Over the past decade, a cascade of negative developments has called into question or even toppled assumptions about democracy and democracy aid that prevailed in the 1990s, notes Thomas Carothers, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Democracy practitioners confront a daunting set of harsh new realities, he writes for the January 2015 Journal of Democracy. These include:
1) A loss of democratic momentum: The global stagnation of democracy is one of the most significant international political developments of the past decade. Democracy’s failure to keep expanding has hurt the democratic-assistance field in at least two ways.. …..
2) Closing of doors: When some governments that had previously allowed in significant amounts of prodemocracy aid began pushing back against it in the early 2000s, observers thought this might be a short-term phenomenon. ….
3) The troubles of Western democracies: The struggle of Western liberal democracy to maintain the unrivaled pride of place that it enjoyed in the 1990s also affects democracy aid. Democracy’s travails in both the United States and Europe have greatly damaged the standing of democracy in the eyes of many people around the world. ….
4) A feebler policy commitment: Of course, not all aspects of the international environment are unfavorable for democracy work. ….. Yet the headwinds buffeting democracy aid—the waning of global democratic momentum, the growing pushback against democracy aid, the damaged status of Western democracy, and rising competition from non-democracies—also influence many Western policy makers and add up to a further challenge: weakened commitment by the United States and other established democracies to making democracy support a foreign-policy priority.
Democracy aid has arrived not at a crisis, but at a crossroads, defined by two very different possible paths forward, Carothers contends:
- Some democracy-aid providers facing the new environment will feel inclined to pull back, spend fewer resources, exit from difficult countries, trim their political sails, and avoid direct competition with contending models. In short, they will aim to reduce their risks, and their ambitions.
- Others will favor a different path. They will accept that backsliding, closing political space, and greater competition are the “new normal” of democracy aid. They will invest more heavily in learning, accept the need to tolerate greater risks, work harder to achieve greater cooperation and solidarity among diverse democracy-aid providers, and argue more effectively for principled, persuasive prodemocracy diplomacy to support their efforts.