This EDP Wire contains excerpts from Benjamin Schuetze’s article “Why ‘democracy promotion’ should play no role in a values-based German foreign policy in the MENA region”, which was originally published with “ORIENT – German Journal for Politics, Economics and Culture of the Middle East”. If you have any questions or are interested in reading the entire article, please visit Orient Online or contact Benjamin Schuetze.
“Democracy promotion” as framework for a values-based foreign policy?
“Democracy promotion” is one of the key stated goals of German foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). However, despite considerable financial investments by Germany as well as other European states and the US, political systems in the MENA region remain authoritarian. While Arab public support for democracy is high – a 2018 report showed that eight in ten Arabs believe that democracy is the best system of government – authoritarian regimes have been adept at co-opting, managing and repressing both internal demands for and external efforts at democratisation. Should external attempts at “democracy promotion” then be abandoned, reformed or intensified? What role, if any at all, can or should it play in a values-based German foreign policy? […]
If German foreign policy indeed aims at supporting processes of democratisation, it should start with itself. Most notably, this would mean to stop analysing authoritarian power in the region as a question of culture that is external to “us”, and instead to understand it as a matter of deeply uneven power structures, in which German or European politics at large are much more deeply implicated than many like to believe. A values-based German foreign policy in the MENA region should be guided by the recognition that Arab pro-democracy activists and populations at large do not need to be taught about democracy and/or the causes behind authoritarian practices. Instead, what is needed is a new politics of transregional solidarity and understanding. This does not require professional “democracy promoters”, but should, among other points, include the transfer of technology, support in rebuilding public sectors that have suffered from decades of privatisation policies, the end of German arms exports to regional centres of authoritarian power, and new forms of people-to-people exchange and cooperation, including city partnerships, school exchange programmes and joint research endeavours. […]
Orientalising authoritarianism, perpetuating interventions: the international dimension of authoritarian power in the MENA
“Democracy promoters” regularly associate authoritarian power in the region with a somewhat inadequate political culture, due to which Arab populations are supposedly “not yet ready for democracy”. Such orientalist accounts are widespread and have a strongly self-perpetuating dynamic, as practical failure of concrete “democracy promotion” projects is rarely linked to poor project design, but to target groups’ supposedly inadequate understanding of, for instance, the importance of political parties, elections or civic education. Conveniently, such shortcomings seemingly require ever more interventions. While academic criticism of culturalist narratives abounds, they continue to shape US and European policies, including German efforts at “democracy promotion” in the region. […]
The promotion of procedural democracy, market rationales and security collaboration
Meaningful external support for processes of democratisation in the MENA region must be based on an end of neoliberal policies aimed at the deepening of existing and the creation of new markets. The promotion of economic policies premised on the exploitation of cheap labour directly contradicts public demands for socio-economic justice. While global attempts at an energy transition hold the potential for countries in the MENA region to become major producers of clean electricity and hydrogen, it is crucial to ensure that Arab states do not just export the latter to Europe but instead build up their own productive industry. Among other points, however, this would require the transfer of technology and a German foreign policy that does not primarily see the MENA region as a lucrative market for German companies. Finally, a values-based German foreign policy would require the realisation that decades of political, economic and military support for supposed regional “anchors of stability” like Saudi Arabia and Egypt – under the pretext of thereby preventing Islamic radicalisation and ensuring regional stability – have disastrously failed. […]
Towards a values-based German foreign policy based on transregional democratic solidarity and understanding
A values-based German foreign policy in the MENA region should be based on new transregional forms of democratic solidarity and understanding. This means to accept that Arab experiences of authoritarian power do not mirror European or German ones. Likewise, it requires the realisation that established attempts at “democracy promotion”, transnational corporations and attempts at Arab-Israeli normalisation have reinforced authoritarian power in the region. To enable more understanding of Arab lived experiences of authoritarian power, German foreign policy should promote new forms of people-to people exchange an cooperation, including city partnerships, school exchange programmes and joint research endeavours. […]