Five ways to improve democracy assistance

ukrainesolidarnoscRecently there has been growing and justified skepticism about the idea of democracy promotion, say two prominent observers. Without trying to calculate the gains of democracy in places like Tunisia or the growing authoritarianism in places like Egypt, this a good moment to look at the role of democracy promotion in this new, shaky world landscape, SRDJA POPOVIC and SLOBODAN DJINOVIC write for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab:

Too many promising nonviolent struggles have collapsed because there was no transitional support after the removal of a dictator. Democratic change is a continuous process, not a one-time event, requiring continuous support and investment in order for it to succeed.

Newborn democracies need assistance in building democratic institutions, which at the moment of “revolution” are often very weak or missing altogether after decades of authoritarianism. Do not forget: A full 11 years elapsed between independence and the signing of the U.S. Constitution. 

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Obama ‘embraces democracy promotion again’?

obama un sept 25

FOR MORE than a decade, democracy has been in retreat around the world. But this week President Obama sounded something like the beginning of a counterattack, the Washington Post reports.

If he acts on the vows he articulated in two speeches in New York and in a presidential memorandum, the United States could begin to shift the momentum, the paper adds:

In talks to the Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday and the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, Mr. Obama mentioned democracy sparingly, preferring to talk about civil society. But he left no doubt about his meaning when he pledged “to stand with the courageous citizens and brave civil society groups who are working for equality and opportunity and justice and human dignity all over the world.” He saluted democracy activists, including in nations whose governments in the past he has been loath to offend — Ahmed Maher in Egypt, for example, and Liu Xiaobo and Ilham Tohti in China.

“Oppressive governments are sharing ‘worst practices’ to weaken civil society,” Mr. Obama said in remarks addressed to democratic activists around the world. “We’re going to help you share the ‘best practices’ to stay strong and vibrant.” It is significant that the president recognized that dictators are banding together to promote autocracy and checkmate democracy. It could be even more significant if, having recognized the altered landscape, Mr. Obama really invigorates democracy promotion as a key plank of U.S. foreign policy.

“Now, as he is forced to confront an aggressive Russia and a rampaging Islamic State, he may be remembering that the United States and its allies cannot defeat Islamist fundamentalism or Russian neo-fascism without a more hopeful ideology of their own,” the Post continues. “That would be a sound foundation for a reinvigorated, and more successful, foreign policy over the coming 28 months.”

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Putin ‘scared witless by the idea of people power’

russia ukraineThe NATO summit meeting last week in Wales was dominated by Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. The rift with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was an extraordinary contrast to the last NATO summit in Britain, in 1990, Steven Erlanger writes for the New York Times:

A year after the Berlin Wall fell, NATO issued the London Declaration, asserting that “Europe has entered a new, promising era.” Eastern Europe is liberating itself, the declaration said. “The Soviet Union has embarked on the long journey toward a free society. The walls that once confined people and ideas are collapsing,” and those people “are choosing a Europe whole and free.”

 “I could weep for the hopes that we had in the early 1990s,” said Ian Bond, a former British diplomat in Russia, now at the Center for European Reform. “The walls that divided us were collapsing, and Putin is building them up again.”

Rather than moving toward democracy and individual liberties, Mr. Bond said, the Russian government obsesses about public uprisings like those in Ukraine in 2004 and this year.

“Putin wants to show that you can’t have a real democracy in a former Soviet state,” Mr. Bond said. “He’s scared witless by the idea of people power.”

Today, many in Moscow remain convinced that regime change is Washington’s ultimate objective. They view Western support for the revolution in Ukraine—allegedly engineered by Western spies and NGOs—as but an intermediate step toward similar actions against Putin’s government in Russia, according to Eugene Rumer, a senior associate and the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia Program:

If none other than former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski—who is widely respected in Russia as a leading American foreign policy thinker but has also been known as a major hawk since the Cold War—has declared that supporting Ukraine is key to promoting change in Putin’s Russia, then clearly Russia is the next target for Western-engineered subversion. Western sanctions are interpreted in Moscow not simply as an instrument designed to change Russian policy in Ukraine, but as something far more sinister—to weaken Russia, to undermine its government, to instigate a popular uprising, to overthrow the Putin government, to install a puppet regime in Russia.

“In July, Putin told his security council that Russia’s foreign enemies are trying constantly to undermine Russia under the guise of democracy promotion,” Rumer writes for POLITICO. “Such ‘color revolutions,’ he said, will not work in Russia—though he probably has his doubts.”

But James Sherr, author of “Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad,” believes that Mr. Putin was heading toward rupture regardless, Erlanger adds for the Times:

“Putin has had clear strategic objectives, even fixations, from the start, but he has pursued them by tactical improvisation,” Mr. Sherr said.

Mr. Putin is not just aiming to restore Russian primacy in the former Soviet Union, he said. “One of his fixations is Ukraine,” whose independence Mr. Putin regards as a crime.

At the same time, Mr. Sherr said, “we in the West had a very specific, hopeful, illusory idea about the end of the Soviet Union and the kind of Russia we’d be dealing with.” But even by 1994, Russian democrats were being called “romantics,” if not yet traitors. “I think Putin or something like Putin was almost preordained from this whole period of romanticism and illusions,” Mr. Sherr said. “That was fueled by the equally naïve projection of a Western liberal model of economic and political change on Russia.”

The new Thirty Years’ War?

middle_east-450x320Today’s Middle East risks incurring something akin to Europe’s seventeenth century Thirty Years’ War, the most violent and destructive episode in European history until the two world wars of the twentieth century, says a leading foreign policy expert.

Three and a half years after the dawn of the “Arab Spring,” there is a real possibility that we are witnessing the early phase of a prolonged, costly, and deadly struggle; as bad as things are, they could well become worse, says Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The region is ripe for unrest. Most of its people are politically impotent and poor in terms of both wealth and prospects. Islam never experienced something akin to the Reformation in Europe; the lines between the sacred and the secular are unclear and contested,” he writes for Project Syndicate:

Moreover, national identities often compete with – and are increasingly overwhelmed by – those stemming from religion, sect, and tribe. Civil society is weak. In some countries, the presence of oil and gas discourages the emergence of a diversified economy and, with it, a middle class. Education emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking. In many cases, authoritarian rulers lack legitimacy.

Democracy promotion in Turkey and Egypt should focus on strengthening civil society and creating robust constitutions that diffuse power,” Haass suggests. But….

There is no room for illusions. Regime change is no panacea; it can be difficult to achieve and nearly impossible to consolidate. Negotiations cannot resolve all or even most conflicts….

Policymakers must recognize their limits. For now and for the foreseeable future – until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in – the Middle East will be less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed.

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How Can We Do Better at Promoting Democracy?

The National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman, Carnegie’s Thomas Carothers, and Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House spoke on a panel entitled “How Can We Do Better at Promoting Democracy?” as part of a recent conference on “Re-thinking Democracy Promotion Amid Rising Authoritarianism.” The conference was jointly sponsored by The American Interest, Freedom House, and Johns Hopkins-SAIS.

TAI‘s editor, Adam Garfinkle, served as moderator.