The perils of promoting democracy

Rather than spreading, democracy has seen a fifth consecutive year of relative decline, says thinktank Freedom House as it releases its annual index of political freedoms and civil liberties. 25 countries saw significant declines in freedom in 2010, outweighing the 11 that saw significant gains, and 115 countries worldwide are classed as electoral democracies, down from a high of 123 in 2005.

In its sights, however, are not just the world’s authoritarian states, for rigged elections, persecuting dissidents and civil society activists and the accumulation of executive power, even if these are the most demonstrable examples of the lack of political freedoms. Instead, the world’s democratic majority, including some of its most powerful states, are also the focus of attention. As Arch Puddington, Freedom House’s director of research, writes:

“The increasing truculence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes has coincided with a growing inability or unwillingness on the part of the world’s democracies to meet the authoritarian challenge, with important consequences for the state of global freedom…Indeed, if the world’s democracies fail to unite and speak out in defense of their own values, despots will continue to gain from divide-and-conquer strategies, as Russia’s leaders are now doing in their approach to Europe and the United States.”

This includes democratic developing countries, as well as the traditional developed countries of the ‘free world’. Brazil’s deepening relationship with Iran, South Africa’s reluctance to take a more assertive stance with regards to Zimbabwe, and India’s ambivalence about the Burmese junta are cited. It is the description of these three countries in a Foreign Policy piece, however, that leads to my concern: “robust democracies that nonetheless seem utterly disinterested in promoting democracy internationally”

Is there – and should there – be a connection between the political structure of a particular country and its foreign policy? Do democracies, in order to be faithful to the values embodied in their own internal political system, need to express a preference for those values in their international conduct? It seems an intuitive suggestion to make – and democratic peace arguments suggest that the worldwide spread of democracy will only foster global peace and stability. But how can this be done?

The risk of an assertive approach to promoting democracy as a matter of foreign policy seems to me to lie in the rather undemocratic forms that this can take, that seems rather disregarding of diversity in international life. At one extreme, this includes war and seeking the forced imposition of democracy. Central to the neoconservative vision of the George W. Bush administration was this evangelical approach, which justified the invasion of Iraq even in the absence of WMDs.

Michael Desch identifies this prospect as the “paradox of liberalism” (academic subscription required), where liberal democracies can be rather intolerant of illberal regimes, a tendency particularly pronounced for the United States and its founding belief in being an exemplar of democracy for the rest of the world. A main part of economic historian Niall Ferguson’s arguments seems to be in highlighting the good that American power, exercised in quasi-imperial fashion, can do for the rest of the world, bringing both democracy and development to foreign lands.

So where does this leave expectations for how the emerging economies should treat democracy in their international affairs? Here, any democratic impulse within foreign policy priorities seems to be mitigated by a traditional post-independence notion of state sovereignty that favours non-interference in the internal affairs of other states (as issues of domestic political order unequivocably are). Forged in the fires of colonialism and being on the recieving end of the imperial exercise of power, the tendency among these countries – and I would suggest developing countries more widely – is towards a conservative defense of the international order as it is, eschewing a radical approach to intervention that shifts the bases of international legitimacy (i.e. that one does not have to be a democracy to be a legitimate state).

Perhaps the balance between the two will change as the democratic emerging powers accumulate more power and influence, and with it, the temptation to exercise this influence in more self-regarding ways.  But in the prevailing live-and-let-live attitude that errs on the side of caution (one that admittedly does very little for people in Myanmmar or Zimbabwe) is at least the relative absence of international violent conflict.

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