29. March 2017 | EDP Wire | Jonas Wolff

Negotiating Democracy Promotion – Negotiating Interference: The case of US-Bolivian relations

This post presents key arguments from Jonas Wolff’s 2017 article Negotiating interference: US democracy promotion, Bolivia and the tale of a failed agreement, Third World Quarterly, 38:4, 882-899, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2016.1153418.

In September 2009, the US Embassy in La Paz declared that it would phase out USAID’s democracy program in Bolivia. Following years of complaining about alleged US attempts to destabilize democracy in the country, the Bolivian government had instructed USAID to close its democracy promotion activities in the country, adding to a series of expulsions that in the course of 2008 had already affected the US Ambassador to La Paz and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But, while Freedom House reacted by ‘strongly’ criticizing the Obama administration’s decision ‘to accede to the demands of the Bolivian government’, the US government did not only precisely do this, but it also continued a bilateral dialogue that had been started just a few months earlier. In November 2011, this dialogue culminated in the signing of a bilateral ‘Framework Agreement for Mutually Respectful and Collaborative Bilateral Relations’. The agreement, while duly recognizing common obligations related to representative democracy and human rights, clearly prioritized ‘respect for sovereign states’ and ‘the principle of non-intervention’ over external democracy promotion. Nevertheless, on 1 May 2013 Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, publicly declared the expulsion of USAID, for continuing to conspire against his government. As a consequence, after 50 years of operating in Bolivia, the agency closed its office in the country.

In a recent article published in the Third World Quarterly I analyze these – temporarily successful, but ultimately failed – negotiations through which the US and the Bolivian government tried to fix their troubled diplomatic relationship. But Bolivian resistance against democracy promotion, and against US interference in the name of democracy in particular, is a far from isolated phenomenon. It is part of a broader trend that has emerged since the turn of the century and is mostly discussed as a ‘backlash’ against democracy promotion. Nevertheless, while since the middle of the previous decade ‘dozens of governments in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union have taken steps to limit the space for external support for democracy and human rights within their borders’, the case of US-Bolivian relations is exceptional in an important regard. Here, a ‘donor’ and a ‘recipient’ government engaged in an extensive process of negotiation, one which even led to the successful signing of an agreement but which ultimately failed to establish a basis for mutually acceptable development aid relations. Analyzing these negotiations, therefore, promises important insights into the fundamental issues and the competing claims that are at stake in the contemporary controversy over democracy promotion and its backlash. In a more general sense, such an analysis also contributes to a broader research agenda on the negotiation of development aid relationships as a sub-case of international negotiations under conditions of pronounced power asymmetries.[1] Theoretically, the study at hand emphasizes the normative dimension of negotiations, focusing on competing justice claims, and in this way adds to the small, but increasing scholarship that investigate the role of justice in international negotiations.[2]

A failed attempt to bridge different worlds of justice

In a nutshell, I argue that the bilateral dialogue, which was started by the incoming Obama administration in early 2009 and culminated in late 2011 in the signing of the Framework Agreement, can be understood as a conflict over the issue of interference in which two fundamentally different notions of justice collide. During the negotiations, Bolivian justice concerns basically referred to entitlements as established by the normative order of the international society of states, where equal, sovereign states interact with each other. These justice concerns were specifically shaped by the history of perceived injustices related to the colonial and postcolonial practices of (neo-)imperialist and hegemonic powers. The overall principle of justice, here, was equality, and key demands included non-interference and mutual respect. US justice concerns, in contrast, combined cosmopolitan notions of a liberal world order based on universal individual (human) rights with a non-egalitarian, status-based notion of liberal hegemony, in which a benevolent hegemonic power is entitled, if not obliged, to ensure compliance with common, international obligations related to both liberal, individual rights and collective goods.

Given that these two normative positions reflect fundamentally irreconcilable principles of justice, the search for an agreement led to what William Zartman and colleagues have called ‘compound justice’, the ‘joining together’ of different principles of justice in order to bridge the conflict: In the Framework Agreement, the US accepted the Bolivian demand for equality at the level of general declarations, while Bolivia conceded to a series of formulations that, de facto, allowed for a continuity of systematically asymmetric US policies in specific issue areas (such as development aid and counter-narcotics). While the Framework Agreement, thus, managed to balance the competing justice concerns at the abstract level of diplomatic wording, it never resembled anything like a common ‘formula’ of justice, ‘a jointly determined sense of justice to govern the exchange’. In particular, the agreement failed to shape the domestic foreign-policy discourses in both countries, which continued to operate according to the respective normative templates. In this sense, the failure of the Framework Agreement can be understood as the result of two uncoordinated ‘two-level discourses’ taking place in different worlds of justice, which systematically produced clashes between irreconcilable ideas of what a just bilateral relationship between the two countries could and should look like. The agreement, therefore, ultimately failed to establish a basis for mutually acceptable development aid relations. In the end, given that foreign aid relationships are, by their very nature, asymmetric and that the US government would never have allowed the Bolivian government full control over its foreign aid, terminating all US foreign aid programs was the only clear-cut solution to the justice conflict at hand.

To be sure, neither the overall conflict nor the negotiations between Bolivia and the US have been entirely or exclusively shaped by justice concerns. There is no doubt that the Morales government explicitly aimed at preventing external support for those domestic forces that were opposing his government, thus using charges against the US for reasons of domestic politics. The other way round, US democracy assistance to Bolivia explicitly aimed at preventing the Morales government from gaining overwhelming control over the country, not least with a view to limiting the harm to US foreign policy interests. The theoretical focus on justice claims and justice conflicts does not imply that this ‘material’ dimension of the dispute should be regarded as negligible. The argument is rather that we cannot understand the dynamics and results of the negotiation process – including the bargaining over competing policy claims – if we look only at disagreements in terms of tangible political interests. As my analysis shows, specific policy-related claims that reflect perceived ‘national interests’ are themselves also embedded in a broader normative template based on perceived entitlements.

[1] See, for instance, Bertram I. Spector and Lynn M. Wagner’s article on ‘Negotiating International Development’; Lindsay Whitfield’s The Politics of Aid; and the chapter on ‘Symmetry and Asymmetry in Negotiation’ by I. William Zartman and Jeffrey Z. Rubin in their edited volume on Power and Negotiation.

[2] See, for instance, Cecilia Albin’s Justice and Fairness in International Negotiation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001; the chapters 4 and 5 in I. William Zartman’s Negotiation and Conflict Management; and the contributions to the special issue of International Negotiation on ‘Justice in Security Negotiations’, ed. by Harald Müller and Daniel Druckman.

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