29. February 2016 | EDP Wire | Jonas Wolff

Democracy Promotion and Power

This post draws on my article ‘Power in democracy’ that was recently published in the journal Alternatives, Vol. 40 (2015), No. 3-4, pp. 219-236.

International democracy promotion is, in many ways, concerned with power. By supporting local agents of democratic change, external democracy promoters shape domestic balances of power. In trying to get governments in target countries to embark on democratic reforms they would not otherwise pursue, democracy promoters also themselves exercise power. In order to project such political power, democracy promoters need the capacity to do so, that is: they require corresponding relative power vis-à-vis the targets. This multiple relation between power and international democracy promotion is rooted in the very subject matter. On the one hand, democracy as a system of political rule “is above all a matter of power,” and democratization is basically a process of redistributing political power.[1] On the other hand, democracy promotion – as a unidirectional relationship between a promoter and a “recipient” or “target” – almost by definition mirrors asymmetric international power relations.

Given the unresolved debate about the concept of power in the discipline of International Relations (IR), it does not come as a surprise that there is no consensus view on the role and relevance of “power” in the international promotion of democracy. What is surprising, however, is the limited attention scholars have so far paid to this issue when studying democracy promotion. In a recent article on “Power in democracy promotion”, I address this research gap by suggesting a way forward towards a systematic consideration of power in the academic study of democracy promotion. In the article, I do so by critically reviewing the existing scholarship on democracy promotion that explicitly deals with power and by proposing a multidimensional perspective on power as a way to improve our understanding of the international politics of democracy promotion. In this EDP wire post, I focus on the conceptual argument.

Conceptualizing power in democracy promotion

The typology of power developed by Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall[2] offers a useful starting point to systematically grasp the different ways in which democracy promotion is about exercising power. In line with Barnett and Duvall’s multidimensional perspective on power, I argue that power in democracy promotion does not only show up when democracy promoters somehow exert coercion in the sense of compulsory power. Rather, democracy promotion – because it aims at changing from within the very constitution of a given target state – is also about exercising what Barnett and Duvall call structural and productive kinds of power. In contrast to actor-specific types of “power over”, these types refer to a constitutive kind of “power to”. In democracy promotion, they can be defined as concerning the capacity to shape the structure of relations between democracy promoter and recipient as well as the structural conditions in recipient countries through either direct interaction with (actors in) recipient countries (structural power) or indirectly through effects on general systems of knowledge and discursive practices (productive power).

The important thing about this constitutive kind of power, whether structural or productive, is that it cannot be simply “exercised”: Both the (re-)sources and the effects of constitutive power lie beyond the relation of interaction between a democracy promoter and its target. Even if a democracy promoter is capable of exercising (a certain amount of) control over a given recipient government or an NGO through interacting with them, the real target (the shape of the political regime in question) lies beyond this direct relationship. Thus, while democracy promoters directly interact with actors on the recipient side, democracy promotion is about (indirectly) contributing to the establishment, in other (recipient) countries, of democratic political institutions and democratic “change agents” (structural power) as well as of an overall “democratic political culture,” i.e. generalized systems of meaning and signification (productive power). Democracy promotion, thus, involves much more than the direct or institutionally mediated power external actors exercise over local recipients or targets.

What is more, just like the capital-labor and master-slave relationships mentioned by Barnett and Duvall, donor-recipient relations in the area of democracy promotion are also an example “of how social structures constitute unequal social privileges and capacities”.[3] In the case of democracy promotion, however, the logic behind this asymmetric relationship is its overcoming: The “deficient” recipients are to become what the donors already are. Looking at democracy promotion from the perspective of structural power, then, shows why it depends so much on the very target country democracy promoters want to change: At least a critical bloc of domestic actors has to buy into this subordinate role and the notion of a deficient state of their country, while accepting the role model status of the donor that shows to the recipient country “the image of its own future,” to use Karl Marx’ famous expression. This relationship – as internalized by the recipient – therefore constitutes a crucial element of the power base on which democracy promotion rests. This includes that “recipients” have to buy into a global development discourse which constitutes the categories of developed and developing countries and establishes concepts and standards of development (such as good governance or liberal democracy).

This ideational power base of democracy promotion, at the same time, imposes limits on the use of compulsory power. At the international level, democracy promoters need at least a certain amount of credibility in order to be able to exercise the kind of power associated with democracy promotion. In other words, the international institutions and norms that support democracy promoters’ compulsory power at the same time limit their capacity to unilaterally do (in the name of democracy promotion) whatever they please. Otherwise, they will undermine the very power base on which democracy promotion rests – as the experience with George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda clearly shows. The same holds true for the intra-state level. In order for democracy promotion to function, the people in the recipient countries have to believe, at least to certain extent, in the kind of democracy that is promoted from the outside. Democracy, in this sense, has to be real to some extent – which necessarily imposes limits on what external actors with no democratic legitimation can do in a given country. In this sense, then, any successful exercise of power in and through democracy promotion – as it, by definition, impairs a recipient’s self-control – tends to reduce the very power base on which this exercise rests. This inherent inconsistency of democracy promotion is exemplified by the common call for local “ownership”, which is seen as necessary for effective democracy promotion but is, at the same time, basically denied by the very activities of democracy promoters.

Conclusion: Power and the limits of democracy promotion

By promoting democracy in other countries, states exercise power over others. This may include the use of material power resources, but it is obviously more than that. Furthermore, democracy promotion is not simply about an actor-centered kind of “power over”, be it material or ideational, compulsory or institutional. Promoting democracy also requires the capacity to exercise a constitutive “power to”: The aim, in the end, is to change from within the political regime of another state and, thus, its properties, capacities, interests and collective identity. At the same time, the whole endeavor of democracy promotion is dependent on inter- and transnational relations that constitute an asymmetric power relationship between democracy promoters and their “recipients”. A multidimensional concept of power, I submit, helps us understand and conceptualize the ways in which the different types of power are relevant for democracy promotion and connected to each other.

Specifically, a broad perspective on power draws our attention to the structural conditions – material and ideational, both within and beyond the recipient country – that enable and constrain the capacity of external actors to exercise constitutive kinds of power, be they structural or productive. These structural conditions help explain why democracy promotion is so limited in its ability to achieve the kind of effects it aims at, and, in fact, so contradictory. In the field of democracy promotion, actor-centered, top-down kinds of power are systematically dependent on constitutive conditions and local dynamics which can, themselves, not be simply produced “from the outside”, not even by overwhelming physical compulsion. It is therefore futile to think about – or to try to exercise – power in democracy promotion without paying attention to the local, trans- and international power relations that constitute the very practice of democracy promotion and, thereby, enable and constrain external actors in exercising the constitutive power they require in order to effectively promote whatever they regard as democracy.

This post draws on Jonas Wolff, Power in democracy promotion, in: Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol. 40 (2015), No. 3-4, pp. 219-236.doi: 10.1177/0304375415612269.


[1] Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens, Capitalist Development and Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), p. 5.

[2] See Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall, “Power in International Politics,” in International Organization 59, no. 1 (2005): 39-75; Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall, eds., Power in Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[3] Barnett and Duvall, “Power in International Politics,” p. 53.

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