The Obama administration has revitalized democracy policy after an initial spell of downplaying the D-word, although it has yet to institutionalize recent initiatives, a leading analyst suggests. But there may be a case for a fundamental review of democracy assistance in light of new authoritarian strategies and a possible domestic backlash as illiberal actors come to power in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Egypt’s recent raids on pro-democracy groups are the latest indication that “a significant shift is occurring within international civil society assistance,” Tom Carothers tells Democracy Digest. “Something big is going on – it really is something different.”
For the first fifteen years or so, there was a consensus and acceptance of the need for technical assistance, institution-building and similar programs, especially in transitional states, says Carothers, author of Democracy Policy Under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat?, a new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“But now governments are feeling threatened. It’s no longer cute NGOs doing international social work,” he suggests. “It requires us to rethink models of assistance as we can no longer rely on a benign framework.”
Democracy assistance is now highly contested terrain, activists and analysts suggest. Authoritarian regimes are not only reacting to democratic forces, using the familiar tactics of impeding aid, restricting NGOs, and jailing activists, but pro-actively promoting anti-democratic or illiberal practices and ideas, whether it’s Russia’s political technologists, China’s soft power, governments like Iran and Venezuela funding allies or proxies, or the reportedly huge Saudi and Gulf subsidies to Islamist groups in the Arab world.
But these are also “positive signs because they show that these regimes are threatened” by democracy assistance, Carothers says. “Their evident vulnerability and opposition is a sign of its significance.”
Democracy advocates have tended to refute claims that promoting freedom in certain states or regions risks US security and other strategic interests by citing the “democracy dividend” and “democratic peace” thesis: namely, that new democracies are more likely to be US allies, to share US values and interests, and reject military conflict with neighbors.
But opinion surveys suggest that the Arab Spring has not only failed to generate a dividend in terms of US standing in the region, but raises an alternative scenario of democratically-elected governments ill-disposed towards US interests and values, and potentially threatening to its allies. Is this prospect a threat to the robust bipartisan consensus on democracy support, especially the additional factors of likely financial stringency and growing insularity if not isolationism in some circles?
“It is striking that for the first 10-15 years of US democracy promotion, relatively few governments hostile to the US were elected,” Carothers notes.
“On the other hand, it was no surprise that when Latin America’s poor were able to mobilize and make political choices, they elected representatives that the US was not comfortable with.”
We are likely to see similar dynamics in the Arab world, where, as in Latin America, large swathes of impoverished and disempowered electorates perceive the US as an ally of former authoritarian regimes.
“Yet, strategically and ultimately, the US enjoys better relations with democrats than autocrats,” he observes. ”We can’t afford to be fair-weather friends of democracy,” if the US is to retain any credibility or authority in this field.
While the post-Communist transitions after 1989 produced a slew of new instruments and initiatives for promoting democracy, the Arab Spring has generated remarkably little institutional innovation and fewer resources.
Both government and civil society have a valuable role to play, but the Egyptian authorities’ raids on pro-democracy NGOs illustrate the “high degree of sensitivity” of both approaches.
More important than whether assistance comes via government or civil society is the need for it to be “designed in ways that reflect locally-determined needs and demands.”
Carothers’s Carnegie analysis highlights “the fact that by far the vast majority of the daily work of democracy support is a matter of bipartisan agreement” and the importance of “never losing sight of the powerful connection between the health of democracy in the United States and the credibility and power of U.S. democracy promotion abroad.”
But he is also concerned that democracy policy may become a “proxy” for partisan debates over grand foreign policy narratives that could distract attention from practical priorities.
As the US reacts to the changing balance of power in the world, it can do so “intelligently, by maximizing our effectiveness” or “nostalgically, trying to rekindle our sole superpower status in order to dominate world events,” he says.
“The danger is that democracy promotion becomes a proxy issue in this wider debate, viewed as a tool for projecting US influence, when the focus should be on being better and smarter about the design and delivery of assistance.”