31. May 2017 | EDP Wire | Vera van Hüllen

International Cooperation and Authoritarianism: Dilemmas of International Democracy Promotion

In this post Vera van Hüllen presents key arguments from her 2015 book EU Democracy Promotion and the Arab Spring. International Cooperation and Authoritarianism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 242 p., Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-137-29851-5, eBook ISBN: 978-1-137-29852-2, DOI: 10.1057/9781137298522.

More than six years after the wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, it is clear that the ‘Arab Spring’ has not put an end to the exceptional persistence of authoritarianism in the region. At the same time, it has highlighted the shortcomings of international democracy promotion efforts vis-à-vis these authoritarian regimes in the region. Observers agree that international democracy promotion has contributed little to the emergence or outcome of political protests throughout the region. The European Union (EU) was among those international actors to admit its failure in promoting democracy and human rights in Euro-Mediterranean relations in early 2011. Following a partnership-based approach, it had sought the active cooperation of incumbent regimes in implementing political dialogue, democracy assistance, and political conditionality since the early 1990s. Yet it is not at all evident why the ruling elites should voluntarily engage in activities geared towards regime change or transformation. Indeed, a closer look at the patterns of Euro-Mediterranean cooperation on democracy and human rights prior to the Arab Spring suggests that a number of authoritarian regimes were able to align the EU’s offer for cooperation with their strategies for regime survival. These same regimes turned out to be particularly resilient to the 2011 wave of change. Still, the EU has not fundamentally changed its cooperative approach since. A systematic comparison of the implementation of the EU’s main instruments for democracy promotion (political dialogue, democracy assistance, and political conditionality) in cooperation with seven of its southern neighbours (Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia) since the early 1990s and beyond the 2011 uprisings yields important lessons for our understanding and the practice of international democracy promotion vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes.

The merits of a one-size-fits-all approach

The finding of a regional trend towards ‘more’ and ‘better’ cooperation highlights the merits of the EU’s ‘one size fits all’ approach to democracy promotion. Relying on a regionally uniform and highly standardized framework for cooperation on democracy and human rights, the EU asserted its ‘normative power’. It brought the topic onto the regional agenda and made cooperation on democracy and human rights part of the EU’s package for bilateral relations, shaping the ‘rules of the game’ of Euro-Mediterranean cooperation at large. As the EU tied itself to standards for international cooperation, Mediterranean partners faced a ‘take it or leave it’ position, for example with regard to the inclusion of the ‘essential element’ clause in their EMAA and of political benchmarks in the ENP Action Plans. This reliance on a highly standardized approach can, however, also be read as the attempt to withdraw these ‘normative’ objectives from strategic concerns. It turns the implementation of political dialogue, democracy assistance, and political conditionality into an almost bureaucratic act of executing formally adopted provisions. It could serve to ‘depoliticize’ democracy promotion measures by narrowing the room for negotiating bargains and exceptions with individual countries. At the same time, the EU follows a ‘partnership-based’ or ‘cooperative’ approach that relies on the active engagement of targeted regimes, ultimately making the implementation of any measures for promoting democracy and human rights subject to a continuous process of negotiations with the targeted regime.

The limits of a cooperative approach

Therefore, the timing, extent, and quality of cooperation on democracy and human rights varied significantly between countries in Euro-Mediterranean relations despite this uniform framework for cooperation. Sticking to a ‘positive’ approach, the EU has never backed its offer of, and demands for, cooperation by significant pressure vis-à-vis any of the countries. Caught in a ‘democratization–stabilization dilemma’ in dealing with authoritarian regimes, the EU has always prioritized stability – and cooperation on other issues, such as security, migration, and trade – over greater insistence on international cooperation and domestic reforms to advance the respect of democracy and human rights. The EU’s differential success in implementing its agenda with individual countries did not depend so much on its ambitions and strategies but on the willingness and capacity of its partners. The focus on the joint implementation of measures highlights the need to adopt a truly interactive perspective on international democracy promotion. To understand the EU’s differential success in bringing about cooperation, it is necessary to look into domestic conditions and dynamics of authoritarianism and how they shaped the capacity and willingness of target regimes to engage in cooperation. Depending on the configurations of political liberalization, statehood, and interdependence, its Mediterranean partners were more or less reluctant to take up the offer for cooperation and actively engage in the implementation of political dialogue, democracy assistance, and political conditionality. These factors mitigate the costs and benefits of cooperation on democracy and human rights, making it more or less compatible with the incumbent regime’s domestic and international politics of ‘survival’. The relevance of domestic conditions for cooperation ultimately means that its final outcome is beyond the EU’s control and the ‘success’ of democracy promotion not only a function of the ‘right’ choice of strategy. This highlights the limits of a cooperative approach to international democracy promotion when dealing with authoritarian regimes: in countries where the degree of political liberalization is least advanced, the chances for implementing any measures to promote democracy and human rights are lowest. Even more importantly, if cooperation on democracy and human rights by authoritarian regimes is about its compatibility with their respective survival strategies, this raises serious doubts about the prospects of actually promoting democracy and human rights in a cooperative approach when dealing with authoritarian regimes.

The dilemma of cooperation

The analysis of cooperation on democracy and human rights in Euro-Mediterranean relations over more than 20 years has shown that levels of political liberalization in individual countries was a crucial condition for, rather than the result of, implementing political dialogue, democracy assistance, and political conditionality with the EU. The EU’s efforts vis-à-vis its Southern neighbours had certainly no noticeable, short-term positive effect. This still leaves the hope for a long-term positive impact through socialization effects of cooperation more generally or through rhetorical entrapment of incumbent rulers. Even if not intended to advance democracy and human rights, cooperation could turn out to be a ‘boomerang’, as the people increasingly hold incumbent rulers accountable for their promises of reform and political change and trigger a ‘spiral’ from commitment to compliance. However, the Arab Spring has more fundamentally challenged the value of cooperation as those regimes that cooperated more actively with the EU also proved to be more resilient to protests in early 2011. While the implementation of political dialogue, democracy assistance, and political conditionality did not necessarily have a directly stabilizing impact on authoritarian rule, it became part of the more ‘successful’ survival strategies of incumbent regimes. International actors pursuing a cooperative approach to promoting democracy and human rights in authoritarian regimes therefore face a fundamental dilemma: in those countries, where the conditions for cooperation are not ‘right’, they are not able to implement their instruments and therefore do not even have a chance to positively influence regime dynamics. If the conditions are ‘right’ however, they run the risk that incumbent rulers instrumentalise the international democracy promotion agenda in order to advance their own political agenda and gain international legitimacy and support. Adopting a cooperative approach, international actors therefore ultimately risk contributing to the ‘pillars of stability’ of authoritarian regimes.

Despite the EU’s claim to the contrary, neither conditions for nor its approach to international democracy promotion in the region have fundamentally changed in the wake of the Arab uprisings. While the ‘Arab Spring’ has shown that the EU’s caution was no guarantee for stability, ongoing conflicts dominate domestic and international concerns in the foreseeable future. The basic dilemma between promoting democratization and maintaining stability in the short run continues to exist and there are no indications that the EU deals with it any differently than before. Throughout the various reviews of its European Neighbourhood Policy, it continues to stick to its rather unobtrusive approach of suggesting, but not insisting on, democratic reforms to its partners in international cooperation. However, there are clear limits to promoting democracy ‘top-down’ in cooperation with authoritarian regimes and even if the EU seeks to identify and support the ‘forces of change’ at the level of civil society, the intergovernmental channel of cooperation will always constrain its choice of strategy and its willingness to confront partners in international relations more openly. Admitting to the dilemmas of international democracy promotion when dealing with authoritarian regimes could at least save the EU’s credibility as an international actor. Simply denying these ‘tensions’ will not do the trick.

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