Only rarely have American leaders been able to reconcile the nation’s democratic values, material interest and national security.
Despite these tensions, promoting democracy has always been a lodestone for American foreign policy. Sometimes its attraction has been weak, very weak, overshadowed by more immediate national security concerns. During the Cold, War, for example, the United States backed many autocratic leaders in exchange for their support against the Soviet Union — or at least for pretending to be democrats. Sometimes, very rarely, as in the case of Germany and Japan after World War Two or Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all good things — freedom, security, economic prosperity — have gone together. But these moments are exceptional.
Often the most effective way to increase the chances of freedom in the long run is to improve the prospects for security and economic growth in the short run — rather than pressing for direct democratic reforms.
The failure to successfully move countries along a path to consolidated democracy has many causes. But the most fundamental is this: Achieving a well-functioning, stable democratic system is extraordinarily hard.
Only in a relatively small percentage of countries, and then only in the last century, have people been able to live in a polity where everyone had access to the rule of law, the right to form organizations, the ability to participate in free and fair elections, secure property rights, freedom of expression and worship, open economic opportunities, physical security and a police force and military effectively constrained by civilian authorities.