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The Democracy-Promotion Gap in American Public Opinion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2007


United States foreign-policymakers have enthusiastically backed policies of promoting democracy abroad. But do the American people support these plans? Evidence from polls reveals that while people generally like the idea of exporting freedom, they do not view it as a top priority. Other concepts such as political and economic security are valued more by the American public. Backing for democracy promotion also seems to be waning in recent years. I examine these issues and offer possible reasons for this “gap” in response to democracy promotion among American people. I also explain the implications of these findings for America's foreign policy, including the types of government the US appears to support in the wake of military operations. I conclude with an examination of why the policy of democracy promotion has not been more popular with the American people, evaluating competing arguments that the policy is flawed, as opposed to simply a case of poor public relations.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

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50 The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, claimed that the problems in Iraq are the result of the United States military inadequately explaining to the American people what is going on in Iraq in a speech at the National Defense University in Fort McNair (Robert Burns, “Pace: Message of Iraq Progress Stymied,” Associated Press, 1 Dec. 2005). On the same day it was revealed that members of the United States Defense Department and contractors were paying Iraqi newspapers to publishing propaganda stories casting America's efforts in Iraq in a positive light (Jamie Wilson, “Pentagon Pays Iraqi Papers to Print Its ‘Good News’ Stories,” Guardian, 1 Dec. 2005).

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57 Shaker Abdallah, “Blood for ‘Democracy.’”

58 One may wonder why American elites are more enthusiastic about democracy promotion than are the masses. As noted by Bueno de Mesquita and Downs (“Why Gun-Barrel Democracy Doesn't Work”), such support for freedom gives the leaders the appearance of being on the side “of angels.” A democratic government appears to be easier for American foreign-policymakers to control than an independent-minded autocracy. John A. Tures, “The Impact of Instability and Institutions on U.S. Foreign Direct Investment in Developing Areas,” Journal of Conflict, Security and Development, 3, 2 (2003), 163–83.

59 Data for these polls was provided by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.