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The US’ Contradictory Reactions to Undemocratic Coups

Democracy has become synonymous with purity and equality around the world. Many countries around the world incorporate components of democratic ideology into their governmental framework and processes, through elections of leaders and representatives. One of these countries is the United States, the first independent nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the first countries in modern times to incorporate democratic principles into its framework. American leaders wax poetic describing the US as a bastion of democratic principles – a self-congratulations of sorts. In his 2016 State of the Union Address, then-president Barack Obama spent a few minutes describing how the US had defended democracy around the world, disagreeing with countries that didn’t adhere to those values.

It is part of an ongoing effort by the US government to portray the United States as a driving force of democracy. In that same address in 2014, President Obama noted that “from Tunisia to Burma, we’re supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy.” The US Department of State proudly trumpets that “democracy and respect for human rights have always been central components of US foreign policy.” Yet, this rhetoric is at odds with actual US actions abroad, which have tended to favor furthering American hegemony and influence over democracy. It has led to the United States instigating, or at the very least supporting, countless undemocratic coups and civil wars, aimed at increasing American power overseas, in direct contradiction to the values it preaches at home. This not only renders US actions hypocritical in the face of its jargon but also stands contrary to international doctrine surrounding coups.

In his 2016 article, “Coups d’Etat and Foreign Aid” in the journal World Development, author Takaaki Masaki argues that “the US does not comply with the growing international norm of political conditionality due to its geopolitical interests trumping its rhetorical commitment to penalizing coups.” As Masaki goes on to note, these streamlined international responses include reducing the flow of, or cutting off all aid, imposing sanctions, and withholding official governmental recognition of the new coup regime.

One such example of the US ignoring international doctrine surrounding coups comes from Honduras in 2009. The democratically-elected president of the country, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown in a coup d’etat by members of the Honduran Army, ostensibly under orders from the country’s Supreme Court. Major international organizations, including the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the European Union condemned the coup and demanded the return of President Zelaya to power. The World Bank paused all lending for development programs in the country. Barack Obama said thatWe believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there.

Yet despite these words, the US was the only country in the Western Hemisphere or European Union not to withdraw its ambassador from Honduras. The US also decided not to brand the event as a “military coup,” which would’ve required it to cut off aid to the country. Former of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that the US decided to maintain the flow of aid to continue to assist the poor of Honduras, and to not instigate a crisis there. Unfortunately, as author Karen Attiah notes, “America has a pretty shaky record of cutting off assistance after an ouster of a democratically elected leader, frequently preferring to preserve aid to US military allies.” Much of this aid is in fact dedicated to building up security forces in the country. In 2015, 17 percent of aid provided to Honduras was categorized as military aid. However, two of the three “Top Activities” which received aid that year were Counternarcotics (18m) and a nebulous program called the “Swift IV Task Force for Honduras” (9.6m). Less than 13 percent of the total aid provided went to “Developmental Food Aid,” and the top partner for “carry[ing] out foreign assistance work” was the US Department of Defense.

In terms of preventing a crisis, the Honduras homicide rate increased significantly after 2009, giving the country one the highest murder rates in the world. The US has a long history of arming its allies in and supporting favorable violence in Honduras. In fact, the members of the military that overthrew Zelaya were trained in the United States.

Some might argue that US aid is much more significant than that of any other country, and thus it is imperative to keep that aid flowing, regardless of the political situation in a recipient nation. US aid is indeed significant; the US spends more in terms of raw amount than any other country does. In 2015, the United States spent $31.08 billion, almost twice that of the next two largest contributors – the UK and Germany, which spent $18.70 billion and $17.78 billion, respectively. However, many authors argue this is actually much less impressive than it seems. Naomi Larsson of The Guardian notes that “when looking at the percentage of the country’s national income given to foreign aid, the US contribution is less impressive.” In 2015, the US spent 0.17 percent of its GNI (Gross National Income) on foreign aid. In contrast, the top spender in terms of percentage was Sweden, which shelled out 1.40 percent of its GNI. The US level also falls well short of the goal set by the OECD for member countries to donate 0.7 percent of the GNI annually to foreign aid, a goal which only six member countries met in 2015.

Furthermore, it is not enough to look at the amount of foreign aid provided, but also where that aid is going. China also provides a substantial amount of aid to Latin America, but contrary to US aid, China’s aid overwhelmingly goes to non-military purposes, similarly to the European Union. With Beijing’s approach standing as a stark alternative to that of Washington, China’s popularity in the region is increasing. The European Union, as a unit, also contributes more aid than the United States, with comparatively much more going to humanitarian initiatives. Lastly, the US is unrepentant about halting aid to unfavorable countries, the major, extreme example of this being the nearly sixty-year embargo on Cuba, which has devastated the country’s economy.

Multiple coups have come and gone since the events in Honduras eight years ago, with the US reacting similarly to others of the same nature. Most notably, in Ukraine in 2014 and Brazil in 2016, the US aided, or at least was complicit in the overthrow of a democratically-elected government, continuing or increasing the flow of aid and providing immediate recognition to the coup government when the overthrow was completed. In both cases, the replacement regimes were much more in line with US interests. In Ukraine, the government went from being pro-Russia to pro-NATO, while in Brazil, the presence of the ‘Pink Tide’ in the government crumbled as it shifted wildly to the right.

Supporters of these actions might argue that the ideological cost pales in the face of diplomatic, economic, and safety costs associated with opposing such measures. In the case of Honduras, the US was diplomatically at odds with much of the world over the coup, as it was to a lesser extent in Brazil. US corporations have benefited economically from the Brazil coup. Yet, there is little doubt that these coups, while perhaps of short-term international corporate benefit – like that which occurred in Guatemala in 1954 – wind up putting the nations on violent and backwards courses that end up often reducing profit and productivity in the long run. The case of Costa Rica shows that a country can actually become a more efficient economic partner when its government is not meddled with. As for ‘safety,’ there seems to be a misnomer that the US will be safer if it is aligned with more favorable governments. But the situation in Ukraine served merely to instigate Russia, with many voices noting that a “New Cold War” is underway.

One of the most dramatic examples of the backfiring of US interventions meant to ensure greater security comes from the War on Terror. Iraq, a country with no Al-Qaeda presence before the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, has seen a dramatic increase in terror attacks from almost zero before the invasion to nearly fourteen hundred by 2010. The cited article goes on to note that “Security experts – including both conservatives and liberals – agree that waging war in the Middle East weakens national security and increases terrorism.” One of the ways in which the US directly increases terrorism and anti-US sentiment in the Middle East is through drone strikes. Multiple former members of the CIA, including former Station Chief Robert Grenier and former analyst Ray McGovern have said that “US drone strikes create more terrorists” and that Yemen is under threat from turning into a terrorist haven, the Arabian Peninsula’s equivalent of Waziristan. Therefore, it is completely incorrect to assume that the United States will be safer through intervention to engineer favorable regimes.

There are many cases of direct or indirect American involvement in undemocratic regime changes throughout the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. US actions over the last ten years and earlier show a major ideological inconsistency and contradiction. They diverge severely from US rhetoric regarding “democracy” and self-determination,” as well as a dedication to human rights. They contradict norms of international doctrine surrounding coups, in order to bolster US power and influence overseas, and which prove that the US views these norms more as pesky guidelines than rules to follow. They have all but demolished the image the US tried to create of itself as the beating heart of global democracy. Finally, they do not serve to increase the safety of American citizens.


About the Author

Alex Burdo '20 is a US Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.