Non-Western Roots of International Democracy Support (Carnegie Endowment)


Carnegie Endowment

Thomas Carothers, Richard Youngs, Oliver Stuenkel, Claudio Fuentes, Niranjan Sahoo, I Ketut Putra Erawan, Maiko Ichihara, Tjiurimo Alfredo Hengari, Sook Jong Lee, Senem Aydın-Düzgit, Tsveta Petrova

June 3, 2014


Richard Youngs and Thomas Carothers

A striking feature of international democracy support is the connection between a country’s domestic experience with democracy and the shape of its efforts to promote democracy beyond its borders. The nature of a state’s democratic transition inevitably influences how it perceives and interacts with transition processes in other countries. In addition, the specific form of its own democratic institutions will condition how it seeks to support institutional reform in other countries.

These linkages can be a source of strength. By drawing on their country’s own experiences with a particular institutional form or political process, aid providers and democracy activists can offer usefully grounded knowledge to others grappling with similar challenges. Yet they can also prove problematic if those same actors try to export their own transitional experiences and institutional forms to disparate contexts in which different democratic solutions are needed. Western support for democracy around the world in recent decades has often embodied both the strengths and weaknesses of such internal-external linkages.

As rising democracies in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere increasingly engage in supporting democracy outside their borders, internal-external linkages in this domain take new forms. Often these countries have only relatively recently transitioned from authoritarian to democratic rule, and thus lessons from their own experience about how democratization should or should not unfold are vivid in the minds of policymakers and aid providers. For example, a country whose transition was highly conflictual may put special emphasis on helping other states achieve early consensus among contending political actors. Or a country that enjoyed constructive external involvement in its own transition may be more favorably inclined to engage in a very active mode of democracy support than one that experienced little or counterproductive outside interference in its own transition. In addition, given that such countries often focus their external support efforts on their immediate neighborhoods, they may feel that the shape of their own domestic political institutions has great potential relevance and applicability among their near neighbors.

Thus, exploring the internal-external linkages that characterize the democracy support work of rising democracies is a useful early step in gaining a deeper appreciation of how these countries go about such work. It sheds light on the assertion made by actors in some rising democracies that their external democracy work benefits from political nuances and sensitivities that Western democracy assistance may lack. To help illuminate this issue, experts in the recently established Carnegie Rising Democracies Network explain, on a case-by-case basis, how the experience of democratic transition influences external democracy support policies in Brazil, Chile, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. These case studies highlight how the expanding range of actors involved in international democracy support is increasing the variety and complexity of the field overall.


Oliver Stuenkel

Brazil’s democratic transition, which began in the late 1970s, was gradual, steady, and relatively peaceful. After introducing free and fair national elections in the 1980s, the government undertook market-oriented reforms and controlled inflation in the 1990s and initiated broad cash-transfer programs to reduce poverty and inequality in the 2000s. Current priorities include combating impunity among the political leadership, improving public services (education, infrastructure, and healthcare), and addressing continued human rights abuses by the police forces. To some extent, these steps can be seen as part of a complex, generation-long turn toward democracy.

This process was, however, marked by frequent setbacks. In a surprise victory in 1985, Brazil’s opposition candidate Tancredo Neves won the country’s first openly contested presidential election after twenty-one years of military rule. But he fell ill and died days before his inauguration, making José Sarney, Neves’s chosen vice president and the former leader of the pro-military party, Brazil’s first democratically elected president since 1964. Sarney’s successor was impeached in 1992 for corruption. Yet even those early missteps contributed to consolidating the democratic process, and ongoing problems and occasional setbacks have not stopped the quality of Brazil’s democracy from steadily improving over the past thirty years.

Compared to other countries’ experiences, the Brazilian political transition was relatively drawn out. Military leaders legalized the formation of parties in 1979, but full democratization occurred only over time. Rather than staging a revolution to overthrow the military government, Brazil’s substantial (although often divided) democratic opposition, which included the Catholic Church, labor unions, intellectuals, and other parts of civil society, won a string of small but significant victories for change. Maintaining positive civil-military relations was an important aspect of the transition.

Brazil’s democratization is also relatively recent. Most of today’s political leaders were protagonists in the transition process as jailed dissidents, exiles, or protest leaders.

Democratization occurred without the explicit intervention of international actors (the IMF played a key role in the 1980s, but it was not a prodemocratic force). This fact helps explain why Brazilian foreign policy makers today remain skeptical that outside intervention of any kind can be of much help in a country’s quest to democratize, even though Brazilian political leaders agree that outsiders can at times help mediate internal conflicts. Furthermore, Brazil’s relatively smooth and bloodless transition contributed to a natural reluctance to support potentially disruptive prodemocratic movements that may lead to sudden instability and complicate civil-military relations.

For Brazilians, one of the greatest achievements of their country’s democratization process was the fact that incumbent leaders were able to finish their terms and hand over power to their successors in an orderly way, without protracted violence or mass upheaval. It is precisely this very basic yet fundamental element of democracy—the peaceful transfer of power—that Brazil most vigorously defends in the region. This stance may help explain why, despite large-scale government repression of the Venezuelan opposition, Brazil still considers a potential overthrow of President Nicolás Maduro’s government by domestic protesters a threat to regional stability.

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