When pro-democracy protesters toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last Friday, American tradition suggests citizens and politicians in the U.S. would have cheered right alongside the revelers in Tahrir Square. After all, America is supposed to be the “shining city upon a hill” — a model democracy always eager to promote and welcome other nations to the club.
The stateside reaction, though, has been much murkier. Egyptian democracy could make America less safe, warned former U.S. ambassador John Bolton. It could lead to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, feared Newt Gingrich. It could derail joint counterterrorism operations, the peace accord with Israel, U.S. security interests throughout the region.
The absence of idealism seems odd coming from the country that invented “American exceptionalism.” But to listen to American public opinion polls, it’s not so surprising.
“That’s pretty much consistent with my argument,” Tufts political scientist Daniel Drezner said of the reaction to Egypt. He’s argued that the American public favors realist foreign policy goals much more than policymakers tend to think (and considerably more than our own national narrative would indicate). “To be fair, it’s not that Americans don’t want to see other democracies out there, they do. It’s not like Americans are indifferent about this. It’s just when you ask them to rank their priorities, this comes out very, very low.”
In fact, it’s behind, among other things: protecting the country against terrorist attacks, protecting American jobs, protecting American energy supplies, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, combating international drug trafficking and managing illegal immigration.
In a Pew poll conducted in November 2009, just 21 percent of Americans said “promoting democracy abroad” should be a top priority for U.S. foreign policy, ranking it last of 11 goals.
Polling data on the question has been relatively consistent for years, predating Sept. 11 and continuing through the Iraq war, when the neoconservative ethos underlying the conflict explicitly included “exporting democracy.” The numbers suggest a “democracy-promotion gap” in American public opinion, in the words of LaGrange College political scientist John Tures, who has documented similar results to Drezner’s.
“People rarely ever say ‘not at all’ or ‘no, I hate democracy’ or they’re against it,” Tures said. “But more often than not, you’ll find they’re kind of lukewarm to the idea. They’ll say, ‘I’m somewhat interested in democracy.’ About a core 30 percent or so say it’s very important to them. But usually a plurality, even a majority say, ‘Well, yeah, kind of.’”
U.S. efforts at democracy promotion in the past haven’t proven terribly successful, he points out, and he believes many Americans have come to accept the idea — promoted by realists like Henry Kissinger — that national security should trump ideals like spreading democracy and human rights.
More mysterious, though, is why the perception persists that Americans highly value the ideal of democracy promotion when they repeatedly say themselves that they don’t.
“It’s incredibly pervasive,” Drezner said. “Liberals believe it. I think realists believe it as well.”
Drezner suspects, in part, that democracy promotion resonates more with foreign policy elites than it does with the general public, skewing their sense of how the rest of the country feels. People who think about this topic tend to work in academia, he adds, where they’re often surrounded by advocates of liberal internationalism.
So what would need to happen for the perception to shift, for policymakers to acknowledge that, while Americans like democracy promotion in the abstract, they’re really more interested in jobs?
“You would need a major politician, either the president or a leader of the opposition party, to say bluntly, ‘You know what, we’ve got a lot of other priorities, and democracy promotion is going to take a back seat,’” Drezner said. “Then he’ll be attacked, and he’ll say, ‘I’m just reflecting what the American people believe.’”