Protest in Cairo. CREDIT: <a href="">E. Zarwan</a> (<a href="" target=_blank>CC</a>).
Protest in Cairo. CREDIT: E. Zarwan (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Realist Democracy Promotion

May 9, 2007

When asked about the most significant development of the twentieth century, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had no trouble selecting the rise of democracy. Democracy recognizes the intrinsic importance of human freedom, is useful for keeping governments accountable, and plays a constructive role in the formation of values. In Sen's eyes, these positive contributions to quality of life elevate democracy to the status of universal value.

But universal value does not equal universal application. Repressive regimes have proved very resilient in the face of international pressure. When it comes to developing strategies for democracy promotion, treating democracy as a universal value can even be a stumbling block.

President George W. Bush declared in his second inaugural address that the policy of the United States is "to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." This assertion, though noble, did little to explain how the United States would or should promote democracy. At the time, war as a tool of foreign policy was showing its limits in Iraq. Nor did the speech answer the question of how to encourage democracy within semi-authoritarian states that are also allies or valued trading partners.

President Bush's call for freedom nonetheless inspired many would-be democrats living under restrictive regimes. As tensions have escalated throughout the Middle East, however, the Bush administration has been forced to rely on the support of non-democratic states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Ensuring the support of these governments entails lowering democracy promotion on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, and creates the perception that the United States has betrayed its own values and commitment to democracy.

Egypt, in particular, has taken advantage of this contradiction. In his 2005 state of the union address, President Bush called on Egypt "to show the way toward democracy." Egyptian political opposition leaders saw this as an opening to demand human rights and democratic reforms. Aware that the United States depends on Egypt in the Arab world, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak jailed hundreds of demonstrators who were expressing solidarity with pro-reform judges who had questioned possible government vote rigging during the September 2005 presidential election.

Even in the few countries where U.S. democracy promotion has produced competitive elections, the Bush Administration has not seen the results it wants. Such has been the case in Palestine, where Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections in a landslide, as well as in Egypt and Lebanon, where respectively in 2005 the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah made significant electoral gains. In the short term, these democracy promotion efforts have run counter to U.S. interests and the security of regional allies, including Israel.

Democracy promotion itself is not the problem—it has been a significant and relatively successful component of U.S. foreign policy since the 1970s. The United States has provided financial, strategic, and moral support to a number of successful democratic movements, including Poland's Solidarity in the early 1980s and the recent color revolutions of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

These policies coexisted with support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and support for other Arab dictators throughout the close of the twentieth century. Rarely during this period was there criticism of democracy promotion as a schizophrenic foreign policy. Inconsistent policy application is common across the board—for example, the preferential patchwork of trade agreements.

Where the Bush administration failed at democracy promotion was in taking a moderate policy and radicalizing it. President Bush over-committed the United States to an impossible task. When the Administration didn't put its full weight behind its democracy promotion agenda, it undermined the work of reformists in non-democratic countries and put those people at risk.

These real limitations have reminded democracy promotion advocates of an unavoidable reality: any strategy for aiding democracy has to be driven by what is feasible.

The rise of democracy has not been a process whereby each country discovers democracy on its own; rather, each country has been influenced by other democratic movements within their region and throughout history. Hence, it is appropriate for the United States to provide political, technical, and financial support to democratic movements, all the while recognizing that democracy as a system of self-government must ultimately be built in each country by that country's own people.

Despite debates over what levels of economic development or particular public institutions are needed for democracy to flourish in developing countries, it would be illegitimate for the United States or the international community to impede democratic governance anywhere. As Thomas Carothers has pointed out, "Whatever might be theoretically preferable regarding paths of development, people in many parts of the world want to attain political empowerment now, not at some indefinite point in the future. Elections—even if held hurriedly and before all conditions are ideal—have become the most visible embodiment of their aspiration to self-rule and the urgency with which they feel it."

As Amartya Sen puts it, "A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy."

A great majority of people now believe in the right to free expression in a democratic society. At the same time, democracy is not achieved or upheld without sacrifice, setbacks, and navigation of ethically gray waters. Such is the characteristic of any universal value.

Related Materials

Multilateral Strategies to Promote Democracy, Thomas Carothers, John Cavanagh, Michael Doyle, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Andrew Kuper, Adam Przeworski, Mary Robinson, Joseph E. Stiglitz (Carnegie Council, 2004)

How Democracies Emerge: The "Sequencing" Fallacy, Thomas Carothers, Journal of Democracy, January 2007

Carothers critiques the view that a particular sequence of governance reforms and preconditions is necessary for democratization. He describes instead a more organic and gradual approach, outlining some important underlying conditions and structures that affect democratic success:

  • Level of economic development: In general, the wealthier a country is, the better will be its chances of consolidating a democratic transition.
  • Concentration of sources of national wealth: Countries whose national wealth comes mainly from highly concentrated sources (such as oil or mineral deposits) tend to experience significant difficulties with democratization.
  • Identity-based divisions: Countries where the population is divided along ethnic, religious, tribal, or clan lines often have a harder time with democratization than more homogeneous societies.
  • Historical experience with political pluralism: Countries with little record of political pluralism almost always have a harder time with democratization than those having such experience.
  • Nondemocratic neighborhoods: Countries in regions or subregions where most or all of the countries are nondemocratic usually struggle more with democratization than do countries in more democratic neighborhoods.

Debating the "Sequencing Fallacy" (VIDEO), Thomas Carothers, Jack Snyder, Francis Fukuyama, Marc F. Plattner, Carnegie Endowment, January 2007

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