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Democracy Promotion by Other Countries

Democracy Around the World in 2008

Issue 3, August 2008

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Democracy Promotion by Other Countries Print

A country’s prospects for democratization are significantly affected by the actions of other nations that seek to spread democracy around the world.  Democracy promotion is generally viewed to be motivated by a sense of enlightened self-interest.  First, it is often framed as a moral duty.  Democratic countries, the US foremost among them, are said to believe that developing liberal self-government is a moral prerogative of modern nations and that democratic systems best safeguard basic universal human rights.  Second, since prosperity is thought to correlate with democracy, the promotion of democratic governance is seen as an anti-poverty or human development mechanism.  Along these lines, democracies may be said to not only promote egalitarian values worldwide (which serve to burnish their own democratic credentials), but to also seek to cultivate friendly allies and open up lucrative global markets that ultimately benefit them as well.  Finally, democracy promotion is seen by its proponents as a vital security issue.

Prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the security goals of democracy promotion were based primarily on the theory of “democratic peace.”  It has been posited that modern democracies do not tend to go to war with each other, an observation borne out by several different researchers.  The period from the end of World War II to 2000, when democracy spread widely throughout the world, is said to be the longest period of peace in 500 years.  Also known as the Pax Americana, most attribute this period of relative peace to the influence of the democratic superpower.  Japan and Germany, previously war-like nations, became advanced democracies and economic powers in their own right, while nations around the world transitioned away from authoritarianism.  Some experts rebut this theory, citing instead other factors responsible for the relative absence of conflict, including the end of colonial rule, the end of the Cold War, and the expansion of global trade that made the fortunes of countries interdependent.  This last alternative is also known variably as the “McDonald’s Theory” (two countries possessing McDonald’s restaurants are thought to be immune from war with each other) and what Thomas Friedman has called the “Supply Chain Theory of Conflict Prevention,” which posits that two countries sharing a supply chain in the globalized economy are deterred from going to war against each other.

Former US diplomat John Brady Kiesling similarly rebuts the democratic peace theory, pointing out that most wars are civil wars and democracies “are perfectly capable of waging war on themselves.”  Other theorists such as Jack Snyder and Edward Mansfield have pointed out that democratization itself may create a significant threat of war, and that those states in transition are considerably more likely to experience or initiate conflict than are stable autocracies or fully liberal democracies.  Nonetheless, most experts generally agree on a compromise position that can be summed up by Kiesling as follows:  “leaders enjoying the legitimacy that comes from honest democratic elections and good governance have no need for the legitimacy that derives from successful military adventures.”

After September 11, democracy promotion took on a new urgency and rationale.  Many saw terrorism to be an outgrowth of autocratic regimes, and that the disaffected populations of authoritarian societies such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan were finding solace and justice in radical ideologies and violent acts.  Bringing democracy to the world was framed by US President George W. Bush and others as a critical component of international security strategy.  In fact, US foreign policy in the Bush Administration has become known as the “Freedom Agenda.”

Pressure applied by external actors for democracy promotion can be indirect or direct, hard or soft.  Tactics are wide-ranging and may be brought to bear at any stage of democratization:  whether in hastening the decay of authoritarian rule, in transition to an electoral system, or in the consolidation and deepening of democracy.  Democracy promotion is pursued in some cases to successful ends; yet, in many others it produces unintended consequences and democratic backlash.

Indirect Democracy Promotion

Indirect democracy promotion rests on the power of example.  When democratic governments are successful economically, people are naturally drawn to replicate their prosperity.  Similarly, the civil and political liberties enjoyed by citizens in democratic societies have powerful demonstration effects.  A country such as the United States can be a highly effective democracy promoter just by its very existence as a democratic world power.  However, as easily as these effects are conferred, they can easily be diminished if the exemplar country begins to falter economically, or if its own democratic system is revealed to have significant contradictions.  Many would say that perhaps the greatest harm to the cause of democracy promotion worldwide today lies in the increasingly flawed image of the United States in the eyes of the world.  As the American economy stumbles, and the US commitment to democratic principles is tarnished by electoral hiccups and torture allegations, the power of the US example has been compromised.  Many experts actually believe that the US could have the most impact on democratization around the world, not by pursuing any of the direct actions described below, but rather by keeping its own house in order, and capitalizing on the potential indirect strength of its example as a democracy.

Direct Democracy Promotion

Direct, intentional democracy promotion consists of a set of actions taken to aid countries at all stages of democratization, beginning with either the reform or ousting of an authoritarian government, progressing on to technical and financial assistance for countries in transition, and then providing support for those seeking to strengthen and sustain their new democracies.

Reform or Removal of Authoritarian Regimes

The first step in direct democracy promotion is often to try to reform the authoritarian regime in power.  Soft measures such as incentives are frequently the first step taken to externally pressure an autocratic regime to loosen its control.  In the absence of enlightened despots, these measures have been known to be only moderately effective, and worse, to produce unintended consequences.  Often, authoritarian regimes will gladly take the incentives to reform - aid, loans, and favorable trade terms - and make only cosmetic changes.  The economic benefits that accrue (the ones that were supposed to be democratizing) are then, in some cases, used to shore up the regime’s mandate to govern and the status quo.  In some cases, the money may even perversely be used to further repress internal reformers.  As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita has noted, development in the name of democracy promotion can allow autocrats to “have it all – a contented constituency of power brokers and military leaders who benefit from economic growth, increased resources to deal with economic and political shocks, and a weak and dispirited opposition.”  Conditionality is seen as key by most experts; money is generally thought to be most effective in producing reform if it is extended with specific strings attached.  Programs such as the Millennium Challenge Accounts linking aid and loans to good governance are seen as hopeful, if yet unproven, incentives to true democratic reform.

Often times positive incentives may be combined with more coercive or hard measures such as punitive sanctions, international shaming and/or punishment, or the threat of military action.  History suggests that these types of efforts are most successful when an indigenous, broadly-supported reform movement already exists in a country.  In other words, external players are most effective when they support credible internal players.  Nationalism and sovereignty concerns are never far below the surface.  External democracy promotion without internal buy-in has been known to have the opposite effect:  embattled autocratic leaders gain enhanced legitimacy and are able to consolidate power by manipulating their citizens’ fears and suspicions of the motives of would be outside intervention.  In this way, would-be outside reformers may end up strengthening the very regimes they seek to weaken.

In addition, measures such as sanctions are by their very nature isolating; their effectiveness is predicated on the regime suffering to such an extent that it is motivated to enact reforms in order to get back into the good graces and global markets of the international community.  Isolation itself can be de-democratizing.  Ideally, democracy promoters want the citizens of autocratic societies to be exposed to democratic values worldwide and isolating a country has the opposite effect.  When sanctions cause great economic hardship for the population, backlash often ensues against the external actors whose good intentions are often seen as irrelevant amidst the hardship.

When attempts by the international community to reform authoritarian leaders through incentives, punishment, or threats are ineffective, the next stage can be military action to effect regime change.  Of this option, experts are generally skeptical and feel the potential for backlash to be greater than the benefits realized.  For example, referring to US-led military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq carried out under the banner of democracy promotion, many feel the cause of worldwide democracy has been harmed, not helped, as the situation in those countries has as of yet failed to stabilize following regime change.  Some would say the effect has been two-fold.  There has been further entrenchment in other authoritarian regimes, as the ensuing chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan has come to represent the perils of democratization.  Secondly, the anti-Americanism generated by military failures in these countries has further eroded the power of the American democratic example.  Several experts have gone on to note that the democracy promotion justification of the war in Iraq was applied only after the failure of the initial justifications, namely the presence of weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s cooperation with Al Qaeda terrorists.  This fact was largely forgotten by the American public, but not by the rest of the world who often see the US actions as illegitimate and the democracy promotion banner as a sham.

Many analysts see the use of what they term military “meddling” as an ineffective tool of democracy promotion generally, even when carried out prudently.  In a study for the Brookings Institution, William Easterly reviewed newly declassified data from the Cold War to conclude that both overt and covert “superpower interventions are followed by significant declines in democracy, and that the substantive effects are large.”  He found that the de-democratizing effects of any intervention by the US (a democracy) or USSR (an autocracy) were the same – a decrease of 33% in democracy scores.  Easterly went on to apply these results to modern day interventions in the Global War on Terror, concluding that coercive intervention ultimately hinders the development of true democracy and democratic outcomes, no matter the goal or the democratic nature of the actor.

Ironically, war itself, even in the name of democracy, can be a stabilizer factor for an autocratic government, moving its citizens from Maslow’s social and civil needs back to basic survival ones.  Ironically, efforts to topple authoritarian regimes often inadvertently strengthen them.  Efforts to help indigenous reformers with external democracy assistance may backfire, as the government takes repressive and/or retributive action against the reformers themselves who are seen as cooperating with its outside critics.  In some cases, democratic transitions that might have developed organically and internally are forestalled by external efforts to hasten them.  As John Brady Kiesling has noted, “when a population drives out its own dictatorship, enormous legitimacy accrues to the leaders of the successful movement.  Democratization from the outside deprives the local population of its liberation struggle,” with important ramifications for the sustainability of the resulting government.

A more successful tactic would seem to be a quiet, low-key, behind-the-scenes effort to support local reformers, increasing their capacity to mount their own liberation struggle through non-violent or revolutionary means and take it to scale.  A poignant illustration of these types of initiatives can be found in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s description of "jungle schools" for democracy in Burma/Myanmar in the 1990s.  The key seems to be adopting long-term horizons, and sticking with programs as they build cumulative and latent successes, even in the face of regime recalcitrance.

Transition, Consolidation, and Deepening of Democracy

Through organizations such as the UN, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the USAID Program for Democracy and Governance Obligations, an entire industry exists to help democratic reformers in new and transitioning democracies worldwide with everything from voter education to the provision of voting machines to election monitoring, logistics, and security to the drafting of constitutions.  Once democratic transitions are made, these types of organizations help in the development of accountability mechanisms, audits, and government oversight.  The results of such programs are mixed in the eyes of experts.  While some worry about what Larry Diamond has called the proliferation of “suitcase NGOs” that simply add to the bureaucratic burden of developing democracies, others have conducted research that shows positive statistical effects as captured by Freedom House and Polity IV measures.  USAID research has shown that, between 1990 and 2003, its Democracy and Governance (D and G) programs - specifically, assistance in the areas of elections/political processes, the rule of law, and civil society - produced real results.

Based on this research, it was estimated that an additional 10 million in USAID (1995) dollars would produce by itself “about a five fold increase in the amount of democratic change that the average country would otherwise be expected to achieve in any given year based on Freedom House measures.”  However, when weighed against the actual average outlay of the D and G program for an individual country in 2003, which was only $3.66 million, their research appears to support the opinion that the program is vastly underfunded and thus underutilized.

Upon being interviewed by Congress at the end of his term as USAID Administrator, Andrew Natsios opined that the most meaningful democracy promotion efforts are “changes in values, in world views, in attitudes and the transfer of technologies and systems which you cannot see.”  Others have echoed this, bemoaning the short-term nature of democracy assistance and advocating consistency, reflection, patience, and realistic expectations.  Many cite the need for better coordination between various democracy promotion agencies and advocate for more creative soft measure such as cultural, scientific, and educational exchanges between citizens in autocracies and those in democracies.

Overall, the most effective forms of direct democracy promotion are seen to be those that are case-sensitive with careful attention to the unique conditions on the ground.  The fact that these conditions are ever-changing, and impacted by a myriad of internal and external contingencies means that meaningful democracy promotion must also be dynamic and resilient, undertaken with long time horizons, and with a significant measure of humility.  Even in the face of apparent failure, many have noted that unsuccessful democratic reform movements are, in fact, successful in what Diamond has called “tilling the soil of authoritarian stagnation.”  In other words, future reforms are often built on the foundation of earlier attempts.

With respect to countries that do make it through the transition and onto the consolidation and deepening phases, it appears that the biggest mistake external democracy promoters can make is failing to see the effort through to the end.  This requires a significant amount of capacity-building at the local level, an often unsexy and unheralded endeavor.  Author Fareed Zakaria has bemoaned the fact that “rule of law” doesn’t make for a very exciting photograph in the newspaper.  The current era of democratic recession is thought to be a function of the failure of new democracies to sustain themselves and to mature from electoral processes to liberal outcomes.  This is often linked, in part, to a failure of the democracy promotion industry to strengthen democratic values and institutions on the ground.

In addition, hypocrisy – true or perceived – is immensely damaging to democracy promotion efforts.  It is generally thought that those doing the promoting must keep their own democratic houses in order as well as mitigate, or at least be transparent about, ulterior motives and conflicts of interest.  Realism in foreign policy is often in tension with idealism; the pragmatic concerns of democracy promotion certainly exist alongside, and sometimes trump, moral concerns.  That the democracy promotion machine is often aimed at select countries and not at others is also not lost on the international community.  Historically, some strategically valuable and cooperative autocratic regimes have been tolerated by democracy promoters, as are some less valuable hostile autocratic regimes.  As Laura Secor has written “we can try to fool ourselves, but we are not likely to deceive anyone else.”

Expert Larry Diamond perhaps goes the furthest in acknowledging this often conveniently overlooked problem with democracy promotion efforts.  Diamond believes democracy promoters would be more credible and more effective if they would only be candid about these conflicting interests, going as far as to openly seek “security waivers” to justify their support for friendly authoritarian regimes.  He advises, “keep relations with Musharraf and Mubarek if you must, but don’t call them democrats.”


Next:  External Factors:  Democracy Promotion by Regional and International Institutions