Democracy Promotion: Done Right, A Progressive Cause
Progressives’ approach to democracy promotion also needs to be more patient. Too often, we fall into one of two equal and opposite errors when contemplating undemocratic societies. Either we fool ourselves into thinking that a decade or so of carefully tailored aid packages, diplomacy, and technical assistance will produce “democracy” in short order (which virtually never happens), or we become cynical and despondent when things fail to change on schedule, and conclude instead that the society at issue is somehow “not ready” for democracy (the powerful will resist it; the powerless don’t want it), so we might as well give up and simply accept the repressive status quo.
It’s worth recalling that our own democracy was hardly created overnight. American democracy didn’t come about in a decade or two thanks to generous aid from foreign benefactors. It didn’t develop as a result of ten years of technical assistance supplied by well-meaning international bureaucrats or nicely packaged loans from the World Bank.
On the contrary. It was a long hard slog from ancient Athens to the Magna Carta, from the English Bill of Rights to the Declaration of Independence, from abolitionism to the Nineteenth Amendment. It’s still a long hard slog today, full of backsliding. And if it took centuries of struggle to get to the messy and imperfect form of democracy we have now, why imagine that other societies can transition or transform into democracies overnight? Granted, modern communications and transportation technologies have accelerated the pace of cultural change, but enduring change is still harder and slower than we like to think.
The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report offers some cautionary numbers: Looking at the time it took the twentieth century’s “fastest reformers” to achieve “basic governance transformations,” the report concludes that on average, it took the 20 fastest-performing states 27 years to begin to get a serious grip on corruption, 36 years to achieve basic government effectiveness, and 41 years to achieve a basic rule-of-law culture. If we care about promoting democracy, we need to accept that gradualism isn’t necessarily a cop-out (though it can be); much of the time, it’s a simple recognition that rushing democracy sometimes ends up undermining it.
Finally, our approach to democracy promotion abroad needs to be realistic with regard to domestic constraints as well. Our own democracy has produced, at most, a fickle consensus in favor of democracy promotion. Pragmatically speaking, this has meant that political will has been uneven, and funding inconsistent. We may recognize that promoting sustainable democratic societies abroad is a long-term and expensive project, but we must also recognize that our own democracy has shown little talent or appetite for long-term, expensive projects.
On one level, everyone knows this; but on another level, our democracy- promotion apparatus, and the people who work within it, consistently ignore it. We routinely plan programs that we know will require multiyear funding to be sustainable, even when we also know perfectly well that such funding is unlikely to materialize. This is counterproductive, and has left many fledgling democratic societies strewn with the wreckage of abandoned projects: prisons dependent on electronic security measures that fall apart when foreign benefactors stop paying for a steady supply of power; legislative reform efforts that produce volumes of complex new commercial codes that no one has the money to print and distribute; and so on. These abandoned projects often end up wasting time and money, and they leave behind bitterness and cynicism, not hope or new capacities.
Principles Into Practice
Truly accepting the low likelihood of sustained funding would lead to a very different approach to democracy-promotion projects. We would abandon resource-intensive projects and focus instead only on those about which we can affirmatively answer a very simple question: If this project runs for a year and is then abandoned, will it still have done more good than harm? Sometimes—such as when a project focuses on providing local personnel with key skills—the answer may be yes. Other times, it will be no, and we should cease and desist.
Being unable to do something ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t help others do something themselves, of course. Diplomacy, both private and public, remains a powerful and relatively low-cost tool for supporting democratic reforms. The American private sector can also play a useful role. But we do need a more thoughtful and principled approach for deciding when and how we should get directly involved in democracy promotion in a particular society, and when we should remain in the role of sympathetic bystander.
So how’s Obama doing? The Bush Administration largely made a hash of democracy promotion, despite recent revisionist attempts to claim credit for the Arab Spring. Has Obama done any better, so far?
On the whole, yes. It took a while—at first, the Administration’s approach to democracy promotion could be most generously characterized as mendacious avoidance—but by the late spring of 2011 Obama had found his way to a sober, principled stance:
It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo—it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it’s the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome. Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region. But we can, and we will, speak out for a set of core principles… [We oppose] the use of violence and repression… [support] a set of universal rights… [and] support political and economic reform.
Obama’s May 2011 speech was a good one—an excellent one, in fact—though its subtler messages were almost entirely overshadowed by a brief reference to the appropriate borders for a Palestinian state.
Putting our principles into practice will be an enormous challenge—and so far, the jury is still out on whether the Obama Administration is truly serious about the project. It should be—it can be. But will it be?
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