Democracy's Brand.

Democracy is more than the minimalist's free and fair elections; it is the quest for self-determination in the context of the times and the country's culture in transition.

Democracy's Brand.

"Democracy doesn’t happen by accident.  We have to renew it with each generation.  And this is an urgent matter on all our parts, in my view.  Because the data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction." - President Joe Biden, Summit For Democracy Opening Session, December 9, 2023.

After the Soviet Union fell, ending the Cold War, the United States hoped to make its ideological victory permanent by promoting democracy and free markets worldwide. By extending America’s footprint, leaders hoped to dissuade usurpers from upsetting the new peace. The lone superpower believed it could remake the world order through military deterrence and economic integration (Brands 2022). In the wake of the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. choose military intervention over deterrence in Iraq and Afghanistan to remove oppressive regimes and install democracy. After spending over two trillion dollars and losing over 6,000 American lives, the U.S. mission failed. “The army cannot teach democratic values,” a U.S. spokesman declared in 1947, “because it is, in practice, the most undemocratic of our institutions” (Armed Services Committee 1947).

For many years democracy promotion was effective because the American experience exemplified the type of government most desired worldwide. But problems with American democracy have tarnished the democracy’s “brand.” (Walt 2016) Over the last two decades, America’s brand of democracy promotion has suffered from its “hard and soft power” failures to impose democratic norms, ever-changing national interests and priorities, and the chronic lack of a congruent definition and measurement of democracy. Meanwhile, alternative “post-democratic” models, like China’s socialist market economy, which prioritizes stability and economic growth, have gained prominence and legitimacy.

What are the preeminent challenges facing those in America who wish to promote democracy? America’s brand of democratization will be challenged by the debates over conceptualizing and measuring democracy, competition from post-democratic models like China, and the need to tailor aid to the context and culture of transition countries while coping with the weight of America’s past littered with glaring hard and soft power failures. On the world stage, America and, by extension, its brand of democracy has a credibility problem.

What is democracy?

The word “democracy” is derived from the Greek word “demos,” or people, and “kratos,” or power. The translation is “power to the people” (Fleck and Hanssen 2006, 115). A “minimalist” version is that democracy is a political arrangement where people choose their governments through elections and can remove incumbent governments they do not like. Plus, when incumbents lose elections, they leave. (Przeworski 2019) Another definition suggests that modern democracy offers a variety of competitive processes and channels for citizens to express their interests and values (Schmitter and Karl 1993).

The theorists of democracy are often content with only the equality of electoral rights. However, at its core, democratic theory demands more pulling from the Wilsonian notion of self-determination to the issue of an individual’s power to choose. Woodrow Wilson directly addressed power in the consent of the governed in 1918: "National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their consent. "Self-determination" is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril”(Wilson 1918). The democratic equality sought is the power of self-determination for all human beings to exercise control over their own lives. An individual’s quest for the power to choose beyond elections is the ever-present tension or friction between a minimalist democracy and one with more liberal values (Allison 2007).

The challenge with parsing the concept of democracy as just the election process or procedural becomes readily apparent in Fareed Zakaria's telling of Richard Holbrooke’s conundrum in the former Yugoslavia. Suppose those elected in a fair and accessible election opposed fundamental human rights and freedoms (Zakaria 1997). Are human rights and freedoms endemic to democracy? The Wilsonian watchword of “self-determination” comes back into play as the true deliverable of democracy, regardless of the variant.

The most challenging obstacle to hurdle with many definitions of democracy in its promotion is the absence of vital metrics as a litmus test for a nation’s progress toward democratization. “One of the great challenges for policymakers is taking abstract concepts like “power” or “democracy” and using them to measure concrete policies” (Gunitsky 2015). Absent a concrete definition, abstractions like democracy are vectored by the aspirational but crude aggregates like Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Scoring or Center for Systemic Peace’s Polity Score -Polity5.

Seva Gunitsky retrospectively tests the commonly used measures of Freedom House and Polity through the black hole of the Soviet transition from 1990 to 2010. Though intending to measure the same phenomenon, the disagreement over democracy’s essence results in Freedom House’s aggregate favored individual rights and personal freedoms versus Polity, which emphasized political constraints on the rich and powerful. Ultimately, the Freedom House’s index showed the Russian government’s transition as a move away from democratization. Polity failed to internalize Russian political leanings as their Polity4 index remained steady while Freedom House’s index plunged (Gunitsky 2015).

In the near term, scholars will continue to wrestle with what Allison calls the “ambiguity of the core idea of the rule of the people” through a “bewildering variety of concepts of democracy” (Allison 1994, 12). Democracy will continue to be a deeply contested concept triggering historically complex debates over the meaning of democracy and the plausibility of varying models of democratic transition (Kurki 2010). Consequently, measuring a nation’s democratic progress will remain just as bewildering and elusive as the quest for a definitional consensus. The concept of democracy continues to foil attempts to cage and measure its abstract and practical traits, presenting an ongoing challenge to those who wish to promote it.

Why is democracy better than the alternatives?

Lacking a consensus conceptualization of abstract ideas like democracy does not end the promotional fervor for a concept working and besting its competition. John Ikenberry says we promote democracy because it secures a collection of our narrow interests and results in a more stable and peaceful world order. A few actors advance democracy for the rule of law and human rights as high values. Others see more democracies as a way to expand and safeguard commerce. At the same time, many seek payoffs for national security under banners like the democratic peace theory. Ikenberry insightfully asserts that a “meaningful whole” emerges from these differing interests transforming our pot-luck stew of narrow motives and policies into a “liberal” grand strategy (Ikenberry 1999). Democracy lives on because it works to satisfy a collection of narrow interests while remaining a pragmatic puzzle.

Since World War II, the nations recovering from war’s devastation have moved toward the democratic theme and its payoffs of peace and prosperity. According to Oxford’s Our World in Data, in 1946, 89.27% of the world’s countries were autocracies, and only 10.73% were either liberal or electoral democracies. By 2021, the number of autocracies had decreased to 49.72% (Bastian 2013). Beyond the quibbling over definitions, democracies have expanded dramatically since 1945, suggesting the idea works but not exactly as promoted. Europe had not sustained a stable, functioning democracy despite a century and a half of attempts. Consequently, after 1945, an updated version of democracy germinated in Western Europe.

A new European "social" democracy embraced unchecked free markets as dangerous, allowing cases where the public interest trumps private liberty. And the states have the right to intervene in the economy to protect the common interest (Berman 2007). This new permutation of democracy recognized that the state was responsible for coping with social divisions and conflict while actively working to galvanize the community. This ‘social’ form of democracy facilitated and ensured a democratic consolidation would survive in Europe (Berman 2011). Europe’s social democracy dared to challenge the liberal orthodoxy of the state’s role in free markets, civil society, and the exercise of individual rights (Bridoux and Kurki 2014). Social democracy was the form of democratization uniquely purposed by Europe’s context and culture “to deal with the social and economic dynamics that had scuttled European democratic experiments in the past” (Berman 2011, 82).

Beyond peace, democracy entreated transitioning populaces with prosperity. Free markets and private property rights have elevated millions out of poverty in the US. According to the St Louis Federal Reserve, America's real gross domestic product per capita rose from $14,213 in 1946 to $60,442 in 2022 (FRED 2023). As freedom or democracy expanded, so did trade. According to Oxford’s Our World in Data, in 1946, the value of exported goods as a share of a global aggregate GDP was 5.63%. By 2021, the percentage had grown to 24.24% (Fouquin 2016). The almost five-fold increase marks a significant jump in international trade.

However, liberal or social democracy did not enjoy a monopoly of prosperity as a new model emerged claiming democratic pluralism, presenting another challenge to democracy’s brand allure. “Westerners deliberately refuse to apply the democratic form to contemporary China despite its own democratic pluralism. . . . Socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics is the broadest, most authentic, and most effective democracy that upholds people’s fundamental interests and constantly shows its authenticity, effectiveness, and superiority” (Fang 2009, 3).

China’s system of authoritarian capitalism, as some had labeled it, is seen as a potential “post-democratic” model that appeals to many who prioritize stability and economic growth is gaining prominence and legitimacy (Horesh 2015). Since implementing free-market reforms in 1979, China’s real annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth is averaging 9.5% through 2018. The World Bank says China’s grow the fastest expansion by a major economy in world history. China's economic miracle helped lift an estimated 800 million people out of poverty. Also, on a purchasing power parity basis, China has become the world’s largest economy, manufacturer, and international trader (Morrison 2019). As democracy lost the sole bragging rights to being the only engine of strong economic growth, it collected another challenge to its brand dominance.

How is democracy being promoted?

Looking at the failure of Vietnam’s democratization, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wrote in In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, “we do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.” (McNamara 1995, 326). During the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese revolutionaries were portrayed as pawns stuck in a great power game or agents of Communist China. In truth, Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist and dedicated “Vietnamese” communist seeking his version of self-determination. Ho’s nationalism sprung from a 2,000-year-old distrust of everything Chinese. In 1979, Vietnamese communism became the bulwark against Chinese domination of Vietnam (Vu, 2017). Secretary McNamara and his cohort’s democratization (hearts and minds) campaign missed the historical context, and cultural uniqueness Vietnam presented, choosing instead to go down the dark rabbit hole of an overtly paranoid domino theory.

In a more contemporary critique, Larry Diamond addressed the egregious abuse of American “hard power” under the umbrella of promoting democracy. It is “a mistake to argue that our principal goals in Afghanistan and Iraq were reflective of democracy promotion.” In his eyes, democracy promotion only engages in peaceful assistance like partnerships and diplomacy. The promoter aims to encourage and support “democratic change and institutionalization of constitutional mechanisms in a civil society.” Promoting democracy is not invading countries or imposing new forms of government (Diamond 2021).

The military interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq under the guise of seeding democracy were motivated by America’s other national interests. Aid for democratization is not about seeking regime change or forcing the American system on other countries; it is working to bolster civil society. The tools of democratic promotion are aid designed to foster a country’s institutions in transition. Donors direct their support to bolster elections, political parties, constitutions, judiciaries, police, local government, civic organization, and media organizations to gird up a civil society (Carothers 1999). However, even the best-intentioned aid and promotion go awry when enslaved by other national interests.

The Russian transition from the Soviet era becomes a cautionary tale of how not to promote democracy during a nascent transition. Despite the critical importance of Russia’s political trajectory to Europe’s future security, the Western powers interfered with Russia’s natural political progression. They focused on the Russian state’s superficial compliance with democratic norms while downplaying or ignoring evidence of complications. Although the Russian leadership held elections and created political parties, leadership ignored more liberal democratic norms relative to power (Mendelson 2001).

Beyond ignoring the Russian leadership’s actions, democracy promotion organizations erred again by bending the rules and playing power politics opting to “pick winners” in the Russian elections receiving encouragement from USAID/ Washington (Mendelson 2001). Unfortunately, the ever-paranoid Kremlin was watching. Money, the media, and the use of force were expertly arranged under the Kremlin’s roof, dramatically impacting the elections from 1995 to 2000 as America sought the power to play kingmaker. In hindsight, the Kremlin’s strategic use of television and the media’s acquiescence played a significant role in Yeltsin’s 1996 victory and beyond (Mendelson 2001).

The democracy promoters seeking Russian renewal played power politics and failed to consider the context on the ground and the culture of the former Soviet state. The democratization efforts in Russia give credence to the “critics who argue that the promotion of democracy is an imposition of Western governments on developing and weak states”(Bridoux and Kurki 2014, 110). Unfortunately, given the KGB's expansive network and vast funding, someone miscalculated as the fight for a free and democratic Russia was over before it began.

Considering aid for democracy in terms of a country’s context and culture asks donors and nation-states to throw away the one size fits all conceptualization of democracy and its metrics for a more complex, fluid and country-centric, or localized approach. The evidence from democratic bulwarks like Europe suggests bespoke aid and promotion to a country’s context and culture bore fruit as the perpetually feuding continent has enjoyed relative peace among rival neighbors since 1945. The challenge for democracy promoters is that even with local contextualization and ownership of the transition process, power relations and other national interests have not disappeared; they have only changed their techniques (Bridoux and Kurki 2014).

Last thoughts on the challenges of democracy’s brand

The critical analysis of democracy reveals a brand hamstrung with problems conceptualizing, measuring, and cleanly promoting an imperfect idea causally linked to bettering the human experience. Therefore, those who wish to promote and aid democracy must work around the challenges of the nebulous construct of an abstract idea and its imperfect measurements. Absent consensus transitional metrics, democracy promoters must guide donors through more fuzzy measures of success and failure. Future democratization depends on the ability of promoters to meet the challenge of educating donors and nation-states to be more qualitative than quantitative in promoting, evaluating, and reporting results from resources expended.

The good news is that democracy’s poor conceptualization and fluid nature might be a redeeming feature. Easily adaptable, democracy can act like a Swiss Army knife of governance toward the Wilsonian goal of self-determination, morphing to meet the challenge of a country’s unique context and culture. Not to get lost in the avalanche of adjectives, but post-World War II Europe’s social permutation of democracy challenged the prevailing liberal orthodoxy. And yet, those European variant brands of democracy delivered governance with perfect or near-perfect Freedom House’s Global Freedom scores in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Switzerland. All these countries enjoy Global Freedom scores higher than the United States.

Democracy’s flawed conception hampered promotional strategies in the Soviet transition, though history suggests the cause was lost before it began. Since the US imposed a minimalist democracy in Iraq, the country has had regular and competitive elections, with the country’s partisan, religious, and ethnic minorities enjoying representation. Sadly, Iraq is not free, as democratic governance suffers from corruption, weak institutions, and militias operating outside the government’s control. However, in Europe’s case, democracy’s nebulous scaffolding allowed a robust expansion of liberty’s foundation throughout the continent. Democracy is more than the minimalist's free and fair elections; it is the quest for self-determination in the context of the times and the country's culture in transition.

Lastly, democracy promotion is concerned with power. By empowering democratic change, democracy promoters tilt domestic balances of power. In pinpointing countries to nudge with democratic reforms they would not otherwise pursue, democracy promoters exercise power (Wolff 2015).  However, using hard power politics like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan mistakenly moves aid and promotion from supporting self-determination toward a model of our making. As donors fail to check their ambitions at the door, democracy promoters will face the challenge of serving interests beyond the state in transition. Critics will undoubtedly catalog the dual allegiance as they observe promoters tripping over their other interests on the way to the “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere” (Reagan 1988).


Allison, Lincoln. 1994. On the Gap between Theories of Democracy and Theories of Democratization, Democratization. 1:1, pp 8-26.

Armed Services Committee. 1947. Full Committee Hearings on Universal Military Training, House of Representatives, 6/11/1947, 4341, Hathi Trust Digital Library, w=1up&seq=8.

Bastian, Herre and Ortiz-Ospina, Esteban and Roser, Max. 2013. Democracy. Published online at

Berman, Sheri. 2007. How Democracies Emerge: Lessons from Europe. Journal of Democracy 18, no. 1, January 2007: 28-41.

Berman, Sheri. 2011. Social Democracy and Democracy Promotion, in Christopher Hobson and Milja Kurki, eds. Conceptual Politics of Democracy Promotion, London: Routledge.

Bridoux, Jeff and Milja Kurki. 2014. Democracy Promotion: A Critical Introduction. Routledge pages 110-122.

Brands, Hal. 2022. The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches US about Great-Power Rivalry Today, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Thomas Carothers, Thomas. 1999. Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve, Washington, DC; CEIP.

Diamond, Larry. 2021. We’re in an Era of Authoritarian Encroachment, Larry Diamond on Democracy’s Fate.” November 21, 2021, authoritarian-encroachment-Larry-diamond-on-democracy-fate/

Fang Ning 房寧. (2009). The People’s Congress System is a Concentrated Embodiment of China’s Democratic Politics. Guangming Daily 光明日報. April 7, 2009, 3.

Fleck, Robert K., and Andrew F. Hanssen. 2006. The Origins of Democracy: A Model with Application to Ancient Greece, The Journal of Law and Economics 2006 49:1, 115-146.

Fouquin, Michel and Jules Hugot, 2016. Two Centuries of Bilateral Trade and Gravity Data: 1827-2014, CEPII Working Paper 2016- 14, May 2016, CEPII.

FRED, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2023. Real gross domestic product per capita, retrieved Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; February 13, 2023 A939RX0Q048SBEA.

Gunitsky, Seva. 2015. How do you measure democracy? Measuring a country’s level of democracy is crucial for understanding basic questions about politics. So why are the measures so bad? The Washington Post, June 23, 2015, cage/wp/2015/06/23/how-do-you-measure-democracy/

Horesh, Niv. 2015. The West is Blind to the Appeal of China’s Model of Authoritarian Capitalism,” South China Morning Post, July 19, 2015.

Kurki, Milja. 2010. Democracy and Conceptual Contestability: Reconsidering Conceptions of Democracy in Democracy Promotion. International Studies Review. 12:3. 362-38.

McNamara, Robert S., and Brian Van De Mark 1995. In Retrospective: The Tragedy and Lessons from Vietnam. New York, Random House.

Morrison, Wayne. 2019. China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States, US Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, RSL33534, pg1.

Przeworski, Adam. 2019. Crisis of Democracy Cambridge University Press, New York.

Reagan, Ronald. 1982. Promoting Democracy and Peace President Ronald Reagan – Speech to the British Parliament, June 8, 1982, American Foreign Policy: Current Documents - Washington DC, US Department of State, p 18.

Reagan, Ronald 1988. State of the Union Address, Joint Session of Congress January 28, 1988.

Schmitter, Philippine C. and Terry Karl. 1993. What Democracy Is...And Is Not, in Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, eds. The Global Resurgence of Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 39-52.

Vu, Tuong. 2017. Vietnam’s Misunderstood Revolution The Wilson Center, June 19, 2017,

Walt, Stephen M. 2016. Why is America So Bad at Promoting Democracy in Other Countries? Foreign Policy, April 25, 2016.

Wilson, Woodrow. 1918. Analyzing German and Austrian Peace Utterances, Presidential Address to Congress, Delivered in Joint Session, February 11, 1918.

Wolff, Jonas. 2015. “Power in Democracy Promotion.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 40, no. 3/4: 219–36.

Zakaria, Fareed. 1997. The Rise of Illiberal Democracy. Foreign Affairs. 76 (Nov/Dec 1997) pp. 22-43.