To some extent this is inevitable in an age when the biggest security threats to the U.S. come from terrorist networks with global reach and where climate change and economic crises affect all parts of the world. Nonetheless, the extent of U.S. commitment everywhere, which was once a sign of the American ascendancy, now bears many signs of being part of America’s decline. This will likely become more apparent and problematic if the economy does not recover. As local and national governments are stressed and basic domestic needs become more and more difficult for governments to afford, it is likely that voices calling for a more modest foreign policy with fewer commitments abroad will be stronger, but policy makers will find it very difficult to turn that aspiration into reality.
The reality that these types of programs have rarely had a significant impact on resolving territorial disputes has not appeared to daunt proponents of the shared economic venture as path to peace approach. These programs have generally had a marginal effect as conflicts have either endured in spite of these programs, or more frequently these programs have failed to get off the ground because the conflict and rancor between the groups. It is clear that, for example, joint Palestinian-Israeli tourism ventures could generate needed income, or cooperation liberalized trade zones involving Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh would help the economy of the South Caucasus, but even though the west supports programs to do these types of things, the underlying problems are more enduring. The China-Taiwan case is an interesting example of a conflict where trade has expanded substantially in recent years, but the tensions between the two polities remains quite strong with both sides retaining strong militaries and the threat of war breaking out no less significant, despite the economic ties
Foreign governments hiring firms to polish their image, build relationships with key American policy makers, or hiring think tanks to issue reports favorable to their view, is different. It is no longer about Americans trying to influence their own government, but foreign governments seeking to influence the American government, and in many cases, trying to influence American public opinion as well. These practices are now widespread in Washington and have become an important part of how policy is made. There is nothing illegal about any of this as long as the firms in question report their contracts as required by American law. Yet these practices take on something of an absurdist twist when countries which receive ample financial support from the U.S. hire firms to lobby on their behalf, creating a situation where the U.S. government is, at least in part, paying lobbying firms to lobby the U.S. government.
Recognizing the evolving nature and role of elections is important not so much because, as many opponents of elections argue, elections are inherently dangerous if a country is not “ready” for them. Down that road lies condescension and eternal international administration. Rather, donor countries need to understand that elections are no longer major events which require refocusing all other projects for eighteen months. Too frequently when an election is called in a semi-authoritarian country, money pours in for election-related work, but gets siphoned from other, lower profile, longer horizon type projects which often are more likely to impact the overall democratic progress of that country. Elections cannot, and should not be ignored, nor should we urge countries not to have them if we (whoever that is) think they are not ready, but it is important to adjust our expectations and policies to reflect the relatively muted impact elections have on democratic development in many increasingly authoritarian settings.