One of the foreign policy establishment’s biggest complaints about Donald Trump is that during his presidency, the United States ceased being the defender and promoter of democracy internationally. Following Trump’s election defeat, there was a collective expression of relief that Joe Biden’s administration would again embrace America’s traditional role.
The actual historical record, however, shows that Washington’s enthusiasm for democracy has been very selective indeed. The mandarins in charge of America’s foreign policy had no problem taking measures to remove democratically elected foreign leaders if those individuals dared defy Washington on any important issue. Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, and Guatemala’s leftist president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman became the targets of successful CIA coups in the 1950s, and evidence indicates that Chile’s leftist president, Salvador Allende suffered a similar fate in the 1970s. In all three cases, Washington was quite pleased when "friendly" dictatorships, however brutal, replaced those regimes.
Despite President Jimmy Carter’s rhetorical commitment to human rights, the U.S. government also showed little remorse when Gen. Chun Doo-Hwan overthrew South Korea’s embryonic democratic government in 1980. Gen. John A. Wickham, the commander of US forces in Korea, stated bluntly that Koreans were "lemming-like" and indicated that they needed a strong, capable leader. At a minimum, Carter could have ordered Wickham relieved of his command for such shockingly racist comments, but the White House took no action.
US leaders have exhibited no compunction whatever in embracing even the foulest dictators when they believed that doing so advanced other policy objectives. That pattern was most evident during the Cold War when a succession of presidential administrations portrayed such tyrants as the Shah of Iran, Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos, South Korea’s Park Chung-Hee, and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as valued members of the "Free World." Perhaps even more impressive, US officials managed to whitewash the records of autocratic allies while keeping a straight face.
Indeed, Washington’s behavior sometimes bordered on fawning. On New Year’s Eve 1977, President Carter made a lavish toast to the Shah of Iran during a state visit. "Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled regions of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership, and to the respect and admiration and love which your people give to you," Carter gushed. Moreover, according to Carter, the United States and Iran shared more than security interests. "The cause of human rights is one that is also shared deeply by our people and by the leaders of our two nations." By the late 1970s, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations had documented the Iranian regime’s appalling behavior, but US leaders were not deterred from ignoring that evidence and instead highlighting the Shah’s alleged virtues.
During a 1981 official visit by Vice President George H. W. Bush to Manila, he lavishly praised Ferdinand Marcos. Bush emphasized the US government’s respect and admiration for Marcos: "We stand with you sir . . . . We love your adherence to democratic principle and to the democratic processes." The reality was that Marcos had been a full-fledged dictator since his imposition of martial law in 1972, and he had displayed pronounced authoritarian tendencies and practices for several years before that official proclamation.
US hypocrisy about democracy has persisted into the post-Cold War era. When the Arab Spring pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in 2011, Washington’s attitude was ambivalent, at best. Indeed, the US posture was downright unfriendly when longtime US authoritarian allies were the target. When demonstrators in Egypt demanded that Hosni Mubarak relinquish power after three decades, US leaders were unsympathetic. In an interview on the McNeil Lehrer Newshour, Vice President Joe Biden even objected when the host referred to Mubarak as a dictator. Biden flatly denied that the term was appropriate in Mubarak’s case. Yet the evidence was overwhelming that Washington’s client had retained power through rigged elections, the disqualification of opposing candidates, control of the media, imprisoning critics, and other repressive measures.
Barack Obama’s administration also had no apparent problem when the Egyptian military deposed Mubarak’s successor, Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, after barely a year in office. Washington’s generous economic and military aid to Cairo continued to flow with only a brief interruption, even though the new tyrant, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, promptly amassed an especially dreadful human rights record.
A succession of US presidents have maintained a cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia’s royal family, even though it consistently amasses one of the worst human rights records on the planet. The close bilateral alliance continued even when there were indications that elements of the Saudi government had ties to Al Qaeda operatives who staged the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Indeed, both the Bush and Obama administrations blocked the release of documents relevant to the probable Saudi-Al Qaeda connection.
Under President Donald Trump, US economic and strategic ties with the odious Saudi regime grew even closer. Trump boasted repeatedly about how valuable Riyadh’s multi-billion-dollars annual arms purchases were to the US economy. The White House refused to reduce ties with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the power behind the throne, even when evidence emerged that he was involved in the kidnapping and murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
US leaders always have talked a good game about supporting and promoting democracy around the world. But Washington’s actions repeatedly have contradicted that rhetoric. Given such a track record, Americans should view the new Biden administration’s professed commitment to global democracy with a healthy dollop of skepticism.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.