The challenge to democracy, reflected in resurgent authoritarianism and the backlash against democracy assistance, amounts to a ‘new paradigm’, and requires more energetic public diplomacy to defend and articulate democratic ideas. Democracy can no longer be divorced from the broader issue of development and notions of poverty must be redefined to include individual freedom as a key indicator of human development.
These were some of the issues raised by representatives of the Swedish government, aid organizations, political party foundations and democracy assistance groups at a discussion organized by the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies. The forthcoming Swedish presidency of the European Union in the latter half of 2009 will prioritize democracy and consult partners in the developing world as part of a review of EU democracy assistance, the seminar heard.
A reassertion of democracy’s salience in development and foreign policy is appropriate, given the imminent change of Administration in the United States, a new European Commission next year and consecutive Czech and Swedish EU presidencies. The development community has shied away from the D-word, deeming it too political, in favor of more technocratic and economistic approaches. But the Swedish government is trying to correct the imbalance, evident in the Millennium Development Goals, redefining poverty to incorporate political and civil rights as well as standard socio-economic indicators.
“People are also poor when they can’t control their own destiny,” a leading Swedish politician told the meeting, held under the Chatham House rule. Democracy cannot be exported and can only be home-grown, but foreign assistance can empower key actors and institutions, including parties and parliaments, too often the poor relations to other civil society actors.
To some extent, democratic norms are more internationally robust and accepted then ever, as authoritarian regimes’ adoption of ersatz democratic forms attests. For all the talk of European values and soft power, the European Union’s “incoherence” and lack of consensus are serious impediments to a more robust and consistent approach to democracy assistance. Member states invariably prioritize national interests, including energy and security needs, over a more principled and rigorous stance on authoritarian regimes.
The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the velvet revolutions will provide the occasion for much reflection on democracy’s achievements since. The EU’s enlargement process has been the greatest single mechanism of democratization. But the exhaustion of the accession process requires the EU to explore alternative instruments.
Governments will always and necessarily privilege strategic interests over idealistic aspirations. Democracy assistance requires a ‘twin-track’ approach, using formal diplomatic instruments and actors as well as non-state agencies, including democracy assistance foundations. But too much EU support goes to institution-strengthening (“There seem to be more groups assisting parliaments in the Caucasus than there are parliamentarians there.”), neglecting the need to balance effectiveness and legitimacy.
Local ownership is crucial and the key to effective democracy assistance is finding locally-generated agendas that can be supported. There is an urgent need for better dialogue with internal actors, including peer review exchanges between donors, grantees and partners.
For a relatively small state, Sweden is disproportionately generous donor in the democracy assistance field. Its contribution is all the more valuable at a time when democracy is being challenged. When Freedom House conceived its “Countries at the Crossroads” series, the term was considered hopeful, but the transitions have taken a darker turn with authoritarianism resurgent.
Belarus and Ukraine are the key states in which the EU confronts a newly assertive Russia. Events there will be the litmus for the political trajectory of Europe’s eastern periphery. EU institutions and democracy assistance organizations need to be more effective ‘learning organizations’ and re-assess policies, instruments and funding mechanisms in the light of successes and setbacks.
The backlash against democracy is unlikely to be a short-lived phenomenon, not least because history shows that democratic waves are generally followed by periods of retrenchment and regression. In addition to the operational aspect of curbs against democracy assistance groups and local democratic actors, the backlash also has economic, ideological and strategic dimensions. Developmental authoritarianism derives legitimacy from its success in delivering economic growth and appreciable improvements in living standards, while high energy prices allow authoritarian petro-states to dispense enough local patronage to sustain their regimes.
Ideologically, while they profess the virtues of “guided democracy” or “managed democracy”, authoritarian regimes are increasingly confident about challenging what British foreign secretary David Miliband calls the “Euro-Atlantic values” that underpin democracy. Authoritarian capitalism is “the biggest potential ideological competitor to liberal democratic capitalism since the end of communism”, Timothy Garton Ash has argued, because it can “plausibly claim to be associated with economic, technological and cultural modernity.”
Strategically, non-democratic regimes are organizing and collaborating within international institutions, not least in the UN Human Rights Council, and forums like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, exchanging ‘worst practices’, from internet monitoring and censorship technology to anti-NGO legislative provisions. Russia is consistently striving to undermine democratic standards within the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Yet the fault-lines between democracies and authoritarian regimes are not always clear-cut, as evidenced by South Africa’s shameful record on the UN Security Council and the reluctance of China and the SCO to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Democratic solidarity was deeply ideological and contested during the Cold War, but lost much of that edge as government agencies entered their field and the agenda shifted towards more technocratic issues of democratic consolidation and institution building. But with authoritarian regimes funding foreign proxies and striving to project malign forms of soft power, democracy assistance is now more highly politicized and contested than at any time since the Cold War. There is a compelling case for a major strategic review of the field, re-assessing established methods, institutions and instruments and identifying the innovations required to reassert the democratic imperative.