In the latest edition of The American Interest, Yale's John Lewis Gaddis has a comprehensive account of America's historical role in promoting democracy and opposing tyranny.
Gaddis begins by noting that the normal expectation as the Bush Administration closes ought to be that he will bequeath no foreign policy doctrine to his successors. Very few do - arguably this could be claimed only of President Monroe and President Truman. If Bush leaves a doctrine behind, it will be understood in terms of his second inaugural address: “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”.
Prerequisites for democracy
Gaddis explains some of the reasons history has shown such a doctrine can prove problematic:
"Periclean Athens, which blundered into and then lost the Peloponnesian War, and the Roman Republic, which sank so deeply into corruption and violence that its citizens welcomed the benign authoritarianism of Caesar Augustus.
"It’s not just ancient precedents, though ... World War I, which laid so much of the groundwork for despotism, began with widespread public enthusiasm. A free election brought Adolf Hitler to power in Germany in 1933, and he retained the support of most Germans well into the war he started. A persistent American fear throughout the Cold War was that much of the rest of the world might voluntarily choose communism; that led to enlightened counter-measures like the Marshall Plan, but also to unsavory alliances with anti-communist dictators. And the post-Cold War collapse of Yugoslavia together with the events in Rwanda evoked an even more disturbing vision: that people could hate one another to such an extent that ethnic cleansing, even genocide, might have democratic roots.
"Today it seems clear that the people of Russia, if they could have re-elected their increasingly authoritarian President, would overwhelmingly have done so ... Reasonably fair elections have at last been held in the Middle East, but the results have empowered Ahmadinejad in Iran, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and—despite the courage with which Iraqis risked their lives to vote in three successive elections in 2005—a government in Baghdad that has yet to establish order despite the full military support of the United States and its coalition allies.
"So if ending tyranny is what you want to accomplish, promoting democracy in and of itself may not be enough. Something more seems to be required."
To survive, Gaddis argues, democracy first requires the prerequisites identified by Fareed Zakaria in The Future of Freedom: "personal security, political stability, economic sustainability, the rule of law, the sanctity of contracts, a working constitutional structure. You can’t just topple a tyrant, hold an election and expect a democracy to emerge. How, then, did the idea get started that democracy could sprout where it had no roots?"