Jeff Bridoux is a lecturer in International Politics at Aberystwyth University, Wales. His research focuses on the future of the liberal world order, the use of the concept of power in International Relations, especially regarding American Foreign Policy, international politics of the Middle East and East Asia, post-conflict reconstruction, democracy promotion and democratisation. In this EDP Wire contribution, Jeff discusses the demise of international democracy promotion. He argues that the two main actors of democracy promotion, the EU and the United States, have to bear part of the blame due to rising nationalism and waning interest in external democracy promotion.
For practitioners and scholars of democracy promotion, these are troubling times. Across the world, democracy seems to be in decline. Between 2000 and 2015, 27 countries experienced a breakdown of democracy and political liberties are in retreat globally (Diamond 2016: 151). Freedom House (2017: 4) warns that, in the last decade, the share of free countries has declined while the share of non-free countries has risen. 45% of the world’s countries are free (compared to 47% in 2006), 30% are partly free (same as 2006), and 25% are not free (compared to 23% in 2006). There are a number of reasons to explain this decline of democracy and freedom globally. The overarching reason, however, is a questioning of democracy as the regime most likely to deliver the political stability and socio-economic progress desired by all people (Plattner 2016: 5). This questioning results from three inter-twined explanations: 1. advanced democracies are perceived as struggling to deal with political and economic crises at home; 2. a growing number of authoritarian regimes offer attractive alternatives to democracy that seem to be performing well, especially on economic indicators, thus contesting the soft power monopoly enjoyed by democracies to date; and 3. the geopolitical balance seems to be tilting in favour of a number of authoritarian regimes that assertively contest the liberal world order and seek to carve regional zones of influence for themselves – especially China and Russia. In other words, advanced democracies seem to be retreating both on the soft power and hard power fronts (Plattner 2016: 5-6; Diamond 2016: 151; Hobson 2015: 204-205).
This retreat of political liberalism is symptomatic of what some have identified as a decline of the Western-led liberal world order (Haass 2016, 2017; Acharya 2014; Mahbubani 2014; Sorensen 2015, 2016; Niblett 2017; Colgan and Keohane 2017). Having been at the spearhead of a global democratic advance since the end of the Cold War, democracy promotion finds itself now on the battlements of fortress democracy. In addition to the authoritarian battering ram knocking on the gates, unexpectedly, democracy promotion is also facing internal challenges: the rise of nationalism and populism in Europe and the United States, and its corollary calls for a global normative disengagement of the West.
Indeed, the two main actors of democracy promotion, the European Union and the United States, are facing a resurgence of nationalist and populist movements, which have little sympathy for the idea of promoting democracy and human rights abroad. Yet, some nuance is needed here. Following the vote in favour of Brexit and the rise of nationalist claims for more sovereignty through accrued border controls, severance of UK from EU legislation, and complete autonomy of decision-making for all political, economic and social matters affecting UK, many observers spelled the doom of the EU. The nationalist movement in UK indeed was echoed in a number of countries with the rise of anti-EU and more particularly anti-freedom of movement political parties, which questioned the liberal globalist agenda. Yet, with the exception of Poland, Hungary, Austria, The Netherlands or France, these parties failed to gain sufficient power to threaten, for the time being, the future of the EU. A battle for liberalism was won but the war is far from over. Indeed, in the case of UK, the UKIP agenda has been ingested by the Conservative Party. In the case of Austria, the Netherlands, and France, the centrist parties that won the elections will have to consider that the share of the electorate won by rightist or leftist parties that contest globalisation and the dissolution of the national character has been steadily growing. For example, in France, the 2017 Presidential election saw the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen (Front National) almost double her father’s score of 18% in the 2002 Presidential election. In contrast, Poland and Hungary are experiencing a serious shift of the electorate to the right, which on the longer term may prove problematic and lead to a weakening of the EU through repeated challenges to its fundamental norms and values. Poland’s judicial reforms, according to Brussels, put at risk the rule of law by putting the judiciary under political control of the ruling majority. One may ponder whether the triggering of article 7 by the EU Commission constitutes a sign of weakness rather than strength.
Does this tendency of European electorates to question liberal values mean that the EU democracy promotion activities may be affected? It is unlikely. The EU democracy promotion apparatus functions autonomously from direct control from member-states. It would take a change of policy direction initiated by the European Parliament to get the Commission to reconsider the EU’s investment in democracy promotion instruments. EU Parliament groups that would consider such a change of policy are far from commanding the necessary majority to see such a change of policy. There is no doubt, however, that the rise of populism in Europe, however, constitutes a serious challenge to liberal democracy, and by extension, dents the EU legitimacy as democracy promoter.
Turning to the other major democracy promotion actor, the United States generates more anxiety as to the future of democracy promotion activities. President Trump has little appetite for international development aid and softer instruments of power such as democracy promotion. The anticipated slashing of the foreign aid budget alongside the evisceration of the Department of State’s resources both in financial and human resources terms does not augur well. It seems that democracy promotion as a policy of the US government is on the back foot. Perhaps even more worrying, Trump’s attitude towards democratic norms adds to the confusion. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the United States is not, in the current state of affairs, a beacon of democracy. The president’s discourse and actions have fairly consistently been clashing with both liberal values and democratic norms since he took office. Domestically, his attitude towards immigration, his attacks on political opponents, his continuous contempt for the press, his reliance on and endorsement of far-right news outlets and message, and his support to populist ideas all contribute to sapping the image of the US as the cradle of democracy and liberalism. Internationally, the administration’s actions point in the direction of a disengagement from the world exemplified by the America First idea and a questioning of the globalisation of liberal values and ways, notably when it comes to trade. In addition, Trump seems to enjoy the company of autocrats rather than his democratic allies, and is yet to comment on a variety of struggles for freedom happening across the world. This may, potentially, have serious consequences for the continuity of the so-called liberal world order but will most certainly lead to shrinkage of the liberal peace sphere. The lack of interest from Washington in supporting democracy abroad means that autocratic and semi-democratic governments will remain even more unchallenged by their own civil societies due to a likely drop in Western funding. It also means that countries in transition may experience difficult times, especially if illiberal political parties question the secular liberal orientation taken by the country, which in turn could lead to a rejection of democracy promotion activities seen as encroaching on sovereignty through mingling in domestic affairs. If support from governmental Western democracy promotion actors dries up, we could experience democratic recession on a global scale.
Despite this rather bleak view concerning the future of democracy globally, there may be some sort of silver lining. At home, the rise of populism has already led to greater mobilisation for the protection of democratic norms and liberal values. Both in Europe and in the United States, civil society has reacted to what is perceived as an assault on fundamentals of our way of life. A combination of NGOs, the press, universities, and individuals have turned up the volume of contestation and rejection of discourses and actions that threaten liberal democracy. In other words, people are becoming more political and are reflecting on what caused such a threat to emerge to start with. Political apathy is being replaced with self-reflection and critical engagement with a number of issues that have plagued free market democracy for a long time. Growing inequality, lack of social justice, accountability of elected individuals, and free speech are a few of these issues that generate passionate debates and political action. That is good news for democracy.
Abroad, a reduction in democracy promotion funding is perhaps not necessarily a bad thing. This may give some room to local civil society organisations to leave the nest and embrace greater responsibilities in the designing of political futures for their societies. The main challenge will be for these organisations to maintain enough freedom of expression and action in order to articulate and express those alternatives. This would require a clear message from traditional democracy promotion actors that they will at least keep engaging in the political act of pressing governments to liberalise their societies even if material support is reduced. This message is still being emitted from Brussels but not from Washington.
Not all is lost but let us not kid ourselves. Liberal democracy is under siege. But its assailants have not crossed the moat yet. If anything, they are currently caught in the morass of their own contradictions and non-democratic practices. It is time to open the gates and sally out. Promoting democracy as organisations and individuals both at home and abroad, through words and actions, is now more critical than ever. If our governments will not do it, it will be down to civil society and individuals to pick up the baton.
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