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Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did)

by James Traub

Pub Date: Sept. 25th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-374-15847-7
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

New York Times Magazine contributor Traub (The Best Intentions, 2006, etc.) analyzes the history and future of America’s role in spreading democracy abroad.

The author takes his title from the phrase generally used to describe the policy articulated in President Bush’s second inaugural address: “the survival of liberty in our lands increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Traub traces the history of this messianic idea back to the turn of the 20th century, when American forces swept into the Philippines and fumblingly attempted to convert the island nation into a modern democracy. He touches upon similar efforts made by presidents Wilson and Truman but spends most of his time on America’s response, both at home and abroad, to the communist and later Islamist threat. The subtitle reveals Traub’s slant, but his criticisms of the Bush administration are couched in a dispassionate, journalistic tone, eschewing righteous denunciations to focus on questions of efficacy. Oddly, the author doesn’t spend much time explaining “why America must spread democracy.” Instead, he operates as a scientist, cracking open the notion of democracy to see what it consists of, examining why it works in some places but not in others. Like all good reporters, Traub distrusts simple solutions, looking instead at the complex, competing evaluations of democracy’s importance in world affairs. He has no sympathy for those who find some people “unready” for a government chosen at the ballot box, nor for those who think democracy is simply a matter of ballot boxes and ignore the impact of history, economics and institutions. He clearly fears a future America, chastened by the Bush administration’s failures abroad, unwilling to respond to the calls of people around the world who yearn for a stake in their governments.

Not much new here, but detailed, intelligent analysis makes this an excellent primer on a perpetually thorny issue.