The failure of young democracies in so many regions of the world has had enormous consequences, writes Joshua Kurlantzick. Most obviously, the renewed strength of authoritarian rule means that billions of people continue to live under repressive or pseudo-democratic hybrid regimes, deprived of the freedoms most in the West take for granted. But external actors can regain the initiative, he argues in this extract from his new book*, by adopting new approaches to democracy assistance.
Outside actors can have the greatest impact on democratization at three critical points in the process. First, when countries are still under authoritarian rule, outside actors can play a significant role through rhetorical criticism, funding of prodemocracy dissident groups inside the country, or just publicly providing a different model of governance to authoritarianism, one that average citizens of an autocratic state can see. This role was played in the 1980s when the United States and Western Europe increased their rhetorical condemnation of Soviet bloc rulers, boosted their support for broadcasts into the Eastern bloc, provided exchange programs for intellectuals, and helped promote labor rights and other civil society.
Once a developing nation has begun to make a transition to democracy, outside actors have their second chance to make a significant impact. In the early years of the transition, when countries normally are more aid-dependent, political culture and institutions are still in flux, and the possibility of a regression to authoritarianism remains, major donors can play a dual role: they can continue using aid money and rhetoric to demand that the countries do not regress to authoritarian rule, while simultaneously offering critical expertise in areas like developing civil society, fighting corruption, and holding and monitoring elections. With democracies so nascent, this expertise is more likely to be needed and absorbed than later on when countries like Tunisia would develop their own cadres of experts, and when politicians, labor leaders, and journalists might be more resistant to training programs from foreign nations.
Meanwhile, leading democracies can be using aid money and bully pulpits to try to ensure that elements from the previous authoritarian regimes do not return to power: Washington can warn the military in places like Thailand not to launch coups, link aid to benchmarks of democratization, and work with developing nations to create reasonable systems of accountability for former authoritarian leaders. Of course, the United States, which is widely unpopular today in countries such as Egypt, needs to be cautious—if its pressure on developing nations to stick to a democratic transition becomes counterproductive, then it may be better to stay quiet, at least for a time.
Finally, as developing countries’ democracies become more stable and mature, donors can play a third role. By this point, as in Indonesia, the Philippines, or South Africa today, the process of democratization is unlikely to be reversed, and is less dependent on aid as a percentage of its national budget. At this point developed democracies can help solidify these nations’ democracies by recognizing progress and including them in international institutions like the G-20 and other groups, citing them as examples of democratic change, and working alongside local democracy promotion specialists from these countries on the ground, as equal partners by, for example, calling on democracies like Indonesia or South Africa to send experts—in elections, budgeting, media, or other topics—to developing countries at an earlier stage of democratic development.
Focus Spending on Best Prospects
Democracy assistance should focus more clearly on countries where efforts can make the largest impact with limited dollars. This is not an easy trade-off, and any decision to ignore potential democratic change somewhere will be open to criticism. But it is a necessary selectiveness in an era of diminished resources and significant existing global threats including terrorism and nuclear proliferation, both of which much be addressed as well, at significant cost. The United States should be consistent in rhetorically upholding democracy and human rights, but focus democracy assistance on a certain spectrum of countries where democratic consolidation seems most feasible, assistance can make a greater difference, and aid can be packaged with multilateral assistance from other donors.
Leading democracies can identify the nations ripest for democracy promotion assistance by examining them on a range of indicators, such as those used by Freedom House or the Economist Intelligence Unit, to rank countries that have begun transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy. These indicators can be compiled and combined with historical data to analyze which nations have the best chances of consolidating democratic transitions. Countries that are above a certain level of income, that have only modest economic inequality, and that have some experience with inclusive government are most likely to complete a successful transition to democracy.
By evaluating nations eligible for democracy assistance using these criteria, policy makers also will be better equipped to decide whether to prioritize democracy promotion when it potentially conflicts with U.S. strategic interests. These criteria for evaluating potential democratic success stories thus will help create a kind of sliding scale. On one end of the scale are countries such as North Korea where, judging from historical data and current criteria, the likelihood of successful democratization is very low. Given the unlikelihood of democratic change anytime soon, U.S. policy toward countries like these should revolve around critical strategic interests, hard-hearted though that may be. On the other end of the spectrum are nations, like Thailand, that fulfill many of the conditions that, historically, have proven essential to successful democratization. In these cases, it may make sense for Washington to prioritize democracy promotion, even when it conflicts with strategic interests.
The balance of democracy promotion and strategic interests will prove the most difficult in the middle ground of countries on this sliding scale—a country like Egypt, which fulfills only some of the criteria that historically have suggested a successful transition to democracy, but where the ruling regime, not yet truly democratic, also has been historically a close partner on many high-priority strategic issues. Should the White House throw all the weight of its office behind democratic change in Egypt, given that a democratic transition is hardly assured, and the strategic issues are so weighty? It is beyond the scope of this book to provide answers to every such conundrum. But at least by having the kind of established, quantifiable criteria of democracy’s chance of success that we have examined here, American officials can make informed judgments on when to make decisions that could threaten the United States’ strategic interests.
Move Beyond ‘Big Men’
U.S. administrations too often tend to associate reform with one supposedly groundbreaking leader in a developing nation. In rare cases, such a leader exists, someone like Nelson Mandela, who not only is truly dedicated to reform but also possesses such moral authority and total control of his political party and allies that he or she really can push a country through transition. More often, even a truly reform-minded “big man” like Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono requires many factors to go in his favor to push his country successfully toward democracy, and can be hindered by recalcitrant leaders from the old regime, endemic poverty, a restive army, or many other factors. In worse cases, like Nigeria’s Olesegun Obasanjo or Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, once in power “big man” leaders who initially look like reformers, perhaps because they spent years in opposition fighting authoritarian rulers, turn out to be as corrupt or autocratic as those they replaced.
Administrations must avoid the temptation to personalize reform, and to confuse supporting change and institutions in a country like Nigeria or Indonesia with supporting one leader. At the least, this personalization can allow such a leader to kill quality foreign-funded programs, from civil society building to anticorruption initiatives, which might go against his or her interests. This “big man” theory of democracy promotion also leads U.S. diplomats to ignore a wide range of opinion leaders in an emerging country. Failing to make contacts with many other potential democrats thus leaves the United States unprepared if the favored reformer loses an election.
Respect Poll Winners—If They Play Fair
Leading democracies will have to make a habit of respecting the winners of elections, as long as they adhere to certain guidelines of a democratic society, such as not using victory to then legitimize authoritarian rule. If the winners of democratic elections show, in good faith, commitment to democratic norms and values, the United States and other leading democracies should not isolate or remove them. This commitment will probably mean dealing with political parties that win elections and contain noxious beliefs within their party platforms. But such problematic parties have gained power in many countries, without destroying those nations’ political systems; for example, in Austria the far-right Freedom Party gained a good deal of power in the mid- and late 2000s, while in India elements of the Bharitya Janata Party, which ran the government between 1998 and 2004, were implicated in anti-Muslim pogroms that left thousands dead. And over time, as has occurred in countries like Indonesia and India, extreme parties’ participation in the political system tends to moderate views as they seek to gain larger numbers of voters.
However, if elections are clearly flawed, or simply preempted by a democratic reversal such as a coup, the United States needs to be willing to take a stronger stand. In 2006, for example, following the coup in Thailand, the United States did not cancel joint military exercises with the Thai military, a sign of de facto acceptance of the coup. Many Thai officers—and military in other parts of Southeast Asia—interpreted the U.S. reaction as a potential signal that the Washington does not condemn military takeovers.
Elections Are Only Step One
Effectively promoting lasting democracy will require investing in far more than national elections, even ones held freely and fairly. Donors should consider pushing aid-recipient developing nations to adopt some of the decentralization strategies used by Indonesia over the past decade. By decentralizing political and economic power, Indonesia devolved control from the capital, involved more citizens in the political process, and reduced threats of separatism. By funding and helping monitor Indonesian-style village, local, city, and provincial elections as well as national elections, donors would be contributing to the inclusion of larger numbers of citizens in developing nations in the democratic process.
Donors also should recalibrate funding so that larger percentages of assistance go less toward organizing and holding national elections, and more toward building institutions: constitutional courts, anticorruption commissions, an informed populace, a vibrant civil society, a reduced role for the army, and, possibly, a more fragmented political system. To shift funding toward these foundations of democracy, donors could modify budgeting from renewal annually to every two or three years, a change some Scandinavian nations already have made. Moving toward funding over a longer cycle would allow projects on the ground to develop closer relations among local partners, set long-term objectives, and have the time to truly assess whether projects are succeeding.
Donor nations should expand exchange programs for opinion leaders from emerging democracies, in part by relaxing visa restrictions religious leaders, civil society leaders, and politicians from developing nations. Diplomats and officials from donor nations could make greater efforts to link civil society in developing nations not only to officials but also to civil society organizations, serving as a kind of bridge.
Get Better at Judging
Going beyond electoralism also would include conditioning a growing amount of foreign assistance on criteria similar to those of the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Historical data show that this is the right approach—that the foundations for a more participatory and inclusive government make democracy’s success more likely. In a comprehensive study of developing nations, international political economists Hilton Root and Bruce Bueno Mesquita found that those that were the most inclusive—defined by government openness and citizens’ ability to organize and compete on a national level, among other criteria – are more likely to promote frequent government turnover, a sign of democratic consolidation.
Of all the complaints about U.S. democracy promotion offered by aid recipients, the one that comes up most often is the rigidity of democracy assistance programs, which tend to be put into place, with little flexibility, in various countries. They are done in this one-size-fits-all way, notes the Carnegie Endowment ‘s Thomas Carothers, primarily because developing one consistent plan is easier when working with Beltway contractors, easier to present to appropriators who then get familiar with the structure of aid programs, and easier for people working in the field to learn.
However, this type of plan usually does not work. For example, many plans that were based on projects developed in the late 1990s for supporting local and national governance, as well as civil society, in the Balkans were then brought, with few changes, to Afghanistan—even though Afghan society bore little resemblance to the areas where USAID and other agencies had worked in the Balkans. Nevertheless, USAID and other aid organizations transplanted programs developed in places far more prepared for democratization directly to rural Afghanistan.
Democracy assistance programs must become more attuned to local conditions. Like companies thinking about entering a new market, USAID and its contractors should use a small amount of funding to conduct extensive surveys of countries in which they are planning to launch programs, asking questions about the labor and media environments, and the political culture, and meeting with other donors to avoid program duplication. Currently, donor group meetings are often are not held until after the major donors already have planned and launched projects.
Work with Multilateral Actors
Stronger democracy promotion also should include boosting cooperation with multilateral efforts to promote civil society and to improve the quality of democracy, such as the United Nations Democracy Fund. Some 85 percent of UN Democracy Fund monies are allocated for nongovernmental organizations. The fund was launched in 2006 but remains underfunded and poorly utilized; it could be drastically expanded and, with greater American support, made into a powerful tool of aid to civil society in emerging democracies.
Other multilateral democracy organizations also tend to be poorly funded and relatively unknown, such as: the Bali Democracy Forum, a group that brings together primarily Asian democracies to discuss ways to foster democracy in the region; the Community of Democracies, an intergovernmental group of democracies from all regions of the world that mostly serves to share information on how to improve the quality of democracy; and several others. Although the United States participates in many of these organizations, it tends to play a minimal role. But with only modest financial assistance (less than $5–$10 million annually) and perhaps higher-level U.S. participation, some of these organizations could play a larger regional role in promoting democracy.
Enlist Emerging Giants
Many of the emerging democracies, such as India, Brazil, and South Africa, have thus far been reluctant to engage in democracy promotion, or even to stand up for democracy and human rights at international forums like the United Nations. Besides their Cold War histories, which made them adherents of absolute sovereignty, many of these emerging giants still do not see the gains they would accrue by promoting democracy. But what have these emerging giants gotten from defense of sovereignty and support for autocratic regimes like Zimbabwe, Sudan, Libya, and Myanmar? American officials, and activists in the emerging giants themselves, must work harder to convince these new powers that, no matter how they defend sovereignty, China still always will have an advantage over them in making business deals and strategic alliances with autocratic nations.
India, South Africa, Brazil, or other emerging democratic powers could establish themselves as models of democratic rule for other developing nations—and thus reap the strategic benefits of being seen as a model when other nations solidify their democracies.
Turkey already is reaping this benefit of being seen as a democratic model, despite recent concerns that its government has jailed growing numbers of journalists who disagree with Ankara’s policies. As nations in the Arab-Muslim world throw off their tyrants, and then look for models of democratic consolidation that promote secular and liberal rule, the “Turkey model”—Turkey’s successful evolution from a shaky, army-dominated nation to a solid and vibrant democracy—frequently tops the list.
Even while reviving aggressive advocacy for democracy and human rights, established democracies need to become more humble. Humility means accepting, and trying to remedy, the crisis of governance in established Western democracies, which has not only damaged support in Western nations for democracy but also has made it harder to promote democracy abroad. While the United States and other Western nations struggle with their own governance problems, leaders, and officials should not avoid talking about current troubles.
And, while talking about American exceptionalism on the presidential campaign trail may be a political imperative, admitting that even developed democracies face governance challenges—and can resolve these challenges through public discussion, nonviolent protest, political campaigns, and elections—should hardly degrade the “brand” of American democracy. These gestures demonstrate to foreign audiences that the United States recognizes that, while there are certain core democratic values and norms, there are different approaches to making democracy work.
* Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government.