In defence of democracy promotion

Democracy promotion itself needs promoters – and, with judicious diplomacy, this year’s presidents of the EU could do much to change mindsets and reduce Europe’s ambivalence

This article was published in The European Voice on 13 January 2009.

In recent years a certain defensiveness has taken root about the virtues of democracy. Many observers confuse the failure of the Iraq invasion with a broader questioning of support for democracy. Alternative forms of governance in Russia and China are also being seen by some as attractive substitute models to democracy, despite these two countries’ worsening human-rights records. Closer to home, the possibility that democracy has a universal appeal is even being questioned by Western politicians and commentators, despite opinion polls showing that citizens in all regions aspire to live in more accountable and less repressive political systems. Finally, some also argue that the financial crisis requires Europe to adopt a more ‘realist’ foreign policy rather than simply pushing for democratisation.

Most European politicians state, of course, that they remain committed to encouraging democratic reform in developing states. Yet they show little urgency in backing more effective democracy-promotion initiatives and often in practice fail to assert a robust pro-democracy strategy. But now plans are afoot to draw up a new EU strategy on democracy. The Czech presidency has committed itself to prioritising the issue. This is a necessary and positive step. And, by virtue of their own experience, the Czechs enjoy the credibility to take it forward.

But, without practical improvements and a more assertive political will, such a strategy risks joining a long list of laudable speeches that have done little in practice to temper short-term realpolitik. The EU does not require another document asserting that democracy is a good thing and that the ‘European model’ is uniquely well equipped to entice political reform. Concrete changes are needed to the rich collection of policy instruments that the EU already possesses.

Creative diplomacy

Supporting democracy in the future will require a more creative use of diplomatic and economic pressure on autocratic regimes. Many commentators now liken the use of sanctions to an ‘imposition’ of ‘Western values’ through ‘neo-imperial intervention’. But it can also be seen as unethical to be propping up dictators who are depriving their citizens of resources.

That does not mean that the EU should completely cut off aid, trade and diplomatic links to any imperfectly democratic regime. But it might mean showing more assertiveness in channelling funds to civil-society organisations rather than to governments as the EU has begun to do, for example, in Kenya and Uganda. Rewards for democratic reform are currently too low and sporadic. European donors must cease ‘rewarding’ states for vague commitments to reforms they know are disingenuous. Conversely, when states do democratise, rewards must be far more generous. 

EU member states need to stop repeating the mantra that ‘democratic reform needs to be gradual’ as an excuse for inaction. No one doubts that democracy takes time to embed and perfect. But many reforms are blocked as a means of self-preservation by authoritarian regimes, not because societies genuinely need decades to introduce simple changes to their electoral laws, NGO regulations or prison conditions. A certain amount of ‘democracy transfer’ should be possible.

The EU must also break a mindset that holds that security co-operation is put in jeopardy by criticising democratic abuses. It might be unavoidable that the EU needs a security relationship with the likes of Russia, Egypt, China and Nigeria; but that does not mean it needs to issue statements claiming that such countries are making progress on human rights and democracy when they clearly are not. Tellingly, the EU has overlooked human-rights issues in its relations with both Israel and the Palestinians, contributing at least indirectly to the current conflagration.

Backlashes and the long-term approach

A pragmatic approach is needed to make EU processes less bureaucratic and more focused on results. Democratic reformers in authoritarian states need core, long-term support from Western donors that does not involve them spending all their time filling in forms and waiting precariously for one short-term project grant after another. Democracy support is a key area crying out for the kind of pragmatic flexibility that the new member states advocate. In Belarus for example, the EU’s own rules on funding have stopped money getting to key democracy groups within the country.

Finally, many commentators argue that those states that participated in the invasion of Iraq have contributed to the ‘backlash’ against democracy. To the extent that this is true, these states need to be more pro-active in supporting democratic norms across the world in a way that de-links such universal values from Western security interventions and demonstrates that democracy promotion is not about regime change through military force.

Unlike other foreign-policy issues, democracy promotion has no clear big member-state ‘champion’ within the EU. France, Italy and Spain are ambivalent on democracy promotion. Germany claims a greater commitment but in practice tacks to a geopolitical approach – as witnessed in its pressure to remove sanctions on Uzbekistan and its bilateral energy deals with Russia. The Czech and Swedish presidencies are ideally placed to revive the EU’s democratic spirit. With judicious diplomacy they can in 2009 help reverse the growing scepticism over democracy’s place in EU foreign policy.

Richard Youngs is the director of the democratisation programme at the Madrid-based think tank Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.