4. December 2018 | EDP Wire | Annika E. Poppe, Solveig Richter, Jonas Wolff

Democracy Promotion in the 21st Century

This Wire is part of our new EDP Wire Series featuring the contributions of our joint EDP policy paper. Once a week, you are invited to read a new article on one of the key issues that democracy promotion is currently faced with. Against the backgound of a number of global developments that bode ill for international democracy, Annika, Jonas, and Solveig take stock of the key challenges and trends in international democracy promotion in this weeks contribution. They introduce the overall question that informed the EDP policy report: where is the policy of democracy promotion headed in the future – if anywhere: what form can and should adequate responses take in light of the changed circumstances?; suggest a reconceptualisation of democracy promotion research, and give a short overview over the coming contributions. In the following weeks, we will answer the question about whether or not democracy is in decline globally, what we should do with regard to shrinking civic spaces all over the world, and where the formerly major democracy promoters as well as the different world regions stand with regard to democracy promotion activities and (non-)successes.

The current situation: Dissolution of certainties about democracy promotion

In recent years, we have witnessed a number of global developments that bode ill for international democracy promotion – a policy that arguably enjoyed its heyday in the 1990s and became a key concern for many established democracies and international organizations. Since the mid-2000s, scholars have started to observe a global democratic recession and a backlash against democracy promotion. In the meantime, the situation has not improved, to say the least: in both academia and policy circles, current debates center on the rise of assertive autocracies and the diffusion and cooperation of authoritarian regimes, analyze the global wave of restrictions on civil society organizations and international civil society support (“closing/shrinking space”, see Poppe/Wolff in this report), and discuss the increasingly worrying trends of political polarization, backsliding and democratic erosion even in supposedly consolidated democracies, including in the United States and within the European Union (see Gerschewski in this report). At the same time, global assessments of the state of democracy in the world show that there is not an outright wave of autocratization: in quite a few countries we can still observe democratic progress, and all around the world there are certainly people struggling for democracy and human rights. On balance, however, international democracy promotion not only faces serious challenges and outright resistance in those countries that are on the receiving end, but is simultaneously undermined by serious problems on the side of key democracy promoters.

Against this background, this PRIF report takes stock of key challenges and trends in international democracy promotion with an emphasis on the two key governmental actors in democracy promotion and the traditional world regions receiving democracy aid. The overall question is where the policy of democracy promotion is headed in the future – if anywhere: what form can and should adequate responses take in light of the changed circumstances? Three challenges and how they are dealt with are particularly relevant in this regard:

(1) Challenged legitimacy of democracy and its promotion

Even if public opinion polls suggest that, broadly speaking, democracy is still the preferred form of government for a majority of people in most countries around the world, the specific model of liberal democracy has lost appeal for citizens governed by authoritarian as well as democratic regimes, and explicitly non-democratic ideas are also on the rise.[1] A number of factors have contributed to this. Whereas democracy was once equated with economic success and prosperity, political stability, and a high level of human rights standards, recent developments have highlighted how even established democracies are struggling. The world economic crisis has severely shaken the foundations of democratic states, while some authoritarian states, most notably China, continue to thrive economically. Resurgent right-wing movements and successful attempts at dismantling important elements of liberal democratic frameworks in the United States as well as some European countries have sullied the image of democracy. The European Union’s handling of, first, the crisis of the Eurozone and, then, the so-called recent ‘migration crisis’ has further contributed to diminishing its power as a role model. Two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq supposedly fought in the name of democracy by the United States and its allies have significantly undermined the legitimacy of democracy promotion as an international practice. A long-held assumption, albeit always controversial, is now severely and openly contested: This is the assumption that there are established democratic regimes that respect high democratic standards at home and are therefore able and normatively entitled to support countries on their path of “catch-up development.” In fact, the phenomenon of democratic contestation and erosion “at home” suggests that democracy-promoting countries are themselves increasingly worthwhile “targets” of democracy promotion.

(2) Diminished political will and political leverage on the donor side

The increasing struggle over, if not erosion of, democracy within many established democracies is combining at the international level with the much-discussed return of geopolitics and hard power. As a result, formerly active donor countries have become less enthusiastic. Their attention has turned away from promoting democracy and human rights, as many established democracies – even more than previously – give priority to other foreign policy and development goals and interests such as stabilization. Moreover, to the extent that state actors are still engaged on behalf of democracy, they are often faced with competing actors who offer engagement (investments, aid, economic partnership) with no political strings attached. China, again, is the most notable case in this regard. Overall, the credibility, the normative appeal, and the ability as well as political will of self-declared democracy promoters have clearly diminished (see Grimm and Poppe in this report).

(3) Increasing skepticism, contestation, and resistance on the recipient side

On the other side of the equation, lately “recipients” too have turned their backs on democracy promotion. Across all world regions, countries that had previously welcomed or at least tacitly accepted international democracy promotion are no longer willing to do so. This “pushback” against democracy promotion, which can be observed in around 60 countries, is probably here to stay – it constitutes the “new normal” (see Poppe/Wolff in this report).[2] As a result, while democracy promotion is needed more than ever from a normative standpoint, there are fewer and fewer places where it is welcome. Moreover, even in places where that is still the case, liberal democracy, as the long-presumed almost universal template upon which democracy promotion policy is based, often encounters significant degrees of contestation. As scholars have reminded us recently, democracy is an essentially contested concept – and, going further, this contestability is of key relevance when it comes to designing and implementing democracy promotion policies.[3] This means that liberal democracy understood as “constitutional, representative, individualistic, voluntaristic, privatistic, functionally limited, political democracy as practiced within nation-states”[4] no longer offers a relatively clear-cut, hegemonic template that can, basically, be taken for granted as the conceptual basis for democracy promotion. It has become obvious that democracy cannot simply be promoted but has to be negotiated, including at the very basic level of fundamental normative premises and moral beliefs.

In light of these challenges, the promotion of democracy as a strategy and an instrument of foreign and development policy is uncertain. To a previously unknown extent, who should promote democracy, where it should be promoted, and what exactly should be promoted are open questions — and thus previous core assumptions that have traditionally guided democracy promotion are now seriously contested.

What can be Done? Towards Reconceptualizing democracy promotion

How are democracy promoters responding to these challenges? As the individual contributions to this report document, many of the established practices of democracy promotion “on the ground” are continuing, in spite of the turmoil surrounding them at the level of national and international politics. There are certainly pragmatic adaptations as objectives are redefined and instruments revised, the result, mostly, being a shift towards less transformative agendas (that, for instance, aim at “stability” or “resilience”). However, such a rather technocratic response is not sufficient in light of the dissolution of certainties that affect the fundamentals of international democracy promotion. So what can be done? In summarizing key recommendations debated in the following chapters this policy report identifies four overall guidelines that should be considered when designing democracy promotion policies in the 21st century:

(1) Donors and scholars should reconceptualize international democracy promotion as a reflexive and interactive practice, in which the very aim itself (that is, democracy) is subject to deliberation and negotiation. In line with the Agenda 2030 in general and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 in particular, democracy promotion should be conceptualized as a two-way street, in which there are no passive “recipients” but only agents whose values and preferences have to be heard and taken seriously. This also concerns the very definition of the normative horizon towards which the promotion of “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making” should be working, as one of the targets of SDG 16 puts it. Obviously though, this raises the important question of what a non-negotiable core of democracy promotion might be and at what point democracy promotion no longer deserves the name.

(2) All democracy promotion efforts need to be based on careful context-sensitive analyses in order to decipher the best-suited approach in each situation. In practice, this will sometimes require, for example, a top-down or a bottom-up strategy, sometimes pushing hard and sometimes acquiescing to resistance. Moreover, donor governments which strive but regularly fail to follow overall political coherence in their bilateral relationships with “recipient” governments should, at a minimum, examine their foreign policy in light of a do-no-harm standard.

(3) Democracy promoters should try hard to recuperate the power of the example. While difficult to measure, there is little doubt that the attraction of prospering and stable democratic regimes has been a key dynamic in the spread of democracy throughout the centuries. Democracies thus need to focus seriously on their internal struggles as one part of the strategy for regaining global democratic momentum. Additionally, in terms of democracy promotion itself, applying military force to help spread democracy or using the rhetoric of democracy promotion to justify counterterrorism measures or military interventions should be out of the question.

(4) Democracy promoters should adjust their policies to align with recent trends. For instance, in response to the emergence of “new civic activism,”[5] donors should become more flexible in terms of funding requirements, less focused on the usual suspects (e.g., capital-based advocacy NGOs) and less driven by their own normative and political agendas. Often, low-key, small-scale efforts that lay the foundation for democratic developments rather than trying to push directly for democratic change are most promising. In this sense, in response to an increasingly difficult context in recipient countries, donors should focus on the fundamental basics of democratic rule and shift, if necessary, from the goal of democracy promotion to goals that are less politically transformative and, therefore, usually also less contested, such as conflict management, mediation, and electoral observation.

Overview of the policy paper

Apart from the second chapter, whose purpose is to summarize the much-debated trends of autocratization and democratic backsliding, all chapters first briefly outline the status quo, work out the most important challenges, and then offer recommendations in their respective fields. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 seek to further illuminate important context conditions for democracy promotion. Gerschewski shows us that there is no general rise in autocratic regimes, but worrying developments indeed with regard to the quality of democratic regimes world-wide in terms of political rights and civil liberties (chapter 2). Poppe and Wolff zoom in on one particularly noticeable phenomenon in this regard – the global spread of shrinking spaces for civil society actors – and discuss how this affects international civil society support (chapter 3). Freyburg looks at a specific strategy of international governance assistance that some consider a promising alternative to the direct and explicit promotion of democracy and discusses whether democracy promotion through so called “functional cooperation” might be a solution to the current malaise (chapter 4).

We then turn to the two key actors on the world stage with regard to democracy promotion policies: the European Union (Grimm, chapter 5) and the United States (Poppe, chapter 6). Both are increasingly faced with internal and external obstacles and disincentives for democracy promotion, and the EU, so far, has not signaled willingness to fill the gap currently opening in light of US neglect of the matter. Finally, network members examine four world regions where democracy promotion has been an important factor in relationships with “Northwestern” states during the last two decades: the Arab world (von Hüllen, chapter 7), Africa (Leininger, chapter 8), post-Soviet countries (Richter, chapter 9), as well as Latin America (Wolff, chapter 10).

The assessments and recommendations that are made in the individual chapters are not necessarily always in alignment with each other. This is the case because good solutions are contingent but also because the EDP Network is itself an example of the fact that both democracy and democracy promotion are contested concepts. In general terms, this report uses “democracy” in line with the mainstream concept of liberal, representative democracy, unless explicitly stated otherwise. This is not the case because we necessarily all share such a conception, but because this is the way in which democracy promotion is conceptualized by the very promoters we are studying. Democracy promotion, in the same vein, is used to encapsulate the set of policies that are explicitly aimed at supporting the spread and improvement of democracy, no matter whether they actually do so or not. Having said that, when it comes to weighing up policy trade-offs and formulating policy recommendations, the normative premises of the respective authors necessarily come into play. This diversity in terms of conceptual, methodological and normative approaches and the culture of exchange having emerged on that basis is something we consider one of our research network’s strong suits. Moreover, the recommendations offered may be original but also sometimes reflect well-known calls that have not yet been heeded. It is also important to note that, beyond all due skepticism regarding the policy and practice of democracy promotion, we do not wish to see the policy abandoned. We share the hope that, while democracy promotion has not (yet) often proven successful in empirical and normative terms and while we recognize its many problems, potentially this practice can be(come) a worthwhile endeavor improving the lives of many. At the very least, we share the belief that a world in which actors no longer think about how to promote democracy would certainly not be a better place.

[1]     See, e.g., Pew Research Center 2017: Globally, Broad Support for Representative and Direct Democracy. But many also endorse nondemocratic alternatives, http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/10/17102729/Pew-Research-Center_Democracy-Report_2017.10.16.pdf.

[2]     Thomas Carothers/Saskia Brechenmacher 2014: Closing Space. Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 31.

[3]     Milja Kurki 2013: Democratic Futures: Re-Visioning Democracy Promotion, Abingdon: Routledge.

[4]     Philippe C. Schmitter: A Sketch of What A ‘Post-Liberal’ Democracy Might Look Like, Fiesole: European University Institute (unpublished manuscript), 1–2.

[5]     Richard Youngs (ed.) 2017: Global Civic Activism in Flux, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, http://carnegieeurope.eu/2017/03/17/global-civic-activism-in-flux-pub-68301.

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