise have occurred. For reasons particular to the dynamics of world history in the twentieth century, democracy has had an appeal far beyond its region of birth.

For the Clinton administration to ally itself with the tradition of fostering democracy abroad is to join an approach to world leadership that has already demonstrated its worth. This tradition has historically been acceptable to the American public, provided that a credible security rationale is articulated on its behalf.

Of course, such assertions should not mean a blank check to go charging about the world on a white horse of promises with respect to democracy and human rights. The United States must recognize the limits on its power and cooperate with the many peoples whose political systems are not like its own. In today's world, prudence dictates that although the United States should do what it can to foster human rights and democracy in Latin America and Eastern Europe (including Russia), it should be far more reserved on these matters with respect to China, most of the Muslim world, and Africa. And this country would do well to spend more time tending to its own problems than trying to set everyone else's houses in order. But the criticism that fostering human rights and democratic government abroad is idealistic, utopian, or moralistic, and hence unsuited to furthering American interests, needs to be confronted. In Eastern Europe, Central America, and the Caribbean, the establishment of democratic governments holds the best promise of stability and the emergence of states feeling a community of interests with the West. A forward-looking policy in defense of human rights and democracy in these circumstances is not only morally appealing, but it is also in the security interests of the United States.


1 A large body of empirical work tends to confirm the argument that relations between democratic states are especially harmonious. See Michael Doyle, "An International Liberal Community," in Graham Allison and Gregory F. Treverton, eds., Rethinking American Security: Beyond the Cold War to New World Order, New York: W.W. Norton, 1991; David A. Lake, "Powerful Pacifists: Democratic States and War," American Political Science Review, March 1992; and Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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  • Tony Smith is Jackson Professor of Political Science at Tufts University, Senior Associate at Harvard's Center for European Studies, and author most recently of America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1994).
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