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Governance Vs. Democracy

Why U.S. foreign policy should focus on “good governance” instead of “democracy.”

September 12, 2019

Credit: Alexandru Nika

The world is in turmoil and one of the biggest questions on the global agenda is the future of democracy.

One could fill a bookshelf with volumes written in the past five years about reversals and declines of democratic rule, even in the United States and Europe as well as beyond. The 2019 annual report from Freedom House records a 13th consecutive year of decline in the global health of democracy.

From its founding days in 1776, the U.S. government has been a passionate advocate of democratic rule globally. Since World War II, the United States has spent billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of lives to establish and maintain democratic rule in foreign countries.

It has achieved impressive successes in countries like South Korea, India and Chile. It also failed miserably in countries ranging from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Venezuela.

It is thus important to note that the U.S. success rate in democracy promotion abroad was decidedly mixed, even before Donald Trump moved into the White House and began to embrace authoritarian rulers.

New realism needed

In my view, U.S. foreign policy should from now on focus on “good governance” instead of “democracy.” I see this as beneficial for three reasons.

The first reason is that democracy has become such a fuzzy concept that it is (ab)used by authoritarian governments advertising themselves as healthy democracies. Turkey is a case in point.

For many people, democracy is a broad concept that includes all political systems where power rests in “the people”—as opposed to a king or a dictator or the ruling elite.

For other people, democracy is a narrow concept of a political system like that of the United States, with a constitution, free elections and three branches of government that provide checks and balances.

Democracy and specific national cultures

The second reason for being less focused on democracy as such is that the unique culture and history of each country has a direct bearing on the kind of political system best suited for it. Put conversely, there is no single political system that will produce good outcomes for all countries.

The importance of this national and cultural angle is what has made U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad so problematic.

Americans are simply too ignorant of the culture and history of other countries to know what kind of a political system will produce the best results for a particular country.

Moreover, the U.S. government lacks the patience and the full tool kit required to nourish democratic rule in foreign countries striving to establish it.

A shining city on the hill, really?

The third reason to back off from promoting democracies abroad is that the domestic performance of the United States, which has traditionally been keenest on democracy promotion, has been underwhelming recently.

Other leading democracies have lost their special glow as well, especially when measured by social cohesion and a broad sense of well-being in the population.

The global consequence of this state of affairs is self-evident: If we in the West are having trouble making our own political system achieve above-average results, it is not credible to advocate this system as a model for other countries.

Governance and personal security

Which brings us to governance, defined here as the performance of a national political system, measured by its impact on the well-being of the great majority of its citizens.

The most controversial point in this argument is a prediction that, for the rest of this century, physical (personal) security will become the primary concern of citizens in almost every country on the planet.

This is because climate change, population growth, migration, urbanization and technological change (including robotics, artificial intelligence and biotech) will combine to threaten physical security in new, terrifying and unsettling ways.

Who enforces it?

If this prediction is accurate, then the key to a good life in each country will be a political system that provides physical security to almost all of its citizens.

What follows from this is an uncomfortable thought: The desired degree of physical security can only be established by the parts of a political system able to use “lethal force” — the military and the police. Ultimately, it’s about who controls the guns.

In today’s high-income democracies, the military and police are controlled by elected politicians. This formula has worked pretty well in the decades behind us and may continue to work well.

However, it is not a formula that has worked well in the rest of the world and is less likely to work there in the future.

This may foreshadow an uncomfortable prospect: Military-led and military-supported governments, rather than decreasing, are likely to become prevalent in the rest of the world.

Support for this view can even be found in the philosophy of St. Augustine. He argued all the way back in the fourth century A.D. that order must precede justice.


With its penchant for the military and the use of force, the U.S. government actually appears to be better prepared for this trend if it does materialize. It can provide positive reinforcement to military-led or military-supported governments.

The key point, however, is that it should only provide support to regimes that meet a high standard of “good governance.” And it should avoid helping countries with regimes exhibiting symptoms of “bad governance.”

This approach echoes to some extent U.S foreign policy in the Cold War period of the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, the United States actively supported military governments that were anti-communist.

In the decades ahead, however, the threat for the United States will not be an alien ideology. It will be the chaos that emanates from countries plagued by bad governance.

In a shrinking world, the well-being of the U.S. population will suffer if too many foreign countries are unable to maintain good governance.


The world is in turmoil and one of the biggest questions on the global agenda is the future of democracy.

US success in democracy promotion abroad has been mixed, even before Trump began to embrace authoritarian rulers.

If the West is having trouble making its own political system achieve above-average results, how can this system be a model for other countries?

For the rest of this century, physical (personal) security will become the primary concern of citizens in almost every country on the planet.