Book review: “Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve” by Thomas Carothers


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The phenomenon of the so-called "emerging donors" - such as China, India and Brazil - is one of the most fascinating developments of our time, certain to fundamentally change the aid industry. Scholars around the world are now seeking to understand how the new donors' emergence changes the way we think about development and poverty reduction. Yet while several of the BRICS are increasingly important players in the development aid industry, one area remains firmly under Western control: Democracy aid.

Promoting democracy is a highly controversial issue in foreign policy, and almost everyone has a strong opinion about it. Some see it as an important aspect of the West's strategy to maintain global liberal order, others believe it is hollow rhetoric merely meant to cover up economic interests. Outside of the United States and Europe, the issue is largely regarded as an outgrowth of cultural imperialism, not only useless but in many cases dangerous.

Criticism may be warranted, but very few seem to know what democracy aid actually is and what its effects are. In this context, Thomas Carothers' highly informative and detailed book provides an excellent guide. Although written more than a decade ago, it remains one of the best practical analyses of democracy aid. The author methodically explains all the different forms democracy aid can take - ranging from electoral aid (e.g. electoral monitoring), political party assistance, legislative assistance, media assistance and civic education, pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Carothers, who has been a practionioner in the field of democracy aid for many years, is in favor of the practice in principle - but readily identifies the many failures and mistakes US democracy promoters have made and are still making all over the world. The four cases he presents - Guatemala, Nepal, Romania and Zambia - make a sobering read and include countless examples of how difficult promoting democracy is. His chapter on judicial reform, in particular, seemingly affirms the pessismistic notion held by many that "these things cannot be imposed but must grow from within."

Yet Carothers also points out that external factors matter - democratizations, after all, often take place in waves - and that there are examples of US democracy aid with positive effects - the most promiment of all remain Germany and Japan after World War II. But there are also more recent examples - such as the Philippines - in which US pressure contributed to bolstering democratic transitions.

Given that Brazil and India are spending growing amounts of money on development aid in faraway places, why have they not begun to spend resources on democracy aid, too? Just as the United States and Europe, they surely have a great interest in widespread democratization. In addition, their experiences of democratization are much more recent, and their socioeconomic realities often similar to non-democratic countries - so in theory, they would be well-placed engage in the pratice. And yet, Carothers at no point ponders the possibility of non-Western democracies promoting democracy themselves.

Some might say the 'liberal tradition' prevalent in the United States is based on the optimistic and rather naive assumption that 'change is easy', which is not visible in countries such as Brazil and India. Yet these emerging giants do finance development projects abroad, which is certainly driven by some optimism. A better explanation may thus be that democracy aid has a more interventionist ring to it than development aid. Trying to help people elsewhere prosper economically is one thing, telling them how to organize themselves politically is quite another.

One of Carothers' more intriguing arguments is that US-Americans support their government's attempts to promote democracy abroad because they think democracy - and specifically, their model of democarcy - is the superior political system. This leads, as the author shows, to at times grotesque situations in which US democracy promoters encourage the adoption of a political model exactly like the one of the United States, even if that makes little sense in another society's context (the same is true for European governments). So may it be that the conviction of their political system's superiority may simply not be strong enough in Brazil and India to allow for the rather bold step of promoting it abroad?

Another important question then is: Can the U.S. political system become dysfunctional enough for its citizens to reject any attempts to export their model? A mere glance at U.S. politics reveals historic political deadlock, highly controversial campaign finance laws, growing barriers to voter registration in some states that may significantly lower turnout among the poor, a presidental election in 2000 that suffered from potentially decisive irregularities and a highly politicized supreme court. US-American citizens are generally aware of these problems, but they still supports US democracy promotion.

Also, will Indians and Brazilians one day come to like their political system so much that they begin to try to export it? Or will democracy promotion become a thing of the past anyways once China's economy will overtake that of the United States, making China the new model to follow? After all, it the first time in more than a century that the world's leading economy is a non-democratic state.

Carothers does not answer any of these questions, which most likely seemed irrelevant at the time the book was written. Still, his work is a highly readable and sheds light on a little known but important topic in international politics.

Read also:

Book review: “American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies and Impacts”

Book review: “Liberal Leviathan” by G. John Ikenberry

Book review: “No One’s World” by Charles A. Kupchan

See a list of all book reviews here

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