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America’s international reputation is tattered, but our money can help repair it

The United States still can be taken seriously as a promoter of democracy — if we dole out foreign aid wisely.

The US Consulate in Hong Kong on July 4, 2020.
The US Consulate in Hong Kong on July 4, 2020.Kin Cheung/Associated Press

Ever since insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol to try to overturn the election of President-elect Joe Biden, some commentators have argued that the United States can no longer credibly stand up for democracy abroad. Democratic values have lost their luster in this country, they argue, and Washington has thrown away its standing to advocate for human rights overseas. Approval of US leadership had fallen to historic lows well before the attack on the Capitol, even among America’s closest allies. How can the United States spread democracy globally if it cannot lead by the power of its example?

Fortunately, a wide body of evidence suggests that this view is too pessimistic. Even if America’s global image does not rebound once President Trump leaves office, the Biden administration can promote democracy in ways that do not depend on how popular America is overseas.


These policies depend less on American cultural power and more on American money.

After the failures of US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the promotion of democracy has a bad reputation. And when it comes to attempts to spread democracy at the point of a gun, that reputation is justified. The best evidence suggests that coercive tools like military intervention and sanctions normally fail. Even before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, only four of 15 American nation-building interventions in the preceding century had produced lasting progress toward democracy. Foreign-imposed regime change mostly fails to produce economic benefits, build lasting democracy, or promote more stable relations that advance US interests. And sanctions against authoritarian regimes, like the ones imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, often serve only to strengthen autocratic institutions while causing substantial suffering.

Although coercive methods of democracy promotion rarely succeed, a wide body of research shows that noncoercive tools like election monitoring and foreign aid can effectively promote democracy — and they don’t depend on high approval ratings for America overseas. For example, studies conducted in Afghanistan, Armenia, Indonesia, and Tunisia, among other countries, suggest that election monitoring can reduce electoral fraud and boost the perceived credibility of elections. And there is substantial evidence in favor of foreign aid that is conditioned on countries taking concrete steps to shore up democracy. As the political scientists Tobias Heinrich and Matt W. Loftis have written, “Over a decade of empirical research indicates that foreign aid specifically for democracy promotion is remarkably successful at improving the survival and institutional strength of fragile democracies.”


To put these policies into practice, the Biden administration and Congress should increase support for the US Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the US Institute of Peace. These agencies work to bolster democratic institutions abroad, and all three of them saw their support slashed under the Trump administration.

While the Biden team has rightly emphasized standing up for democracy, at the moment its proposed solutions are inadequate. Biden’s main proposal to promote democracy abroad, for example, is a “Summit for Democracy,” which he intends to hold in his first year in office — a largely symbolic project likely to get bogged down in debates over which countries qualify for an invitation. Alleviating autocratic pressures at home and abroad will require bigger ideas.


After all, 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of retreat for global freedom, according to Freedom House’s annual report. In central Europe and central Asia, there are “fewer democracies in the region today than at any point since the annual report was launched in 1995.” Hungary, a member of the European Union, is no longer democratic; Poland, another EU member, is trending in the same direction. In Hong Kong, on the same day as the storming of the Capitol, the Chinese government arrested 53 politicians, activists, lawyers, and academics, a continuation of Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy groups in the city.

Some may say the retreat of democratic governance across the world doesn’t necessarily matter for US interests. They would be wrong. Democratic governments not only treat their own citizens better; they also tend to be more benevolent actors on the world stage. Democratic countries are less likely to fight each other, more likely to trade with each other, and more likely to cooperate. American interests — not to mention American values — suffer in a more autocratic world.

None of this is to dispute that American democracy is itself in dire need of repair. But reforming democracy at home and standing up for it abroad are not mutually exclusive; they are two sides of the same coin.

Bryan Schonfeld and Sam Winter-Levy are PhD candidates in politics at Princeton University.