Should Democracy Promotion Still Be a United States Priority? (Socratic Seminar)

Statue of Socrates in Trinity College Library. CREDIT: Bar Harel (CC)

In the 20th and early 21st centuries, the United States was extremely active in promoting democracy abroad. From World War II to proxy wars during the Cold War to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the United States has had varied measures of success and failure in spreading its values and political system. In a foreign policy path that many see as a sharp departure from this legacy, Donald Trump, beginning in 2017, has implemented an "America First" framework that prioritizes domestic economic interests and reflects a zero-sum perspective on most matters in international politics. This foreign policy has appeared to ignore the traditional American role as a champion of democracy. As we see changes to the global system and look back at U.S. history, the question arises: Should democracy promotion still be a United States foreign policy priority?

For this Socratic Seminar, we suggest two main texts:

Democracy Promotion in the Age of Trump (found attached) is an excerpted version of a talk given by Ambassador Adrian A. Basora on May 10, 2018 at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Basora is a former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, serving in Prague from 1992 to 1995. From 1989 to 1991, he served as director for European affairs at the National Security Council, where he participated in shaping the U.S. response to the fall of the Berlin Wall and designing early programs of support for democracy in the post-Communist region. Students can take into account Basora's professional background when examining his arguments. The excerpt can be assigned in its entirety or as two separate pieces: one on "why democracy matters" and the other on "recommendations for democracy promotion."

The Case for Offshore Balancing was written for the July/August 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine by John Mearshimer and Stephen M. Walt. Both are realist political theorists. For an abbreviated version of the authors' arguments, it is suggested that students read the introduction and "Democracy Delusion" sections of the article.

Questions for the Socratic Seminar were inspired by the talk "Democracy Promotion in the Age of Trump" and include:

  • Does democracy promotion serve American interests?
  • Is democracy promotion simply about promoting American values?
  • Does democracy promotion actually make the U.S. a safer place?
  • Where did democracy promotion fit in to U.S. priorities in the 20th century?
  • Where does democracy promotion fit in to U.S. priorities in the 21st century?
  • Is democracy always the answer?
  • Should democracy promotion remain a part of the U.S. foreign policy agenda?
  • Are there non-democratic countries today that should become more democratic? Why? How?

Students can refer to the authors' arguments to answer these questions or base their responses on prior knowledge of United States and world history.

Other materials that can be used for scaffolding and additional dimensions for the Socratic Seminar include: