Promoting Democracy in a Divided World

January 1, 2004

Promoting Democracy in a Divided World

President Bush, in his recent speeches on democracy, made two clear promises. First, the United States will no longer accommodate dictatorships – a strategy that “did nothing to make us safe.” Second, America will promote democracy in the Middle East and around the world. But will current policies deliver peaceful democratic regimes?

There is overwhelming evidence that democracies survive if per capita GDP surpasses $6,000. But developing countries have little chance of crossing this threshold. The key to making democracy work in such contexts lies in involving multiple international stakeholders in local communities. Without international support, there is a real risk that democracy will be swept away by tides of militancy and militarism.

How can the United States and other powerful actors develop multilateral and context-sensitive methods to promote – but not impose – democracy? A recent high-level panel at the Carnegie Council assessed four strategies.

  • Direct democracy promotion: Does direct conquest and occupation tend to lead to democracy? Short answer: The historical record is mixed. However, several factors make a difference: complete defeat of enemy forces, a common external enemy, extensive preparation, and an assured departure. None of these conditions is in place in Iraq, which does not bode well for the Bush administration’s dream of Iraqi democracy. Going forward, policymakers should bear in mind that softer direct strategies, such as strengthening electoral commissions and voter education, have a better record of success.

  • Indirect democracy promotion: Does the strengthening of civil society and judiciaries produce meaningful democratic change? Short answer: not enough. Semi-authoritarian regimes such as Egypt have become expert at allowing enough space for people to let off steam but too little room to change things. To alter the political system, indirect efforts should be combined with direct strategies such as naming and shaming human rights abusers. Undemocratic rulers should be pressed to implement electoral and other formal institutional reforms.

  • Economic reform: Do market reforms encourage democratization, even in the absence of political reforms? Short answer: no. Without an accountable political system, market reforms tend to result in crony capitalism, vast inequalities, and corrupted markets – all of which are bad for democracy. Recent events and elections in Russia are a stark reminder of this reality. Rules on transparency, accountability, and fairness should not be bypassed “for now.”

  • Multilateral engagement: Do intergovernmental organizations exert enough peer pressure to encourage regimes to democratize? Short answer: no. These organizations tend to be beset by divisive allegiances between groups of states, as anyone following the Commonwealth fallout over Zimbabwe can testify. However, civil society networks have had more success, and could cooperate closely with intergovernmental organizations to create sustained pressure.

If the United States and other powerful actors wish to be effective leaders in promoting democracy, they will pursue all four strategies simultaneously. And these forces will work to strengthen, not undermine, multilateralism. No single strategy or lone actor is likely to be enough.