How the US Exports Democracy and Endangers the World

August 15, 2023


Preamble: Democracy represents both a pursuit of values, encompassing shared human values and common responsibilities, and a right of the people in various nations. At the same time, democracy serves as a model of governance, an outcome achieved as human society develops to a certain stage. Democracy is a concrete, evolving, and diversified concept. The US continues to brand itself as the "beacon of democracy” while ardently imposes “American-style democracy” as a yardstick for assessing and reforming other countries’ systems of governance. Further, the US has instrumentalized democracy as a tool for foreign expansion and the maintenance of American hegemony. Historically speaking, it becomes evident that where the US attempted to export democracy, turmoil and instability have often ensued, leaving a stark question as to whether its intentions were geared toward “rescue” or “destruction”.



I. The US has a long history of exporting democracy
◆The core essence of American democracy is "elite republicanism". Since its founding, the institutional design of American representative democracy was conceived to establish an elite republic, safeguarding the minority (property owners) from the "tyranny of the majority" (propertyless individuals). The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” yet here, "men" did not refer to all natural persons but rather enlightened (property-owning) white men. As time progressed, in conjunction with the interplay of internal civil rights struggles and external pressures from competitive institutional dynamics, the US gradually adopted an universal suffrage system of "one person, one vote". Nevertheless, the realization of representative democracy has been confined to competitive elections, rendering American democracy a form of decision-making one centered around two-party competition, under the influence of ruling elites composed of big businesses and politicians, among others.
◆The US has a long history of exporting democracy. American foreign expansion is inextricably interlinked with its exportation of democracy. For the US, the endeavour of cultural colonization and institutional transformation of other nations and peoples under the banner of “exporting democracy” are not only means to assert hegemony, but also significant manifestations of fulfilling the political theological mission conferred by American exceptionalism. Since the early days of its founding, the US has gradually expanded the scope of its democracy exportation, pursuing territorial expansion, military aggression, and democratic transplantation. The first steps taken by the US were to impose a military occupation, then support a pro-US government, which ultimately evolved into the so-called "Caribbean model" that has become the main model for exporting American democracy.
◆World War I provided America with an opportunity to export democracy. Then President Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the first US President to publicly propose exporting democracy. Wilson proclaimed that "this war is no longer a traditional struggle for power between ambitious powers, but should be defined as a crusade, a war to ensure the unimpeded passage of democracy throughout the world." In 1914, Wilson made promoting democracy a reason for America's participation in World War I, and he preached the need for democracy after the war. In the following years, under the pretext of “freedom, democracy, and equality”, the US started intervening in other countries' internal affairs with a big stick and dollar diplomacy while exporting democracy to other countries. Between 1914 and 1916, the US militarily threatened Mexico to enact a new constitution; It sent troops to invade the Dominican Republic and Haiti, intimidating and coercing local people into voting in elections; It also meddled in the internal affairs of Ecuador, Guatemala and other countries to promote pro-US governments in their respective elections.
◆During the Cold War, under the guise of containing the spread of communism, the US used the export of democracy as its main methods of competing for hegemony with the Soviet Union. First, the US built and expanded the Western democratic alliance by implementing the Marshall Plan to "save the liberal institutions of Western Europe", rigging elections to ensure that pro-US political parties govern in Western Europe, and transforming Japan and West Germany through military occupation. Second, it set out to transform the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries through methods such as peaceful evolution, armed intervention, and secret warfare. Third, to advance the process of democratization in the Third World, the US tried to export democracy to the Third World through the Point Four Program, the Peace Corps Plan, and the Reagan Doctrine, seeking to expand American influence in the Third World.
◆In the post-Cold War era, most countries aspire to transcend ideological confrontations, exploring independent developmental paths that align with their respective domestic circumstances. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US became the sole superpower and declared the “end of history”, perceiving itself as possessing the power and prerequisites to fulfill its political theological mission globally. The US made exporting democracy a pivotal instrument to consolidate the outcomes of the Cold War: it tried to use American democracy to dominate the world and realize Pax Americana.
The US uses neo-interventionism to consolidate and expand the export of democracy. American leaders elected in the post-Cold War era have placed greater emphasis on the export of democracy, making the promotion of democracy, economic security, and military security the three pillars of foreign policy. The central goal of the expansionist strategy proposed by the US administration is to pursue "global democratization", and the key approach is neo-interventionism. Neo-interventionism is a variant of the armed intervention foreign strategy adopted by the US during the Cold War, which remains unchanged in nature, content, and objective. It simply changed the banner of military intervention from "preventing the spread of communism" to "human rights over sovereignty". In the 1990s, the US sent troops more than 40 times under the pretext of humanitarian aid, including 10 times of violent intervention in other countries, the most typical of which was the Kosovo War.
The US uses regime change to implement the plan of "democratic transformation". In the first decade of the 21st century, the US government has been deeply influenced by neo-conservatism, and its basic tenet is mainly embodied in two aspects. One is the belief in force and the idea of using military power to maintain the US-led order. Second is the belief in the theory of "democratic peace" and in using democracy to transform "failed states". Under the influence of neo-conservatism, the US launched the war in Afghanistan in the name of fighting terrorism. After the fall of the Taliban regime, the US conducted democracy experiments in Afghanistan, formulating a new constitution tinted by elements of American-style democracy and holding so-called "democratic elections". In 2003, the US launched the Iraq war, toppled the Saddam regime, and implemented the so-called "Greater Middle East Democratic Transformation Plan" in an attempt to create a democratic model for the Middle East and change the political culture of the entire Arab region. The US also instigated color revolutions in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, and changed the governments of several CIS countries in an attempt to overthrow the government of the so-called "outposts of tyranny".
After 2009, the US turned to the use of soft power to export democracy, mobilizing NGOs, universities and the media to promote American democracy, and using the Internet to manage and shape public opinion around the world. This is essentially a non-violent promotion of American democracy through behind-the-scenes manipulation. In 2011, the US worked from behind the scenes to promote the Arab Spring and then to expand democracy in a number of troubled countries.
Since 2017, driven by the idea of America First, the US has used extreme pressure as a critical means of exporting democracy. In 2019, the US attempted a coup d’etat in Venezuela and subsequently deprived the country of its ability to earn foreign exchange through the export of oil and gold, froze more than $20 billion of Venezuelan assets, tried to overthrow the Maduro government through economic coercion, and supported the opposition in coming to power. The Trump administration has waged a trade war against China, exerting extreme pressure, pointing fingers at China's state-owned enterprises and industrial policies, while vilifying and attacking China's political and economic system. Then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made many speeches trying to create a split between the CPC and the Chinese people.
Since 2021, the US administration has been playing up the false narrative of "democracy versus authoritarianism", pushing for the formation of a "coalition of democratic values". Under the guise of safeguarding the "rules-based international order", the US has linked science and technology to democracy, turned technology issues into political and ideological ones, cracked down on China in science and technology, and pushed for decoupling and severing supply chains. The US held two Summits for Democracy, drawing ideological lines, and teaming up with its allies and partners to divide the world into opposing camps.
◆The conceit of American institutional exceptionalism and the motive of pursuing world hegemony echo each other and together constitute the purpose of the US export of democracy. In the eyes of the US, the reason for its rapid development as a world power after its founding was the establishment of a political system distinct from any other polities in the world. This system is a special, sacred and exemplary democracy based on the spirit of the Bible. It is the only rational political form and the beacon for the progress of human society, and it should be the standard and model for all countries in the world. The interaction between America’s sense of political conceit and Christian fatalism has led the US to a certain paranoia about its own democratic system.
The pursuit of interests is the most important reason for America's relentless export of democracy. Former US President Bill Clinton said: "The defense of freedom and the promotion of democracy around the world are not merely a reflection of our deepest values; they are vital to our national interests. Global democracy means nations at peace with one another, open to one another's ideas and commerce." In this view of the US, as long as countries around the world follow the American way of democracy and advance the democratic process according to the will of the US, the US can easily become the ruler of the whole world. The US uses lofty rhetoric such as "democratic elections" and "freedom of speech" to incite people, manipulates public opinion, elections and parliamentary struggles by cultivating pro-American political forces and civil groups in the target country, instigates civil anti-government movement, and even employs means of surveillance, blackmail and assassination, to realize the goal of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries and controlling their political and economic lifelines. Theories of fatalism and exceptionalism provide these unseemly behaviours an idealistic colouring and a moral veneer.
II.The US exports democracy in many ways
◆In the process of exporting democracy, the US has adopted various means, including military, economic, political, diplomatic, cultural and propaganda means, in light of the changes in the international situation, the specific conditions of the target countries and its own interests.
◆In the early days of its founding, the US combined the spread of democracy with territorial expansion and, under the guise of "spreading democracy", adopted various means against different targets in its westward expansion, such as killing and plundering, hostile annexation and low-price purchases. From 1819 to 1853, the US expanded from 13 states on the Western Atlantic to the Eastern Pacific, transplanting democracy to the newly acquired lands. In that process, Native Americans were brutally driven out, slaughtered and brought to the brink of extinction.
◆During the period of American overseas expansion, the main targets of the US export of democracy were Latin America and the Pacific, using colonial wars, military occupation and economic expansion as its main tools. The US seized Cuba, Puerto Rico and other colonies from Spain in the Spanish-American War, while promoting the establishment of pro-American autonomous governments and education systems that imparted American ideology and values at the local level, and exported American ideas of justice. The US sent troops to Haiti, Panama, the Dominican Republic and other countries and forced them to accept American democracy at gunpoint. After defeating Spain, the US competed with other world powers for markets, carving up colonies and exporting democracy to newly occupied and controlled territories. After occupying the Philippines, the US brought a full set of American-style democratic institutions to the country and maintained long-term colonial rule, resulting in national economic deformation, poverty, and the hindrance of inheriting the Filipino cultural legacy.  
◆The US also used the spread of religion as a crucial means of exporting democracy. Wherever the American troops and businessmen went, the missionaries went, sometimes even ahead of them. The religious views of the Puritans and the experience of exploring the North American continent gave American culture a strong "saviour" tendency. This religious and cultural tradition makes Americans think of themselves as God's chosen people who shoulder the responsibility of building a "city on a hill" and are on a special mission for the destiny of humanity. Americans believe that the North American continent is the pure land that God gave to them to fulfil religious ideals and save humanity. With a belief in "Manifest Destiny", all the rulers of the US have regarded the export of democracy as a sacred mission given by God.
◆For the US, economic aid and sanctions are the most frequently used, most important, and most flexible tools for exporting democracy. In May 1993, then US Deputy Secretary of State John Wharton stated: "The United States will direct its aid and influence in every way possible to enable the nations of this hemisphere to advance human rights and strengthen the democratic institutions which promote the rule of law." The US links economic aid to democratic reforms in recipient countries. It increases aid to countries if they meet its democratic standards and serve American interests, and reduces aid or even imposes economic sanctions if not. In the early 1990s, the US government made “the adoption of a multi-party democracy” a prerequisite for aid to African countries, thus tying aid to the adoption of democratic systems and blackmailing African countries. The economic, commercial, and financial embargo imposed by the US on Cuba since 1962 is yet to be lifted. Since 1979, the US has imposed illegal unilateral sanctions against Syria on a large scale. In 2019, the US Congress passed the so-called "Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act", which further intensified the illegal unilateral sanctions against Syria, making it impossible for Syria to conduct international trade or to buy medicine and relief supplies. Since 1979, the US has imposed various kinds of unilateral sanctions on Iran, severely trampling on the Iranian people's rights to life, health and development. Moreover, the US even attempted to instigating a colour revolution in Iran. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the US prevented Iran from importing vaccines and other essential pandemic mitigation supplies by employing measures such as freezing Iranian funds abroad and threatening nations that supply vaccines to Iran. Studies by the Brookings Institution show that US sanctions may have led to the death of 13,000 Iranians at the height of the pandemic.
◆The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been the main organ and tool of America's export of democracy since its inception. Since the Cold War, the CIA has helped the US government to export democracy through various covert operations such as surveillance, infiltration, espionage, subversion and assassination. In America's Deadliest Export: Democracy, the Truth About US Foreign Policy, and Everything Else, American historian and foreign policy commentator William Blum points out that since the end of World War II the US has endeavored to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments; grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries; attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders; dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries; attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 countries.
◆The US believes that its own culture is an indestructible force and a powerful weapon to transform "non-democratic countries" into members of the "Western democratic family". The US seeks to influence and erode the ideas and values of people in other countries through cultural export, cultivating the ideological groundwork for the implementation of peaceful evolution. As its power continues to grow and technology advances, the US is constantly evolving its methods and means of cultural export.
During the Cold War, the US government created three media organizations, namely the Voice of America, Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which were used as the main tools of psychological warfare, public opinion warfare and peaceful evolution. Since the 1980s, the rapid development of the Internet has provided the US with more approaches to export democracy. Using its Internet technology and resources and with young people as its main target, the US spreads American pop culture, consumer culture and values through the Internet and new media, to instigate, influence and even directly intervene in the planning of colour revolutions and encourage people in target countries to confront their governments. In an interview with MSNBC on 25 February 2022, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blatantly incited US hackers to launch cyberattacks against Russia, claiming that “we can cyber-attack many government agencies and oligarchs and their way of life, which we did during the "Arab Spring".”  
The US has promoted American values and lifestyles through implicit means such as film and television productions, books, media, and funding of non-profit cultural institutions, in an effort to create a culture and public opinion space dominated by American culture in the world and to politically infiltrate other countries. 
◆America started exporting democracy through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) a long time ago. During the Cold War, the US created a large number of foundations, research institutes and other non-governmental organizations which still play a role today. Some NGOs receive funding from the US government and, under the cover of their unofficial status, do what the US government wants to but finds it inconvenient to do, and become the white glove of the US government in exporting democracy. Under the direction of the US government, these organizations export democracy to a target country by means of funds and personnel training, and even incite or directly participate in the activities of confronting or subverting the government of the relevant country. Whether it is the drastic changes in Eastern Europe, the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia, the ''Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, the "Arab Spring" in the Middle East, or the illegal "Umbrella Revolution" and more recent violent protests in Hong Kong, the Bolotnaya Square protest in Russia, and the political crisis in Venezuela, non-governmental organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy are behind them all.
III.The US export of democracy endangers the world
◆Interference in the domestic affairs of other nations. America usually exports democracy in two steps. First it helps the so-called pro-American democrats gain power through electoral or military interference, who then fully accept US control. The second step is to transplant American democratic institutions through the power of those in office, in order to promote American human rights notions and values, establish an American-style democratic political system, in order to gradually realize "Americanization" in all aspects of social relations and social life at the local level.
◆Leading to damage to the authority and role of the United Nations. Under the name of “democracy” and “human rights”, the US has launched a series of wars by bypassing the UN Security Council and putting its own “house rules” above international law, bringing terrible disasters to many countries and seriously violating international law including the UN Charter. Ignoring the basic norms of international relations, such as mutual respect and equal consultation, the US has arbitrarily imposed unilateral sanctions based on domestic legislation. From 2000 to 2021, sanctions imposed by America have increased by 933 per cent, and the Trump administration alone imposed more than 3,900 sanctions. The Biden administration has imposed a large number of sanctions on many countries, including China and Russia, illegally freezing assets of other countries, and using all kinds of means to suppress specific companies of target countries. What the US has done has seriously undermined the UN-centred international system and the international order based on international law, damaged the authority and credibility of the UN, and exacerbated the global governance deficit.
◆Leading to international division and confrontation, and deterioration of major-country relations. The ultimate purpose of the US export of democracy is to serve its geopolitical and economic interests and to maintain its global hegemony. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has squeezed Russia's strategic space by promoting NATO's eastward expansion into Central and Eastern Europe and instigating "colour revolutions" in the CIS countries. On 5 April 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out explicitly to the new US ambassador to Russia that the US had used foreign policy tools such as supporting the so-called "colour revolutions" and the 2014 "coup in Kiev", which ultimately led to the current Ukraine crisis and had a grave negative impact on Russia-US relations.
The US has long seen China as a primary target for exporting democracy. After the Cold War, the US stepped up its efforts to implement "peaceful evolution" against China, interfering in China's internal affairs through Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and other issues under the banner of protecting “human rights”. It played up the false narrative of "democracy versus authoritarianism" to hide its real purpose of "containing China using Taiwan". At present, the US is building a "value-based alliance" to decouple from China economically, encircle China in terms of science and technology, and contain China militarily, seriously harming China's sovereignty, security and development interests.
◆Causing the target country to fall into political instability and social division. Throughout the history of the export of American democracy, American democracy has not only failed to solve the deep-seated problems of the countries concerned, but has often plunged them into social unrest. US scholars Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder cited many examples in their co-authored book Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, stating that in the 1990s, many countries quickly descended into chaos after democratic elections. The predominant reason for this phenomenon, as posited by the book, is that the process of transitioning towards the Western democratic model is most susceptible to internal conflicts or external warfare, as politicians find it convenient to secure votes by leveraging populist sentiments. The US overthrow of the Taliban regime in the name of anti-terrorism has brought to the Afghan people not the light of democracy, but continued wars, terrorist attacks and rampant corruption. In the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, the US blindly transplanted the so-called Western democratic system regardless of Iraq's national conditions, which aggravated the conflicts between different factions in Iraq and led to long-term instability there, making it a battleground where different sectarian and ethnic groups vie for power. In the wake of the Arab Spring in the Middle East in 2011, the US and the West saw it as a perfect opportunity to promote democracy, and encouraged opposition forces in many countries to overthrow their governments, destroying the balance among sectarian and ethnic groups. The result was continued chaos and instability in the countries.
◆Leading to undermined sovereignty, economic recession, and humanitarian disasters in target countries. The year 2023 marks the 20th year since the US launched the war in Iraq. According to France 24 TV, due to the devastation of the war, 20 percent of Iraqis were living below the poverty line and 25 percent of young people were unemployed in 2019. Media in the Middle East pointed out that American democracy has left nothing valuable in the Middle East, except for sowing the seeds of death and destruction.
Statistics from Brown University show that in the 20 years since the US launched the war in Afghanistan, more than 46,000 Afghan civilians have died and some 11 million become refugees. According to the World Bank, Afghanistan's GDP in 2020 was $19.807 billion, its per capita GDP just 0.8 percent of that of the US, and its unemployment rate around 11.73 percent, the highest since 1991.
In 2011, the Syrian crisis turned a former oasis of stability into a center of hot war, displacing more than 11 million people, of whom nearly 2.8 million became registered refugees. In February 2023, when a powerful earthquake struck Syria, creating a severe humanitarian disaster, the US not only refused to lift sanctions against Syria, but announced on 8 May 2023 that it would extend the sanctions for another year. Venezuela is another country deeply affected by US sanctions. According to Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, US sanctions have cost Venezuela $232 billion in economic losses since 2015. The US has waged an economic war against Venezuela and engaged in systematic human rights persecution that left many unable to meet their basic needs.
◆The US exports democracy in the name of anti-terrorism, resulting in incessant wars across the world and a vicious cycle of anti-terrorism and more terrorism. It has led to lasting turmoil in the Middle East and the continued spread of terrorist forces globally. After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, Iraq plunged into sectarian conflict, providing fertile ground for the international terrorist forces broken apart by the war in Afghanistan to relocate and regroup. The US and the West overthrew the Saddam regime in Iraq, supported the Syrian opposition to provoke a civil war, and even supported and exploited terrorism, which made the Middle East even more chaotic, and objectively created the conditions for the rise of the "Islamic State". In order to overthrow the Syrian regime, the US and the West did not hesitate to condone and take advantage of extremist religious forces to covertly support Islamic armed groups. In an editorial on 11 September 2021, the Times noted that the US war on terror has in effect fueled a new generation of radicals whose ideas have spread from the Middle East to Africa, where new terrorist affiliates are planning new attacks on the West.
◆The export of democracy eventually backfires against the US. America's export of democracy harms others and, ultimately, itself too. The US military deployed 2.3 million troops in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 7,014 US troops and 7,950 US contractors were killed in action, 630,000 troops physically disabled to varying degrees, and 340,000 troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. American taxpayers spent a total of $6.4 trillion on the two wars, according to the Costs of War Project of The Stars and Stripes. The belligerent policies of the US have seriously drained the country's economic strength and growth, which became one of the major triggers to the 2008 financial crisis. The US exported democracy in the name of anti-terrorism, but it failed to create a safer environment for Americans at home or abroad, and instead exacerbated the threat brought by violent extremists at home. In response to the posed threats, the Biden administration architected the first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism in US history.
◆America's own domestic image and international credibility are declining. To export democracy, the US has not hesitated to adopt double standards and use violence, lies and deception, which has seriously damaged its image and credibility. In January 2006, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement won the ruling status of Palestine through democratic elections, but the US not only refused to recognize the election result, but also imposed sanctions on it, as it did not meet US interests. Similarly, the storming of Capitol Hill in the US was deemed an illegal riot, while riots in Hong Kong were described by American politicians as a "beautiful sight" for democracy. In November 2021, a Pew Research Center survey showed that outside the US, about 57 percent of respondents said that American democracy had not been a good example in recent years.
◆America's forceful export of democracy has not only aggravated its contradiction with other countries, but also aggravated its own internal contradiction. The US went to war and exported democracy regardless of the limitations of its national strength, resulting in severe economic crises, social crises, institutional crises and faith crises. From the war in Afghanistan in 2001, to the financial crisis in 2008, the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, the rise of populist forces in 2016 and the chaos at the Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021, it is clear that there is a systemic crisis domestically in American democracy: the political alienation of the two parties has evolved into polarized politics, society has become seriously divided, and the "systemic myth" of the separation of powers has become a tool of partisan fight. People are becoming increasingly disillusioned with American democracy. An Associated Press poll in February 2021 found that only 16 percent of Americans believed democracy was working well in the US, with nearly half saying democracy was not working properly.
Democracy is a common value of humanity, and the right of the people in every country, rather than the prerogative of any single country. There is no fixed model of democracy; it manifests itself in various forms. Assessing and evaluating distinctive democratic systems with a single yardstick while categorizing the world into opposing dichotomies such as ‘democracy and authoritarianism’ or ‘freedom and despotism’ is, in itself, undemocratic. Such an approach contradicts democratic values and runs counter to the essence of democracy. The political system of a country should be determined by the people of that country. Whether a country is democratic or not should be judged by the people of that country, not by a few outsiders.
The US has instrumentalized and weaponized the concepts of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, thereby becoming a significant source of instability in today’s world. On issues such as democracy and human rights, the US should do less on lecturing others and interfering in other countries' affairs, and do more on reflecting on itself and respecting others. The true essence of democracy is to serve the people, not to be used as an instrument of expansion. When alienated as an instrument of expansion, democracy will eventually backfire as a powerful weapon.






Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.






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