Can the US have any moral claim in guarding democracy?

The US is viewed by many as the paragon of democracy, and it has used this belief to interfere in many countries, says the writer. Picture: Hannah Peters Getty Images via AFP

The US is viewed by many as the paragon of democracy, and it has used this belief to interfere in many countries, says the writer. Picture: Hannah Peters Getty Images via AFP

Published Aug 15, 2022


By Gwinyai Taruvinga

On January 17, 1961, the then president of the US, Dwight Eisenhower, used a term that would be synonymous with the country’s role within the global community.

The term “military-industrial complex” was in his farewell address and it would be a term that many would use to understand the US’s relationship with other countries.

Eisenhower, in his speech, noted that: “Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

This unwarranted influence is a key point of contestation for many scholars who seek to understand the role that is played by the US globally.

The US, over the years, has been involved in several wars in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The US is viewed by many as the paragon of democracy, and it has used this belief to interfere in many countries.

Under the presidency of George W Bush, the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq under the guise of restoring democracy to countries that it viewed as harbouring terrorists. This narrative was especially prevalent after the September 11 attacks.

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are part of a long list of either wars or military interventions that have been conducted by the US. During the Cold War period, the US’s involvement in countries was seen to safeguard democracy.

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was viewed as working towards derailing the spread of democracy and good governance around the world.

Eisenhower’s statement rings true with the events that describe the US’s role on a global scale.

Historical events have shown how the US’s involvement in other countries was driven by more than just the desire to spread democracy. In 1973, for example, the US orchestrated a military coup in Chile.

The incumbent, President Salvador Allende, was replaced by General Augusto Pinochet, who was backed by the US. President Richard Nixon’s administration also worked tirelessly to frustrate the economic endeavours of Allende.

Bearing the Chilean case in mind, one can see how the US interventions, in some cases, are driven by much more than spreading democracy. It is evident that, although democracy is at the fore, its vested interests play a role in its interventions.

The US’s methods in these countries it intervenes in can be deemed to go against the norms of democracy it purports to uphold. During President Barack Obama’s tenure, the US carried out several drone attacks in the Middle East.

These drone attacks, in some instances, saw civilians losing their lives. Such an event occurred in Afghanistan when the US-led airstrikes “mistakenly” struck a Doctors Without Borders hospital in 2015. This incident resulted in Obama having to issue an apology to the organisation.

This attack led to the death of 22 people, with the Obama administration stating that the attack was a result of an error made during a conflict between Afghan forces and the Taliban. This event can, again, be linked to Eisenhower’s 1961 statement that the US’s advanced technology would have huge ramifications for not only the country, but also civilians, as this case shows.

The US’s influence was also made evident in Venezuela in 2019 where they backed Juan Guaidó to be president of the country ahead of the incumbent Nicolás Maduro.

Maduro went as far as stating that the support of the US and other Western countries for Guaidó was tantamount to a coup. According to Maduro, the US and other allies were driven by the desire of gaining access to Venezuela’s oil reserves.

These accusations by Maduro were like those made by the former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, who often accused the US of interfering in the governance of Venezuela.

Although the US aims to promote democracy, it is evident that its involvement in other countries has brought more harm than good. Rather than spreading democracy, their interventions have, instead, had debilitating effects.

Yet another case we can add is the US’s intervention in Libya towards the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s tenure as leader of the African country in 2011. Although this intervention was led by Nato, the US played a crucial role in this intervention.

After there had been unrest in Libya, Nato invaded Libya with the aim of implementing the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) Resolution 1973. The US in conjunction with its allies Britain, France and Canada combined to effectively incapacitate Gaddafi’s forces. Although the Libyan case is different in that it was Nato that led the intervention, one cannot ignore the role that the US played in the removal of Gaddafi as leader of Libya.

The Libyan case presents an interesting story in the tales of the US invasions. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya, at least at face value, did not pose a threat to the US.

In fact, the former secretary of defence, Robert Gates, conceded that the US intervention in Libya was because Gaddafi was viewed as a threat to his own people as opposed to a threat to the international community.

Bearing this in mind, the US’s intervention was humanitarian, which is a shift from what was seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s exit, one can see the impacts of the US’s intervention. Libya became more corrupt, and the country became a site for the slave trade.

What remains clear is that the US eschews certain values when it concerns democracy and, in many cases, it has tried to implement these values in countries abroad.

Cases ranging from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and even Chile show how the US has used restoring democracy as a method to intervene in countries. When defining democracy, sovereignty is viewed as one of the important aspects of how countries relate to each other, and it is ironic how in many cases the US has violated the very norms of democracy it upholds as a country.

* Gwinyai Taruvinga is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Humanities Graduate Centre, Wits University.