Creating a Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative

Flags line the entrance to the G-7 at the hotel Fairmont in Whistler, British Columbia, on June 1, 2018.

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History clearly demonstrates that democracies are more likely than other forms of government to prosper economically, less likely to wage conflict, and more inclined to protect and uphold human rights for their people.1 Today, however, democracy is in decline around the world, violent conflict is on the rise, and instability is growing as the COVID-19 pandemic rages and economies face devastating downturns.2 Autocracies such as Russia and China are becoming bolder in their efforts to undermine democracies, and populism is eroding democratic institutions from within. It is therefore more important than ever that the United States both prioritizes democracy promotion and ensures that its democracy promotion efforts are as effective as possible.3

Decades after developing the first U.S. government programs intended to prioritize support for democracy, U.S. efforts to pursue that goal have often become too technocratic and focused on specific assistance programs rather than holistic efforts to bolster democratic societies.4 U.S. foreign assistance is divided across dozens of programs with a huge range of stated goals and purposes, from training and equipping security partners to enable them to work with U.S. armed forces to providing economic aid meant to create new trade opportunities for American businesses. A number of U.S. agencies—including the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Department of Defense, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and more—are involved in setting foreign assistance policy and doling out aid, which makes policy coordination challenging.

Moreover, America’s own struggles with democracy at home clearly demand humility and awareness of the challenges of preserving and protecting democratic principles in both established and emerging democracies.5 U.S. efforts to promote democracy or respect for human rights are undermined when American officials limit voting access or cast doubt on election integrity at home, for example. Providing U.S. aid to countries that ignore democratic norms or violate human rights undermines the sincerity and effectiveness of democracy promotion policy. A coherent and clearly articulated policy is necessary if U.S. officials want American efforts to be taken seriously.

To that end, the Biden-Harris administration should present to Congress a proposal for a new multiyear, multibillion-dollar Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative—akin to past large-scale U.S. government foreign assistance efforts such as the global fight against AIDS and Plan Colombia—a foreign aid and diplomatic effort aimed at combating Colombian drug cartels and insurgent groups. A Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative would help established democracies and emerging democratic states sustain progress and give them a strategic advantage over authoritarian competitors.6 This initiative would authorize the U.S. government to amplify and better synchronize U.S. economic and security assistance and commercial investment packages. It would also pay dividends for Americans by creating better partnerships with democratic states, driving economic growth and trade opportunities, and fostering stability and security around the world.

Overcoming a stove-piped system

Over the years, the U.S. government has accrued more and more tools aimed at strengthening democracies abroad, but those tools remain largely uncoordinated. Multiple U.S. agencies and offices coordinate a wide range of programs that aim to provide support for free and fair elections, to reform judiciary systems and law enforcement entities to uphold justice more fully, and to train municipal officials on rule of law and human rights. But these tools are spread across several entities, including USAID, the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy, and bilateral and multilateral efforts.7 Security assistance is split between the State and Defense departments through dozens of individual programs.8

Furthermore, the United States has numerous foreign policy tools that at present it does not use effectively to support democracy. From economic and development assistance to trade preferences to security partnerships, the U.S. foreign policy toolkit is filled with methods of strengthening relationships with other countries. Yet many of these tools are not offered to democratic countries.

A snapshot of tools that can support democracy

The United States provides several types of foreign assistance through different agencies, and has nonassistance tools—for example, trade arrangements—in which democracy is a key factor. A few examples of these key programs include:

  • Economic assistance: The United States provides nearly $50 billion per year in foreign assistance, which comes from a variety of programs administered by numerous U.S. government agencies including the State Department, USAID, and the MCC.9 This economic assistance covers everything from trainings for foreign officials to budgetary support for governments to assistance for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and more.
  • Security assistance: The United States provides military training, weapons systems, and other support to countries in order to achieve U.S. security objectives. Security assistance aims to build a partner’s capacity to enable closer military partnerships with U.S. forces and maintain security and stability in critical regions.
  • Civil society support: Through the State Department and USAID, the vast majority of U.S. assistance goes directly to nonprofit and civil society organizations that run programs, or have the potential, to promote economic development, combat violence, empower youth, and fight corruption.
  • Trade incentives: The U.S. market is a powerful pull for other countries, and the United States regularly negotiates trade arrangements with countries around the world, even if they are not full free trade agreements. In the past—such as with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the African Growth and Opportunity Act—the United States has attempted to use trade negotiations to both incentivize and reward good governance in other countries.10

In fact, the United States provides tremendous support to many of its autocratic partners, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.11 Billions of dollars in arms sales and grants, billions more in financial assistance, and high-profile summits and invitations to the White House are regularly part of engagement with some of the world’s most cruel dictators because their countries are deemed to be of strategic interest to the United States.12 Yet the assistance that the United States provides to democracies that are not supposedly strategically important—countries such as Ghana, Uruguay, and Senegal—receives far less attention and support.

The cost of this imbalance is that the United States consistently undermines its own stated goals of supporting democracy and human rights around the world. The fact that the United States will spend tremendous sums of assistance to support security or “strategic” interests with autocratic states but nothing close to those amounts to help democracies succeed sends a powerful message about U.S. foreign policy priorities—that the United States is willing to put real effort behind supporting autocrats when it suits America’s interests but not willing to put the same kind of effort behind supporting countries trying to transition to democracy. And when these democracies experience democratic backsliding, the United States is often quick to threaten to cut off the assistance and support it does provide. The end result of this approach is that the United States helps perpetuate some autocratic regimes while not expending even an equal amount of effort to help democracies succeed.

If the United States aligned its foreign assistance and tools to support more democracies, it would be much better placed to counter today’s competing models of governance, which China and Russia have increasingly pushed on the geopolitical stage. If more U.S. aid were devoted to helping municipal officials root out corruption, for instance, emerging democratic states could have a much stronger chance of making and sustaining the institutional and structural reforms needed to become full-fledged democracies. And if more U.S. aid were dedicated to providing real budgetary support to help countries with transparent governance try to grow their economies, it could help bolster faith internally and internationally in those countries’ democracies. Devoting significantly more funds to help create or strengthen democratic institutions would produce more stable partners. These strong democratic countries could then deliver on the promise of democratic governance for their people, providing a strong counterexample to the authoritarian model pushed by China and Russia.

America’s foreign assistance currently privileges nondemocratic partners

To assess the divide between U.S. foreign assistance for democracies and autocracies, the Center for American Progress studied America’s recent record and found that the bulk of America’s foreign assistance goes to nondemocratic countries. CAP did this by examining how much aid the United States provided to 185 recipients from fiscal years 2014 to 2018. Those amounts were then broken down based on how much aid was provided to democratic and nondemocratic countries, using Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” report.13 CAP also used data from Security Assistance Monitor, a nonpartisan database that collates information on U.S. economic and security assistance aid from government sources, which captured all developmental assistance and security assistance funds appropriated in those fiscal years.14

The findings reveal that America is privileging its nondemocratic partners over its democratic allies. Some of the numbers must be caveated; for instance, aid to many “not free” and “partly free” countries is for humanitarian assistance that is not going to support a nondemocratic regime, while many “partly free” countries are exactly the kinds of transitioning democracies the United States should support. Overall, however, only about 16 percent of U.S. assistance during this five-year span went to countries considered “free” by Freedom House’s rankings. Aside from Israel, the majority of U.S. assistance to the top 20 recipients of aid goes to countries that are “not free,” according to Freedom House’s rankings. (see Table 1)

The data CAP has compiled in Figures 1 through 3 clearly demonstrate how U.S. foreign assistance is not aligned to support democracies today.

Table 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

A review of the list of countries with which the United States has free trade agreements also reveals that the United States does not coordinate its range of foreign policy tools in support of democracy as much as it could. Of the 20 countries with which the United States has free trade agreements, half are ranked “partly free” or “not free.” (see Table 2) Yet many of the poorer countries that rate as “free” with which the United States has free trade agreements—such as those in Central America and the Caribbean—receive far less assistance from the United States than some of the nations that score much lower on the democracy rankings, such as Jordan and Bahrain.

Table 2

Of course, democracy is not the only consideration in foreign policy, and resources are finite. And certain other assistance goals—such as assistance for refugees and discrete security initiatives focused on terrorism or trafficking—will still be necessary. But the United States can do a much better job at targeting its assistance toward emerging democracies and democratic states to preserve and encourage policies that focus on transparent and accountable governance.

If one of America’s top foreign policy interests is indeed supporting democracy, then organizing all of its tools effectively to strengthen democracies should be a U.S. priority. And while additional funds should be dedicated to a program whose purpose is to exclusively support democracies, this effort should also help spark a realignment in U.S. foreign assistance toward supporting democracies and away from supporting autocrats as much as possible.

A new approach: Create a Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative

The United States should create a Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative aimed at bolstering democracies as well as provide funding for it.

The Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative would focus on three goals: 1) making clear that the United States intends to use all of its tools to support democracy abroad; 2) directing the U.S. government to work with partner countries on action plans to specifically outline how the United States can support democracy in each country; and 3) dedicating funds that help advance U.S. policies to bolster democratic countries.

The initiative should focus on societies making the transition to democracy and on democratic countries worldwide, without exception. While partnerships would be tailored to each country’s needs and perspectives, the United States should explore opportunities to strengthen relationships with civil society, particularly in transitioning countries, and with any and all democratic countries no matter their level of economic development. The partnerships should stem from the premise that the United States has an interest in strengthening democracy everywhere and should do what it can to advance that interest. While developed economies and mature democracies do not require U.S. financial assistance, the United States should still assess whether there are tools at its disposal, such as high-level visits, that could help bolster advanced democracies and U.S. relationships with them. In developing countries and transitioning democracies, there is a wider range of U.S. tools that could potentially be helpful.

Achieving this goal will require more discipline and organization in coordinating the U.S. government’s programs and policies. While there are many steps that the executive branch could take to organize and advance this initiative, the executive branch is not currently structured to incentivize coordination among all agencies in the manner necessary to execute this effort. Every agency often has its own visions and goals for programs, and usually guards its turf from being influenced or taken away by other agencies. Furthermore, congressional mandates and budget processes determine how large portions of U.S. assistance will be spent, severely limiting the ability of the executive branch to reorganize assistance priorities by itself. Of course, the White House could move certain funds into its priorities, organize high-profile visits for democratic leaders, and run an interagency process that tries to organize all agencies behind this endeavor. But the reality is that even a White House committed to this goal could only do so much, and without legislative forcing mechanisms and dedicated funding, an effort to organize all U.S. tools to advance democracy would be difficult to sustain over time through multiple administrations.

Other models of trying to streamline U.S. support for democracies have merit but are unlikely to be as effective as a Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative. One option would be to follow the model of the U.S. government’s Trafficking in Persons policy process—in which the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 mandates that assistance be cut off to countries that fail to meet minimum anti-trafficking standards—and cut off funding for countries whose democracies erode below a certain set of criteria. However, this approach would be punitive, whereas the primary goal of the Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative is to identify those countries already doing the right thing and try to help them. Another option—expanding the jurisdiction of the Millennium Challenge Corporation to control more streams of funding normally controlled by other agencies—would likely create a massive bureaucratic and legislative battle.

Instead, the Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative will have the most success—and is most likely to happen—if Congress creates it as a new initiative with a separate pot of funds. Congress will need to authorize a new program that sets objectives and outlines how the initiative should be run, as well as provide new funding for the program. In drafting legislation to create a Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative, Congress should look to the processes of the MCC as a model because it establishes criteria based on good governance for countries and clear plans and benchmarks for how funding should be spent. Congress should craft legislation that includes the following components:

  • Criteria: Legislation would outline the criteria for countries to qualify for a “democracy partnership.” The criteria could be similar to those established for the MCC,15 which include a range of good governance indicators as measured by independent NGOs. Any country that met these criteria would be eligible for a partnership. Eligible countries would, of course, then have to express interest in pursuing the partnership.
  • Action plans: The United States should develop a whole-of-government plan for each partnership country that expresses interest, with the State Department in the lead. This plan would be based on detailed consultations with recipient countries, identifying key areas that would benefit from the most support and proposing types and amounts of assistance and policies tailored for each country. The plan should also be required to incorporate feedback from in-country civil society groups. This plan would become the basis of a partnership with each eligible country as long as certain democracy criteria continued to be met. Similar to the MCC’s process, the United States would then negotiate the proposed action plan with the partner country, making clear the terms of the partnership and solidifying agreement on the details of each plan. Action plans would draw on all of America’s tools in attempting to support partner countries.
  • Implementation: The initiative should be overseen by an interagency board comprising the relevant agency heads—State, Treasury, Defense, MCC, USAID, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, and more—that are required to approve any country partnerships and action plans. The proposed “democracy board” would meet at least twice a year, with the State Department chairing and staffing the process. (This board is similar to the process for the MCC, which requires board approval for compacts). While each agency would administer its own funds, the plan for each country partnership—determining the levels and types of assistance and policy initiatives—would be approved by the board. Congress should fund the creation of a new office in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to track implementation of the program in coordination with the regional bureaus. A portion of appropriated funds should be reserved for assessment, monitoring, and evaluation (AM&E) schemes to measure progress toward stated goals and benchmarks that would indicate whether U.S. funds were having the desired effect.16 Each agency and office would maintain control over implementation of relevant programs and streams of funding, but they would implement those programs in accordance with the action plans outlined for each country.
  • Funding: Any democracy support initiative needs to be well-funded and crafted with a sustainable, realistic timeline in order to achieve its impact. To be successful, the new initiative should be funded by a new $5 billion fund in addition to current foreign assistance levels. Each administration will need to develop funding requests of Congress that match the board-approved plans for each country. They would then request that Congress fund a line-item budget allocation for the duration of the country plans. While these appropriations should consolidate some of the existing nonhumanitarian funding going to democracy partner countries, the Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative should also appropriate a new pot of money that could augment assistance for partner countries. Agencies could make their own determinations about whether to make additional funding requests for countries that were the target of the action plans beyond those activities outlined by the plans, but the goal would be for the United States to focus its resources in partner countries through these coordinated plans. Because investing in democracy and governance requires significant contributions and years to mature, the agencies should craft multiyear budgets and work with Congress to secure funds beyond the annual appropriation cycle.
  • Nonfunding policy changes: For those policy changes agreed to in an action plan that do not require new congressional appropriations—such as technology transfer and security partnerships—the normal processes with agencies and Congress would need to be followed. But with action plans already approved by relevant agencies and Congress invested in the program’s success through authorizing legislation, the path to approving relevant policy changes would ideally be easier. For trade deals and other policies that require independent and specific congressional authorization, the Biden administration would have to work with Congress to handle separately.
  • Termination: The State Department, with input from other agencies, would keep track of the implementation of each country plan, and plans would be terminated if a partner country failed to meet the good governance criteria for a certain period of time. Decisions to pause or terminate a plan would be made by the board in consultation with Congress.

The initiative should not take away funds from humanitarian assistance efforts such as global health, food security, refugee assistance, or disaster relief resources. And it would not necessarily take away funding from current activities supported by democracy, economic, or security funds, though the hope would be that a well-managed initiative would encourage Congress and the executive branch to further streamline existing assistance to mesh with the goals of the Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative.

Of course, one of the most important aspects of this process would be determining the countries that are eligible for funding. While the process must be driven by the criteria outlined above, the first natural place to look for possible partner countries would be countries deemed eligible for MCC compacts or threshold agreements. These countries—such as Indonesia, Guatemala, Kenya, Tunisia, and Nepal—would have already passed certain criteria in terms of good governance and expressed an interest in working with the United States.


The United States has long supported democracy in various ways. As democracies around the world struggle and as China, Russia, and other authoritarian countries flex their muscles more, it is imperative that the United States provide sustained, robust support for societies transitioning to democracy, as well as existing democracies, to help them succeed. The Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative can maximize the efficacy of U.S. support for democracies around the world.

Michael Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Alexandra Schmitt is a policy analyst on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.


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  2. Freedom House, “Democracies in Decline,” available at (last accessed October 2020); United Nations, “A New Era of Conflict and Violence,” available at (last accessed October 2020).
  3. As called for in CAP’s 2018 report. Kelly Magsamen and others, “Securing a Democratic World” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), available at
  4. For an overview of the history of democracy promotion, see Thomas Carothers, “Does Democracy Promotion Have a Future?”, Carnegie Endowment, January 23, 2008, available at
  5. Evan Osnos, “Why democracy is on the decline in the United States,” The New Yorker, March 10, 2020, available at
  6. John McMannis, “15 Years of PEPFAR: Past Success and Future Progress,” Friends of the Global Fight, September 28, 2018, available at; U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, “Plan Colombia: A Development Success Story” (Washington), available at (last accessed November 2020).
  7. Marian L. Lawson and Susan B. Epstein, “Democracy Promotion: An Objective of U.S. Foreign Assistance” (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2019), available at
  8. Susan B. Epstein and Liana W. Rosen, “U.S. Security Assistance and Security Cooperation Programs: Overview of Funding Trends” (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2018), available at
  9. James McBride, “How Does the U.S. Spend Its Foreign Aid?”, Council on Foreign Relations, October 1, 2018, available at
  10. James McBride and Andrew Chatzky, “What Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?”, Council on Foreign Relations, January 4, 2019, available at; Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, “African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA),” available at (last accessed November 2020).
  11. Andrew Miller and Richard Sokolsky, “What Has $49 Billion in Foreign Military Aid Bought Us? Not Much,” The American Conservative, February 27, 2018, available at; Julian Borger, “US leads arms sales to Saudis, followed by UK, from 2014-2018,” The Guardian, October 3, 2019, available at
  12. The White House, “President Trump Meets with President Al Sisi of Egypt,” September 20, 2017, available at; The White House, “President Trump’s Speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit,” Press release, May 21, 2017, available at
  13. The authors used rankings from Freedom House’s 2018 “Freedom in the World” report. See Freedom House, “Freedom in the World” (Washington: 2018), available at
  14. Security Assistance Monitor’s (SAM) economic assistance includes “U.S. development and humanitarian aid provided in an attempt to foster sustainable, broad-based economic progress and sociopolitical stability or immediate alleviation of humanitarian emergencies.” Examples of programs included in this database include funding for development banks, the State Department’s Complex Crises Fund, global health funds, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. A full list is available on SAM’s Economic Aid dashboard. The authors excluded funds provided to regional programs or global funding, and only counted funds appropriated to or spent in individual countries. SAM’s security assistance includes “U.S. training and equipment provided to a given foreign security sector, including the military, police, and ministries associated with the control of the security forces.” Examples of programs included in this database include the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing; International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement; Peacekeeping Operations; and Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs accounts, as well as the Defense Department’s Section 333 train and equip funds, counter-ISIS train and equip funds, and other security cooperation accounts. The authors excluded funds for regional recipients. The authors also did not include arms sales in calculating U.S. foreign assistance and focused exclusively on grants and aid, not sales. The authors chose to use SAM because reliably calculating all Defense Department security assistance resources from U.S. government sources remains a challenge. For both the economic and security assistance, see Security Assistance Monitor, “Database Users Guide,” available at (last accessed October 2020); Security Assistance Monitor, “What does the Security Assistance Monitor data include?” (Washington), available at (last accessed November 2020).
  15. Millennium Challenge Cooperation, “Who We Select,” available at (last accessed November 2020).
  16. For a summary of existing AM&E schemes for U.S. foreign assistance programs and an overview of gaps, see U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Foreign Assistance: Federal Monitoring and Evaluation Guidelines Incorporate Most but Not All Leading Practices” (Washington: 2019), available at