If engineering democracy abroad is next to impossible, and autocrats will not accept reforms that could cause them to lose power, how can the US engage with illiberal regimes without enabling them? This question is at the center of Dr. Stephen Krasner’s most recent book, How to Make Love to a Despot: An Alternative Foreign Policy for the Twenty-First Century, and the subject of his conversation with Robert Amsterdam during the latest episode of Departures.
Krasner, the Graham H. Stuart Professor of International Studies at Stanford University and a former NSC and State Department diplomat focusing on governance and development, advances the thesis that, rather than focusing on promoting democracy, US foreign policy should aim for “good-enough governance.” In his view, pursuing good-enough governance entails working with less-than-ideal elites to make the most progress possible, allows for some standard of security and public services within the confines of an autocratic regime, and secures US interests internationally. Democracy, for Krasner, would be the ideal, but sometimes, the ideal is simply out of reach.
In this episode of Departures, I ask Krasner to test this argument against a few different case studies from experiences we’ve come across as a law firm working in difficult sometimes difficult countries. He says that the effort to promote democracy often results in the abandonment of developing countries, particularly in Africa, where conditions associated with the glut of multilateral loans and stringent anti-corruption measures make the barriers of entry to US investment prohibitively high for most companies. On the other hand, as I argued, the proliferation of arms – many of which are manufactured in and sold by the US – has enabled abuses by illiberal regimes that the US has failed to meaningfully curtail, even when the means to do so are readily available.
Ultimately, for Krasner, if democracy promotion has failed in recent years, retreating from the international arena and exposing the US to an array of dangerous unknowns is not the answer. The bottom line: if working with autocratic regimes is unavoidable, it is essential to employ a broader strategy that yields some form of progress on governance, security, or other areas of US interest.
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