“In just the last few weeks, the Russian government has used a show trial to silence a prominent activist, Egypt’s junta has massacred protesters, Turkey has cracked down on peaceful dissent, and the rulers of Cambodia and Zimbabwe have stolen elections — again,” notes a leading observer.
“In each case, the Obama administration’s … seeming indifference has infuriated human rights and democracy advocates, who are dismayed by the mismatch between the president’s occasional stirring speech and his everyday lack of action,” Foreign Affairs editor Jonathan Tepperman writes in the New York Times.
But experts say the likely impact of external pressure is hard to assess, because there is “no comprehensive social science research on whether pushing regimes to democratize or respect human rights,” he observes:
The first point these experts emphasize is that strong language — naming and shaming — doesn’t do much on its own. Rhetorical condemnation from Washington, like that aimed at the Soviet Union during the Cold War, can comfort local dissidents. And sometimes it changes a regime’s bad behavior in the short term….
According to Larry Diamond* (left), a Stanford professor and a renowned expert on democratization, these can include threatening to reduce or suspend aid, downgrade diplomatic ties, or cut back cooperation on things like military exercises.
These measures may work if several conditions are met.First, … the target country has to be small and poor, so that losing aid would cause it serious pain. …Diamond argues that it also helps to have lots of connections to the regime in question. …. The more contacts there are between the local government and the outside world, the more levers there are to pull or points on which to apply pressure.
Myanmar, meanwhile, which was finally convinced to liberalize by the promise of improved diplomatic and trade ties, shows the value of positive inducements: carrots as well as sticks.
“Yet the political scientists who study these questions hasten to point out that you can meet all of these conditions and still fail to effect change,” Tepperman notes.
“If the target regime is willing to withstand a lot of pain and wreck its country rather than yield (Zimbabwe), or if it’s rich, powerful and well entrenched (China, Russia, Venezuela), or if it knows that the United States needs it as much as it needs U.S. aid (Saudi Arabia) — then even the harshest forms of inducement are unlikely to accomplish anything.” RTWT
Or, he might have added, if the regime has alternative sources of assistance that minimizes or neutralizes the impact of pressure from the US, EU or other democratic states.
While many Western states are committed to promoting democracy, authoritarian regimes and other illiberal actors are increasingly engaged in defending autocracy or advancing anti-democratic agendas, from Chavista promotion of authoritarian populism to Gulf states and charities funding Islamist groups across the Middle East (and beyond).
An issue that also merits further research is the political impact of Chinese development assistance, not least in sub-Saharan Africa.
“It is not obvious…that all of these activities were of benefit to the Zimbabwean people” she notes:
Media reports indicate that Chinese financing has enabled the Mugabe regime to construct a new presidential mansion, purchase equipment to censor independent radio and television stations, as well as monitor the political activities of opponent politicians and their constituents in the 2005 presidential election…. Many of these Chinese-financed infrastructure projects require the use of Chinese private sector companies or state-owned enterprises, some of which have attracted criticism for their poor treatment of local Zimbabwean employees.
The isolated Mugabe regime has certainly benefited from Chinese financing, but how does China gain from its investments in Zimbabwe’s development? China has cultivated an ally, as evidenced by President Mugabe’s public praise of the country in many of his international speeches. Moreover, the Chinese government has parlayed funding for development projects into securing licenses for Chinese companies to extract diamonds and other natural resources in high demand at home.
“China has provoked criticism for the scale of its assistance to regimes with poor human rights’ records, such as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe,” Will notes:
Human Rights Watch has accused China of “not only prop[ing] up some of the continent’s worst human rights abusers, but also weaken[ing] the leverage of others trying to promote greater respect for human rights.” Other NGOs and human rights groups have criticized China’s policy of “stadium diplomacy”.
“But few of these claims have been subjected to careful empirical scrutiny due to previous data limitations,” she states. “AidData’s database on Chinese official finance provides a unique opportunity to address these knowledge gaps by facilitating more granular analysis of the drivers and effects of Beijing’s overseas development activities.”