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'Democracy Assistance: Motives, Impacts, and Limitations'

by Edward Newman, Peace and Governance Programme, United Nations University.

This article appeared in ECRD Volume 4, Number 2 (September 2001)

REVIEWING: Peter BURNELL (ed.), Democracy Assistance: International Co-operation for Democratization (London: Frank Cass, 2001) 384pp. Biblio. Index. Hb.: $42.50; ISBN 0-7146-5106-0. Pb.: £18.50; ISBN 0-7146-8144-X.; and Michael COX, G. John IKENBERRY and Takashi INOGUCHI (eds.), American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies and Impacts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 354pp. Index. Hb.: £45.00; ISBN 0-19-829678-9.

Democracy may well be the "fundamental standard of political legitimacy in the current era" (Held, 1996: p.xi). It is also evolving in parallel with the changing socio-political environments found within political communities and internationally. One of the most interesting characteristics of this evolution is that the promise and limitations of democracy are no longer - if they ever were - issues confined to territorially enclosed communities. International actors and forces play a wide variety of roles in the substance and procedures of democracy within societies. Huntington's study of 'third wave' democracies found that by the late 1980s external observers had become a "familiar and indispensable presence" in almost all transitional elections (Huntington, 1991: p.184). But the range of activities associated with democracy promotion is much broader and deeper than this. This gives rise to a number of important theoretical, ethical and practical questions (Newman, 2001). To what extent is democratization conditioned by 'internal' and 'external' processes, and is the balance shifting in the context of transnational economic and political forces? Are such processes altering the nature of political community and legitimacy? Can 'external' international actors - such as hegemonic states, global organizations, regional organizations, financial institutions, and NGOs - have a decisive, substantial and enduring impact upon domestic transition and democratization? In other words, can external actors bring democracy where there had been no democracy? Is it right that an external actor should have such an impact? Alternatively, can assistance programmes only have a positive impact where the society in question is already moving towards democracy anyway? Are top-down government-assistance programmes the most effective, or those that work with civil society and non-governmental groups? What are the motives and interests of the actors that assist or promote democracy? Has the promotion of democracy in post-conflict and divided societies had a significant role in conflict settlement and reconciliation? Or can electoral processes exacerbate ethnic/religious differences, and even encourage new outbreaks of conflict? What values or models of democracy do external agents such as the UN or the US bring with them to the democratization process - are there implications for sovereignty? Practically, how successful have democracy assistance activities been in terms of consolidating democracy in transitional societies - what is the record? To what extent are international actors such as the UN 'staying the course' from transition to consolidation, by going beyond electoral assistance to political reconstruction and indigenous capacity building? Does this represent an external actor 'imposing' notions of democracy? Are 'international standards' of democracy and democratization sensitive to indigenous traditions and authority structures? The two volumes under review move this debate forward in a very meaningful sense, albeit from quite different approaches.

Why promote democracy?

There is an emerging consensus - albeit not one that has gone unchallenged - that 'democratic' forms of governance are conducive to certain 'public goods' related to human rights, economic development, and peace. Boutros-Ghali stated (1996: p.6) that "democracy contributes to preserving peace and security, securing justice and human rights, and promoting economic and social development." A further reason why it is legitimate and sensible to promote democracy is because states actually often request such democracy assistance; for example, since the creation of the electoral Assistance Division of the UN Department of Political Affairs some 71 states have applied for assistance. Of course democracy is a deeply contested concept both in theory in practice, and the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of democracy is often wide. Nevertheless, the proliferation of democratic societies has underscored an emerging consensus in the legitimacy of democratic forms of governance, however 'democratic' is defined. Moreover, the emergence of international norms, laws and organizations that promote democratic governance has contributed to a transnational norm of - perhaps even an entitlement to - democracy.

US democracy promotion - a liberal grand strategy or cloak for hegemony?

American Democracy Promotion is less concerned with exploring theoretical propositions about the promotion of democracy and more an analysis of this facet of US foreign policy. Such an idea is bound to arouse strongly argued positions, and that is the case in this excellent volume. The contributors are leading international experts and the chapters are very well written. The book explores the historical, strategic and political impulses that lie behind the US promotion of democracy. As the introduction observes, this idea has been received in a number of different ways: adventurism that risks involving the US in dangerous overseas entanglements with little or no national benefit; a practical and sincere policy that reflects the US domestic historical commitment to democracy and liberalism; a façade designed to mask US hegemony; a manifestation of Western cultural imperialism; and basically of no significance. More or less all of these positions are represented in this book. In terms of motives, the democratic peace theory is central: participatory societies are not likely to go to war with other liberal democratic countries. As Madeleine Albright asserted, the promotion of human rights and good governance is "not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do": US security and prosperity are served better by a world of democratic rather than undemocratic states. Perhaps there is also a sense of mission, a projection of self-image that is unique to US exceptionalism and the contribution to freedom that de Tocqueville observed. John Ikenberry and Tony Smith present this as a 'grand strategy', a defining characteristic of American foreign policy in the twentieth century. Tony Smith's argument begins with the observation that the promotion of American self-interest and the promotion of a foreign policy that supports human rights and democracy are not mutually exclusive or necessarily in tension. The promotion of democracy reflects a "long-standing, but widely misunderstood, tradition in American foreign policy". (p.85). John Ikenberry ('America's Liberal Grand Strategy: Democracy and National Security in the Post-war Era') follows similar lines. This "reflects a pragmatic, evolving, and sophisticated understanding of how to create a stable international political order and a congenial security environment" (p.103). The motivation is simple: "the United States is better able to pursue its interests, reduce security threats in its environment, and foster a stable political order when other states - particularly the major great powers - are democracies rather than non-democracies" (p.103). Thus, again, we have the combination of a liberal missionary vision and a pragmatic, sensible view of national interest - a "distinctive grand strategy" (p.104).

The opposing argument is well represented in this volume. William Robinson is quite devastating. He argues that US democracy promotion is in reality a project to preempt more radical forms of governance taking root in developing countries whilst extending US hegemony and economic interests. As he puts it, in the Gramscian sense, this is "signaling new forms of transnational control accompanying the rise of global capitalism" - albeit consensual means of control rather than coercive ones (p.308.). Thus, "what US policymakers mean by 'democracy promotion' is the promotion of polyarchy. Polyarchy refers to a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites" (p.310). Latin America, he argue, provides a good illustration of this. The coercive social control of dictators came under siege from forces from below; the replacement of this authoritarianism by 'polyarchy' - that is, limited elite democracy - has simply shifted the form of control and preempted more popular, participatory forms of government: "making the world safe for capitalism" (p.309). It is an interesting critique of US democracy promotion, but it certainly dispenses with democracy in Latin America with some pretty broad sweeps!

Similarly, for Steve Smith, the form of democracy being promoted is "particularly narrow and thereby suitable for supporting US economic interests." (p.63). Moreover, he argues that for many parts of the world, the "US has not historically stood for the promotion of democracy but instead for resistance to it" (p.65). Latin America and the Middle East are obviously examples, where experience flies in the face of the idea of the US as a promoter of democracy: "democracy promotion has not been a goal, let alone the goal, of US foreign policy in the twentieth century (p.66). His conclusion is that the US may be prepared to promote or assist democracy - albeit of a shallow, institutional, top-down variety - when it is in the economic interests of the US, but it is equally prepared to deny human rights and democracy when in turn that is in the perceived interest. Whilst coercive methods were more prevalent during the cold war, the motive is the same for Smith today; the constant is the US interest. Barry Gills makes some similar points: "formal electoral democracy is promoted, but the transformatory capacity of democracy is limited in order to facilitate economic policies" (p.326, 'American Power, Neo-liberal Economic Globalization, and Low-Intensity Democracy: An Unstable Trinity'). Likewise, Jason G. Ralph (''High Stakes' and 'Low-Intensity Democracy': Understanding America's Policy of Promoting Democracy') focuses on the gap between the rhetorical and the practice of promoting democracy. Again, Georg Sorensen, ('Africa and Third World Democratization') argues that the West's assistance has not helped societies to move beyond the "shallow waters of 'electoral democracy'".

Democracy Assistance - global perspectives

The volume by Cox, Ikenberry and Inoguchi is fairly theoretical, and is essentially oriented around US foreign policy debates rather the concept of democracy promotion per se. Whilst there is some common ground, the Burnell volume is more technical, and not so much oriented around a clear debate. It examines the record of democracy assistance over the last decade, considering what forms of democracy tend to be promoted and with what effect, and what are the intentions and motives of the promoters. Burnell concludes that "generally speaking democracy assistance is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a democratic opening or for building democracy, although it could come close to being essential in some countries…Outsiders lend support to a process that is locally driven." (p.5). This can involve a very wide range of activities. In the immediate realm of democracy assistance, this can be help with organizing and maintaining the institutions of democracy - such as the organization of elections and issues of transparency. But in a broader sense, in terms of supporting the conditions of democracy - such as civil society, an educated public, certain standards of economic and infrastructual development - the range of things that could fall within the scope of 'democracy assistance' is almost endless. Burnell thus tries to focus the debate, asking some key questions - how to define democracy assistance? Is it a form of political intervention? What is the nature of consent? What is the relationship between democracy, governance and human rights? What are the potential tensions between the different types of assistance?

His two substantial opening chapters comprise some 60 pages, giving a broad and useful survey of the modalities and debates around both positive and negative ways of democracy promotion, including conditionality. Burnell divides activities into two broad areas: assisting and promoting the foundations of democracy; and supporting the institutional and operations forms. He explores the background of democracy assistance - historically and conceptually - and the variety of actors that have been involved, regionally and globally. In terms of the motivation of democracy promoters, Burnell's ideas are similar to those considered in the Cox/Ikenberry/Inoguchi volume, but he argues that we can expect to find a mixture of motives. In terms of actors, he identifies UNDP, the Electoral Assistance Division of the UN Department of Political Affairs, the EU, the OECD, the US, NGOs such as the NED and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and the OSCE.

The rest of the volume is divided into two sections - on institutions; and strategic issues, countries and cases - and a conclusion. The institutions essays are thorough, well written and substantive: the United Nations by Nigel White, the EU by Gordon Crawford, Germany's Stiftungen by Stefan Mair, and Multilateral Development Banks by Carlos Santiso. The following section is a little less coherent but again contains important essays on post-conflict elections by Krishna Kumar, a general piece by Thomas Carothers, USAID by Harry Blair, civil society and Africa by Julie Hearn and Mark Robinson, south east Asia by Kevin Quigley, Russia by Richard Sakwa, and Latin America by John McEldowney. Kumar's chapter is especially important for those interested in post-conflict peace building. He describes the sensitivities and peculiarities of post-conflict elections - in terms of pre-poll preparation, voting and election monitoring, and transfer of power - and argues that "international assistance is essential not only to hold post-conflict elections but also to make them credible and legitimate." (p.201). He focuses on the extent to which elections can further peace, political reconciliation and democratization - goals that are by no means always complementary. His brief survey of cases includes Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Liberia. With the notable exception of Angola he is fairly positive, "but the progress has been slow and not always linear," (p.202), and "if one used the standards that are followed in western democracies, practically all post-conflict elections would get failing grades." (p.200). The main problems and challenges are high costs, unrealistic time frames, insufficient focus on the political requisites and necessary conditions, limited attention to the appropriate electoral systems, and the difficulties of sustaining the electoral infrastructure. Carothers, something of a political realist, concludes that "the role of outsiders in political transitions is inevitably limited, uncertain and complicated, even where democracy is advancing and external involvement is welcomed." (p.213)

This book brings a great deal to the table and advances the debate in a number of ways, yet the conclusion, perhaps inevitably, is that democracy assistance is not a science; there is no grand strategy, it is ill-defined and elastic, and there are often internal tensions and contradictions. It is difficult to assess democracy assistance, both the tangible and intangible results. I am not sure if I agree that it is quite so amorphous as Burnell suggests. Nevertheless, both volumes point to the need for further work in developing methodologies for evaluating the impact of democracy assistance, and for identifying the variables which have a bearing upon the nature of the impact - the success or otherwise - of democracy assistance programmes.


Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 'An Agenda for Democratization', New York, United Nations, 1996.

David Held, Models of Democracy, second edition, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1996.

Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave. Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Edward Newman, '(Re)building Political Society: the UN in Democratization', in Edward Newman and Oliver P. Richmond eds., The United Nations and Human Security, London, Palgrave, 2001, forthcoming.

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