29. May 2019 | EDP Wire | Annika Elena Poppe, Julia Leininger, Jonas Wolff

The negotiation of democracy promotion: Introducing a new perspective on dynamics of interaction in the promotion of democracy

Democracy is not simply a good that can be exported from one country to another. Democracy promotion, by definition, involves interaction between external actors and various kinds of “local actors”, “recipients” or “partners”. But the complex interplay between external and local actors is rarely studied in democracy promotion research. A new special issue of the journal Democratization, edited by EDP network members Annika E. Poppe, Julia Leininger and Jonas Wolff, contributes to filling this research gap by looking at negotiations in and of democracy promotion. This contribution to the EDP Wire briefly summarizes the introduction to the special issue. Thanks to the generous financial support of the Leibniz Association for the EDP network, the entire special issue “The negotiation of democracy promotion: Issues, parameters and consequences” is available free of charge. The following summary was prepared by Niklas Markert.

Since the turn of the century, scholars and practitioners have noted increasing contestation, including outright resistance, of the international promotion of democracy. There is, however, still a lack of empirical evidence on how and to what extent the contestation of liberal democracy and its support by external actors actually challenges and shapes the contents, practices and results of democracy promotion. The special issue “The negotiation of democracy promotion. Issues, parameters and consequences”, which has been coordinated by the EDP network, addresses this question by focusing on the communicative interaction between external democracy promoters and local “recipients”. By studying processes of negotiation that occur in the context of and/or explicitly deal with democracy promotion, we analyse when and how democracy (promotion) is contested by local actors, how democracy promoters respond to such challenges, and whether and how the ensuing controversy is resolved.

Why study democracy promotion negotiations? Three basic assumptions

In the introduction to the special issue, we make our case for a new perspective on democracy promotion negotiations by bringing together two strands of research that until now rarely talk to each other: research on democracy promotion, on the one hand, and negotiation studies in international relations and development studies, on the other. Based on these two literatures, we outline three basic assumptions that inform the overall perspective adopted in the special issue.

  • The first one is that democracy promotion is an international practice that is necessarily accompanied by processes of negotiation. As long as democracy promoters do not choose entirely non-cooperative means, on the one hand, and as long as, on the other, local actors do not entirely and without any objection accept a given set of democracy promotion activities in every single regard, there is necessarily some kind of disagreement between the (at least) two parties that is likely to be articulated and dealt with through direct and/or indirect communication; if successful, this process of communication will lead to an official or tacit agreement that, more or less successfully, reconciles the (conflicting) positions of the parties. This is, generally, what negotiation is about.
  • The second assumption is that these negotiation processes will have an impact upon the practice and outcome of democracy promotion. This is, at least, what research from related fields as well as recent global developments strongly suggest.
  • Finally, we assume that genuine negotiations are needed in order to enable democracy promotion to become mutually owned and effective. The term “genuine” here means that negotiations have to involve a substantial exchange on diverging values and interests. Such genuine negotiations are needed because it is through negotiations that “local” actors assume agency and gain ownership, something that is usually assumed to be crucial for democracy promotion in both normative and functionalist terms.

The individual contributions

The individual contributions to the special issue focus on three key research questions that concern (1) the content of democracy promotion negotiations, (2) the parameters that shape the content as well as (3) the results that arise from the negotiation process in terms of output and outcome. All contributions address the first question in that they analyse which issues are addressed during negotiations (and which are not). In a second step, they then either analyse the parameters influencing the negotiation process (second question) or focus on the output and outcome for the practice of democracy promotion (third question). The individual contributions will be introduced in future posts for the EDP Wire, but to briefly summarize the set of articles:

  • In “Beyond contestation: conceptualizing negotiation in democracy promotion”, we present the conceptual approach that guides the special issue. The analytical framework developed here establishes the range and type of issues that can be negotiated, the parameters that we assume to influence negotiations, and the potential results of these negotiations processes.
  • In “Shaking off the neoliberal shackles: “democratic emergence” and the negotiation of democratic knowledge in the Middle East North Africa context”, Jeff Bridoux argues that democracy promotion is problematic and often prone to fail because there is little if any room left to recipients of democracy promotion to formulate knowledge claims about democracy that deviate from the well-rehearsed combination of liberal democracy and free-market economy. Drawing on the exemplary case of the United States and Tunisia, he calls for a closer examination of democratic knowledge production and for an embrace of a “democratic emergence paradigm” in lieu of the still widely dominant “transition paradigm”.
  • Andrea Ribeiro Hoffmann’s article “Negotiating normative premises in democracy promotion: Venezuela and the Inter-American Democratic Charter” draws our attention to negotiations around the drafting process of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in the early 2000s where Venezuela made a spirited attempt to change the definition of democracy to be adopted by amending the liberal representative model with participatory elements as well as including social rights. Venezuela was not successful and Ribeiro Hoffmann finds clues as to why particularly in the constellation of actors involved, in how and where Venezuela was located structurally in the field of international democracy promotion.
  • In “Negotiating international civil society support: the case of Ethiopia’s 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation”, Jalale Getachew Birru and Jonas Wolff trace the process of international negotiations that accompanied the drafting of a restrictive Ethiopian NGO law in 2009. As the two authors show, these negotiations covered a broad range of issues ranging from specific provisions in the planned legislation up to different notions of democracy, but the overall, if implicit, aim that guided the talks was to basically continue bilateral relations in which democracy promotion played a marginal role. This aim, Birru and Wolff suggest, is directly reflected in the consequences of the negotiations: an NGO law that severely impacted Ethiopian civil society organizations but had much less effects on international donors.
  • The article “Democracy promotion in EU enlargement negotiations: more interaction, less hierarchy” by Sonja Grimm uses the example of public administration reform in Croatia to demonstrate that the unidirectional notion of an asymmetric relationship of external leverage and domestic passivity fails to capture the capacity of local actors to substantially change, modify and adapt external reform demands – even in the relatively hierarchical structure of the EU enlargement process. She identifies the negotiation instruments that the domestic as well as external actors can (and do) choose to employ and highlights the domestic parameters that have an impact on what is shown to be a continuous negotiation process between the Croatian government and the EU.
  • Vera van Hüllen’sNegotiating democracy with authoritarian regimes. EU democracy promotion in North Africa” turns to the other end of the spectrum of EU democracy promotion: EU efforts at promoting democracy and human rights in authoritarian regimes in the context of the EU neighbourhood policy. Focusing on Morocco and Tunisia before the Arab uprisings, van Hüllen shows that the EU and its Mediterranean partners have negotiated issues related to the normative foundation and practical implementation of the EU’s democracy promotion agenda since the early 2000s, but that this has been done without any serious engagement with the contested issues at hand. As a consequence, conflicts were left unresolved and agreements in both cases reflected a logic of bargaining and, thus, lacked substantive “(co-)ownership”.

A glimpse at the overarching findings

The contributions to the special issue cover a broad set of processes of democracy promotion negotiation. The case studies cover various fields of democracy promotion (from democracy assistance to the promotion of democracy in and through diplomatic relations) in different world regions (Eastern Europe, Latin America, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa). In terms of democracy promoters, they focus on traditional, (inter-)governmental actors such as the European Union and the US government. Comparing democracy promotion negotiations in different countries and regions sheds light on the relevance of domestic and regional parameters. Studying local actors’ interaction with different types of democracy promoters allows us to identify commonalities in negotiations’ issues, strategies and parameters. In this concluding section, we highlight one particular finding that concerns the normative dimension of democracy promotion negotiations.

In general, the case studies collected in the special issue find evidence for the entire range of issues identified in the conceptual article: from disagreements that concern the distribution of resources on generally agreed upon democracy promotion activities or the ways in which stipulated projects are to be implemented to fundamental differences that refer to basic norms that underpin democracy promotion. In fact, to our surprise, the normative premises of democracy promotion feature as an important issue that is frequently addressed in the processes of negotiation analysed in the special issue. Yet, across the board, the quality of these negotiations was quite limited. Contestation of basic norms did not lead to an in-depth exchange of arguments or attempts by external actors to persuade local actors. More specifically, some of the case studies point to a curious pattern in which the supposedly normatively weaker party – the recipient or target of democracy promotion – is quite strong in normative terms, even sometimes has the edge, whereas the supposedly normatively stronger party – the norm promoting democracy – tends to avoid engaging in normative debate, is relatively silent, or even on the defensive. Part of the answer, we suggest, might lie in the normative structure of interstate relations: In intergovernmental negotiations, the party that aims at interfering in the internal affairs of the other – in what is presented as a partnership type relationship of mutual cooperation – tends to be on the defensive. This reinforces the “equalising” effect of negotiations that has been established in the broader literature.

In line with this observation, the cases of democracy promotion negotiation studied in the special issue mostly produced results in the middle of the spectrum: negotiations neither collapsed openly nor did they yield explicit agreements that represented some genuine convergence or compromise between the parties. This is particularly notable in the cases in which negotiations touched upon normative issues. Here, agreements were rather de facto and basically consisted in tacit agreements to disagree. Where official agreements were reached, these turned out to be rather superficial, reflecting the result of tactical bargaining rather than a mutual understanding. This kind of output is very much in line with the lack of substantive normative engagement mentioned earlier, as is the finding that even the serious disagreements that clearly persisted in these cases did not mean that negotiations ended in open confrontation.

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