The global swing states of Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Turkey are prepared to play a role in promoting human rights and democracy, writes Brookings analyst Ted Piccone. But this is to be done on their own terms: through quiet diplomacy and mediation, using coercive methods only as a last resort.
In the decades following the atrocities of World War II, the international community constructed a human rights and democracy order resting strongly on a foundation of universal norms emphasizing an individual’s right to human dignity. To give meaning to this concept, states adopted treaties that defined the scope and content of a wide variety of political, civil, economic, social, and group rights.
Working through the United Nations and a growing number of regional organizations, they forged a variety of tools to monitor how states implement their obligations and to encourage protection of such rights in real time. Building this order was one of the great accomplishments of the second half of the 20th century. Implementing these norms, however, remains one of the greatest challenges of this century.
Alongside the emergence of a global human rights architecture, states began to articulate a growing emphasis on democracy as the form of government most capable of protecting basic human rights, fostering economic development, and advancing international peace and security. At first, this interpretation of Immanuel Kant’s democratic peace theory was heard mainly from established democracies in the West that saw hope in building a world, in Woodrow Wilson’s famous words, “safe for democracy.” Over time, as the number of democracies in the world tripled from 39 in 1974 to a high of 123 in 2005, the interest in fostering international cooperation to defend and protect democracies ballooned.
The main global forum for encouraging greater international cooperation among democracies began to take shape in 2000, when Poland and the United States hosted the first meeting of the Community of Democracies. The Community’s mandate is to cooperate to strengthen democratic institutions, support adherence to common democratic values and standards, oppose threats to democracy, and coordinate support for new and emerging democratic societies. In terms of activities, the Community of Democracies provided critical early backing for a voluntary U.N. Democracy Fund to support democracy-building initiatives mainly implemented by civil society groups around the world. Since its establishment in 2005, this fund has received donations and pledges totaling over $120 million from a wide range of countries, including India ($29 million), the United States ($43 million), and Japan ($10 million). It has also organized international missions and technical assistance to developing democracies like Timor Leste, Georgia, Tunisia, and Moldova.
An overview of the foreign policies of these four global swing states leads to several overarching observations and conclusions that the United States and its European partners should consider as they look for the rising democracies to play a more engaged and predictable role in bolstering the international human rights and democracy order:
• All four countries have made unequivocal commitments to democratic and human rights standards, both as a goal of national development and as a principle of their foreign policies. This shared starting point offers a number of advantages in finding common ground with each other and with more established democracies on strategies for addressing a range of scenarios involving democracy and human rights.
• A wide gap exists, however, regarding the preferred means and methods of international action in this arena. The global swing states have a strong preference for what they describe as constructive engagement, mediation, and quiet diplomacy as tools of international intervention, whereas the established democracies are quicker to pursue condemnation, sanctions, and, in extreme cases, military action.
Swing states stand ready, however, to provide help on democracy and human rights when requested by a transitioning state and increasingly have the resources and experience to contribute financial and technical assistance to projects focused on bolstering democratic institutions.
Established democracies should welcome this trend and encourage greater dialogue and collaboration among donors and recipients working in this field. They should propose win-win initiatives that give developing democracies more of a leadership role in reinforcing democratic governance, like the Open Government Partnership led initially by Brazil and the United States.
• As these countries continue to globalize their own trade and investment relations around the world, they are facing many of the same difficult tradeoffs as established democracies regarding if and how to implement global human rights norms. Business interests, energy dependency, migration flows and remittances, and aspirations for regional and global leadership all weigh significantly toward careful, cautious, and ad hoc policies concerning these issues.
• Each country’s history of overcoming authoritarian, military, or colonial legacies that were directly supported or abetted by Western powers in favor of establishing constitutional democracy does not necessarily translate into unquestioned support for international interventions to protect democracy and human rights. The memory of external impositions or endorsement of odious regimes runs deep. This leads policymakers in these countries to prioritize principles of national sovereignty and non-intervention and to resist or oppose traditional means of “regime change” in favor of peaceful, mediated, or longer-term processes of change, even at the cost of short-term violence and instability. The democratic peace theory is not well understood or accepted in most of these countries, a problem that established democracies could address through financial support and academic exchanges with leading foreign policy thinkers and diplomats.
• All four nations, to varying degrees, strongly object to the current distribution of power in the global order, leading them to oppose more robust international actions on grounds of selectivity, double standards, and hypocrisy and to claim a greater voice in structures of global governance, such as the U.N. Security Council. To secure a permanent seat on that body, states like Brazil and India seek to win as many friends as possible, thereby mitigating overt criticism of non-democratic regimes and reinforcing the bonds of South-South solidarity. Established powers will have to consider how to expand the voice of the swing states in global decision-making while locking in commitments to the liberal democratic order from which these swing states have benefited.
• The India-Brazil-South Africa forum, which explicitly endorses democracy and human rights as a shared value proposition and thereby distinguishes itself from BRICS offers a potentially important platform for coordinated diplomacy on issues of democracy and human rights. It could become even more powerful with the addition of Turkey and Indonesia in a new grouping known as IBSATI. Coordinated action by these countries has begun to occur already. Paired with a more coercive approach by established democracies, such efforts could serve a salutary “good cop, bad cop” function in some cases.
• The Arab Spring presents a positive narrative that underscores the universal nature of democracy and human rights and the importance of popular will in the definition and legitimacy of national sovereignty. It offers a unique opportunity for swing states, individually and as a group, to share their own recent experiences of democratic transition with the Arab world within a context of multilateral cooperation and respect for human rights, which the United States and Europe should encourage.
• There is a growing tendency by swing states to insist on deference to regional organizations as gate-keepers to wider international intervention in political crises. This position has the dual benefit, in their view, of limiting Western involvement and reinforcing their own roles as leaders in their respective regions. In this regard, to the surprise of many observers, the Arab League’s endorsement of NATO intervention in Libya and the support of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States for U.N. use of force in Côte d’Ivoire have compelled swing states to go along with — or, at least, not block outright — interventions in these countries in the name of protecting civilians.
• Although democratic transitions in the Arab world and elsewhere will be rocky, the popular demand for universal rights, in concert with the rise of democratic powers in the global south, will reinforce longstanding trends toward democratic governance and respect for human rights around the world, including international efforts to support transitions to democracy. The challenge before Western democracies is to evaluate when to seek convergence with rising democracies on international interventions to uphold human rights and when to yield to parallel efforts that may entail less control but greater acceptance and therefore greater effectiveness on the ground.
This is an extract from a recent contribution to the newly released Global Swing States report from an ongoing project undertaken by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).