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. Today, we start with an executive summary where we give a concise and pointed overview of key trends and challenges that characterize the field of international democracy promotion today, examining the challenges on the “donor” side, the “recipient” side and in the global context. 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.
For quite some time now, academia and policy circles have debated what has been termed a democratic recession and a backlash against democracy promotion, while mutterings of the end of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” have resonated widely. Recent events, including the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States, the rise of illiberal rightwing forces across Europe, and political developments in major Southern democracies such as Brazil, India, and South Africa, have only exacerbated this pessimistic mood. However, many established practices of international democracy promotion up to now continue relatively unscathed by these trends. Where do we currently stand, in terms of democracy promotion in general in today’s world, with regard to traditional key promoters such as the European Union and the United States, as well as with regard to those regions that have been the main recipients of democracy promotion? And what do recent developments mean, we wonder, for the field of study that we have devoted so much work to? This report aims at giving a concise and pointed overview of the key trends and challenges that characterize the field of international democracy promotion – in the hope of providing perspective and offering points of reflection for practitioners, academics and all those interested in the global state and future of democracy. It is based on the research that network members have been conducting, both individually and collectively, as well as on the many discussions that we have had at our regular network meetings.
The introduction to the report outlines current trends and challenges that democracy promotion policy is confronted with, and it offers general recommendations for dealing with these challenges based on the following chapters, which analyze contextual factors, actors, and regions. The second chapter reflects upon the current debate on trends towards autocratization and democratic backsliding and reminds us that, while a gradual decline in civil liberties and the rule of law is indeed worrisome, no broader trend of a decline of democracy can be detected. A third chapter further explores the disconcerting trends subsumed under the term “shrinking civic spaces.” It concludes that, while the operational response to the manifold restrictions on civil society space has been somewhat successful, external democracy promoters have not yet adequately dealt with the normative challenges nor developed a coherent political response. A fourth chapter finds that functional cooperation might serve as a long-term and rather subtle strategy for indirectly promoting democracy but is indeed beset by problems similar to those that more traditional forms of direct democracy promotion are facing.
The following two chapters explore the European Union and the United States, the two most important traditional governmental democracy promoters. In analyzing where they currently stand and what can and should be expected of them, the chapters show that the goal of democracy promotion has further lost significance on the respective foreign policy agendas and it is not clear to what extent policymakers have the will and the ability to resuscitate it in the medium to long term. The final four chapters look at four world regions where democracy promotion has been an important factor during the last two decades: the Arab World, Sub-Saharan Africa, post-Soviet countries, and Latin America. These regions have all been affected, to differing degrees, by the challenges democracy promotion is facing (outlined below and in the introduction). The authors agree that the loss of credibility of democracy promoters is palpable across the board and is often accompanied by a diminished will and ability to pursue democracy promotion which needs to be addressed. The authors’ assessments of how best to respond to the lack of successful democracy promotion in the respective regions, however, differ. The responses discussed here are diverse and range across focusing on democratic essentials only, a preference for functional cooperation, a focus on prioritizing bottom-up strategies, to a more assertive normative positioning of donor countries.
In sum, the report shows that there is no need to be alarmist. Democracy is certainly in crisis in many countries around the world and, overall, negative trends have clearly outweighed positive ones in the last decade; but the breakdown of democratic regimes is still a relatively rare phenomenon, and the end of democracy as we know it is not in sight. Similarly, despite the backlash and retreat, international democracy promotion is (still) characterized by important continuities – and is, thus, for the time being here to stay. Still, the analyses collected in this report do reveal substantial problems that call for significant adjustments to the established conceptualization and practice of international democracy promotion.
In sum, we show that international democracy promotion is currently challenged:
- On the ‘donor’ side:
- by a lack of credibility
- by a lack of political will and leverage
- On the ‘recipient’ side:
- by increasing resistance (e.g. against external interference) and/or lack of political will
- by a lack of capacity (e.g., in the contexts of fragile states, regime hybridity and/or violent conflicts)
- In the global context:
- by competing actors that reduce the leverage of democracy promoters
- by a reduced legitimacy/attractiveness of democracy as a model/template for political development
Responding adequately to these challenges is clearly not easy. General recommendations in light of the more specific challenges that the chapters address are summarized in the introduction and include the following: There is a need for donors and scholars alike to reconceptualize international democracy promotion as a reflexive and interactive practice which allows for actual space to debate and negotiate between all relevant stakeholders. For the purpose of finding the most suitable approach in each concrete case, democracy promoters need to pay more attention to careful context-sensitive analyses. In terms of their own role in this policy endeavor, democracy promoters should try to rebuild their lost credibility and restore the power of their example as democracies. Finally, they also need to respond better to recent trends, such as new forms of civic activism, and align their policies accordingly.
Contributions to the EDP policy paper:
1. Democracy Promotion in the 21st Century – Annika E. Poppe, Solveig Richter and Jonas Wolff
2. Autocratization and Democratic Backsliding: Taking Stock of a Recent Debate – Johannes Gerschewski
3. Democracy Promotion and the Challenge of Shrinking Civic Spaces – Annika E. Poppe and Jonas Wolff
4. Democracy Promotion by Indirect Means: Potential and Limits of Functional Cooperation – Tina Freyburg
5. Democracy Promotion and the European Union – Sonja Grimm
6. Democracy Promotion under the Current US Administration – Annika E. Poppe
7. Democracy Promotion in the Post-Soviet Space – Solveig Richter
8. Democracy Promotion in the Arab World – Vera van Hüllen
9. Democracy Promotion in Africa – Julia Leininger
10. Democracy Promotion in the Americas – Jonas Wolff