In his first term of office, President Ronald Reagan adopted the global promotion of democracy as a main objective. His administration saw the theme as an alternative to the human rights emphasis of the Carter administration and a rhetorical weapon against the "evil" Soviet empire.
The Bush White House continued this policy. However it is encountering some of the problems Jimmy Carter did in his human rights efforts: rhetoric unmatched by result, conflicting objectives and charges of inconsistency.
President George Bush and his team benefit from the genuine march toward democracy in much of Latin America and in Eastern Europe and the international support that exists for this democratic resurgence. Congressional and public attention in the United States, however, is on hard cases where progress seems hampered by economic problems, fears of extremism and authoritarian regimes: Haiti, Peru, Algeria and China.
In Haiti, the strong support by the United States and the Organization of American States for the return of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has failed to produce results, and the rhetoric accompanying the efforts seems hollow. Emotions are heightened by the problem of refugees and Haiti's deplorable economic conditions.
In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori pleads that his actions in overturning democratic institutions are necessary to reduce the threats of terrorism and the power of the drug lords, an objective clearly in Washington's interest. Facing the agonizing choice between appearing to support the disruption of a democratic system or withdrawing help to a war against drugs, Washington has suspended military aid but kept Drug Enforcement Agency support. At best, the policy is a compromise.
In China, the administration has chosen to help Beijing by awarding Most Favored Nation status, despite the 1989 massacre of a democratic movement in Tiananmen Square. This, too, seems at variance with the emphasis Washington has placed on the development of democracy in the former Soviet Union.
Such decisions bring charges of inconsistency. Haitians supporting Mr. Aristide ask why the United States took military action to restore a tribal monarchy in Kuwait but will not do so to re-establish democracy in Haiti. Peruvians opposed to the actions of President Fujimori ask why U.S. actions do not match its proclamations on democracy. And Chinese exiles see hypocrisy in the contrast between U.S. claims of support for democracy and the reality of continued detention of the advocates of freedom.
No globally proclaimed policy can be applied with total consistency. Each national situation is unique. Despite the examples of Grenada and Panama, the United States would not have strong support either at home or abroad for imposing democratic regimes in Central and South America by military action. In China, other considerations prevail: the need for China's cooperation for peace in Cambodia and in curtailing missile sales to the Middle East, and the importance of Deng Xiaopeng's efforts at economic reform.
Like the human rights pressures of the 1970s, the campaign for democracy is rooted in strongly held U.S. traditions. But, also, like the earlier human rights efforts, actions in support of democratic institutions invade sensitive aspects of other societies. Such actions confront elites who see their privileges threatened, bureaucrats impatient with the slow steps of democracy and conservatives who see democracy as a threat to an orderly life.
When no U.S. interests are present, Washington can avoid involvement. In Algeria, where a democratic election was set aside because of the threat of a fundamentalist Islamic regime, the United States has been silent.
But, when U.S. interests are present, no administration can be both silent and credible. Congressional and public interest demands a response. So do other democratic regimes in the hemisphere which, like Venezuela, are under pressure from threatened coups.
In the world of nations, the rigid application of principle, inattentive to the individual character of a national entity, is never possible. The pursuit of policies that flow from the U.S. belief in human dignity and democracy is no exception to this fact. Whether the emphasis is on human rights or on the institutions of democracy, U.S. efforts inescapably face dilemmas that make compromises inevitable.
David Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is professor of international affairs at the University of Virginia. He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.