The Bush administration's "freedom agenda" linked U.S. national security to the spread of democracy worldwide. After years of controversy and policy failure, democracy promotion is now greeted with sober skepticism. Realists are again cautioning against ideological crusades. This spirited book argues that the United States should not abandon the democracy agenda, even as it needs to radically rethink its strategy and tactics. As Traub sees it, the post-September 11 embrace of democracy promotion is now seen in the Middle East and elsewhere as a tool of hegemony and domination, pursued by a fearful superpower that has relaxed its own standards of openness and the rule of law at home.
Despite this, he argues that the new administration will need to untangle support for democracy from the war on terrorism and take steps to restore the United States' reputation as the great benign benefactor of liberal democracy. Most of the book is a fast-paced historical survey of the United States' long and conflicted record of championing liberal democracy abroad, beginning with the Philippines in 1898 and continuing with the creation of democracy in Germany and Japan and then the Cold War-era embrace of despots and democrats in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. According to Traub, a policy that rehabilitates the democracy agenda must begin with an end to grand theological statements about "the march of liberty" and "making freedom manifest" in popular elections and move to a quiet focus on policies that support long-term transitions to the rule of law, limited government, and the upholding of individual rights.