Rising powers, rising democracies – Rising democracy promotion? An outlook on non-Western democracy assistance


For Democracy: The Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Engagement in the World

Place of Publication: Berlin
Date of Publication: April 2016
Number of Pages: 112
License: CC-BY-NC-ND

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Essay: Rising powers, rising democracies – Rising democracy promotion? An outlook on non-Western democracy assistance

by Oliver Stuenkel


Democracy promotion remains an area that has been traditionally dominated by the United States and Europe on both the policy and the academic level. However, the fact that we are witnessing a shift of power away from the West and towards so-called “emerging powers” such as China and India raises the important question of the ways in which democracy promotion – and democracy itself – will be affected by this trend.

Indeed, some argue that autocrats across the world may increasingly become disinclined to tolerate European and US-financed organizations that openly promote democracy abroad. The West may lose the necessary legitimacy to finance the promotion of democracy and rights in other countries, and expelling foreign-financed organizations no longer carries the political risk for autocracies that it once did.

From a Western point of view, so-called “rising democracies” like India, Indonesia, South Africa and Brazil, all of which have sought greater international visibility over the past years, seem to be ideal candidates to assist the United States and Europe in promoting democracy in a “post-Western world.”

Historically, however, they have been reluctant to embrace this idea, and remain deeply ambiguous about the liberal pedigree that informs Western democracy promotion. Policy makers in Jakarta, Brasília, Delhi and Pretoria generally agree that democracy is the most desirable form of government, and often openly commit themselves to defending universally conceived values and helping all human beings to obtain political rights and representation. Yet at the same time, these countries often complain that international liberal norms are instruments that enable the great powers to project their influence and advance their interests.

Western powers are commonly viewed as only ready to promote democracy if doing so reflects their strategic or economic interests. Critics point out that the United States promotes democracy because democracies are more likely to trade with the United States and become integrated into the US-led global system; therefore, they are less likely to cause instability. Whenever democracy promotion collides with economic or geopolitical interests, democracy becomes a secondary issue. Thus, to many people in the Global South, democracy promotion is a tool used to legitimize US hegemony, and this is said to explain the West’s highly selective support of demonstrations and coup d’états around the world. Western leaders often criticize Brazil, India and other democracies for being soft on dictators, and view such countries as irresponsible and unwilling to take action when democracy or human rights are under threat. Yet despite the country’s principled rhetoric, the United States, observers in Brazil often remember, was quick to embrace illegitimate post-coup leaders in Venezuela (2002), Honduras (2009) and Egypt (2013), and has actively supported repressive governments when they have used force against protest movements such as in Bahrain.

Despite these qualms, emerging democracies have frequently played a constructive role and defended democratic norms during the past decade. Brazil, for example, has quietly become a relatively reliable supporter of democracy in the region, even though its low-key approach has been criticized at home and abroad. When compared to other rising democracies, Brazil has taken a number of principled stances, dissuading unsatisfied generals from staging coups (for example in Paraguay) and ensuring democratic clauses were integrated into agreements made by Mercosur and UNASUR, two regional organizations. Brazil also announced the concept of “non-indifference,” an informal regional policy doctrine that underlines the country’s regional leadership ambitions.
Although Brazil’s policy has been relatively clear in terms of political ruptures in the region, the country has not generally taken a forceful stance on violations of human rights and civil liberties. In early 2014, when the Venezuelan government cracked down on protesters with unacceptable severity, Brazil’s foreign minister insisted that it was not Brazil’s role to criticize Venezuela’s President Maduro. In the same vein, Brazil’s aid projects are generally free from human rights or political conditions. Cuba, for example, is an important recipient of Brazilian aid, but no political strings are attached to Brazilian investment projects in Cuba.

Outside of its own region, Brazil’s stance has often been ambiguous; this has been the case with the civil war in Syria, and Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea. From Brazil’s perspective, external pressure is rarely the most constructive approach, and the country is therefore reluctant to openly name and shame international misfits. Brazil also strongly opposes military interventions aimed at addressing humanitarian crises. Very similar things can be said about other non-Western democracies.

By contrast, India, the world’s largest democracy, has been more reluctant to promote democracy. For over a decade, Delhi has followed a policy of “constructive engagement” with Myanmar’s military junta, which has lead the country to avoid criticizing the regime’s human rights abuses, despite the fact that India hosts large numbers of Burmese refugees and political exiles. democracy as a political priority has been mostly absent from India’s foreign policy. This may be partly explained by the fact that India is surrounded by unstable and often autocratic regimes. The Indian government sees itself as having no choice but to engage with its autocratic neighbors and it is skeptical that outside factors can democratize China, its largest neighbor. The growing Chinese presence was also one of the main reasons that the Indian government was unwilling to openly condemn the military regime in Rangoon for the suppression of the Saffron Revolution in 2007.

Still, Indian policy makers frequently express their commitment to democracy promotion, particularly in multilateral fora. In 2005, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, argued that “liberal democracy is the natural order of political organization in today’s world,” saying that “all alternative systems […] are an aberration.” He also stated that as the world’s largest democracy, it was natural that India should have been among the first to welcome and support the concept of a UN Democracy Fund.

India participated in the first ministerial conference of the Community of Democracies organized in Warsaw in June 2000; yet, rather than genuinely promoting democracy, India saw the initiative as a means of strengthening ties between itself and the US. This episode should serve as a warning to the West: Non-Western democracies are proud of their political systems and their values, but they do not divide the world into democracies and autocracies, and they are very skeptical of any policies or initiatives based on this world view.

Similarly to other regional powers with global aspirations, South Africa sees itself as an important actor in regional stability and development. The promotion of democracy in Africa has been one of the pillars of South African foreign policy since the country’s democratization. As early as the mid-1990s, Nelson Mandela set out his priorities for South African foreign policy: human rights, democracy promotion and international law. Mandela argued that human rights were the cornerstone of South Africa’s policy and he shall not hesitate to carry the message to the far corners of the world. Moreover, he promised that human rights would be “the light that guides our foreign affairs.” Western observers at the time hoped South Africa would play a leading role in promoting democracy abroad. And indeed, Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 transformed South Africa and contributed to a wave of democratic revolutions across the continent. Multiparty elections were organized in more than 30 African countries in the decade that followed; countries that had previously been dictatorships. The narrative of South Africa’s journey from apartheid to democratic rainbow nation provided inspiration at a time when the African continent was otherwise wracked by conflict and economic decline. However, despite Pretoria’s rhetoric, South Africa’s efforts to promote democracy have been characterized by contradictions and dilemmas that have led the government to adapt its approach.

Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, emphasized South Africa’s international engagement and actively sought to promote peaceful resolutions to conflicts such as by contributing peacekeeping troops to UN missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. Under current President Jacob Zuma, South Africa has continued to adopt a relatively visible international role, but the country was severely criticized by the international community for not doing enough to defend democracy in neighboring Zimbabwe, and for not placing pressure on the political leadership in Swaziland to organize free and fair elections. However, it is also important to note that promoting and defending democracy in Africa during the last few decades has been a far harder task than in other regions such as Latin America. Internationally, South Africa’s ambiguous role in the field of democracy and human rights was symbolized by its support for UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized a humanitarian intervention in Libya, before immediately turning into the NATO campaign’s greatest critic.

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country and a vibrant democracy, is increasingly seeking to assume a regional leadership position; however, it also faces similar constraints to India and South Africa. In 2013, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono disregarded a long-standing foreign policy tradition of non-interference in the affairs of other nations – one of the chief principles that developed out of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung in 1955. This led Indonesia to call on the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. This demand was important, even though Indonesia has done little to follow-up its initiative, and later abstained from condemning Assad in the UN General Assembly. In several instances, Indonesia has assumed regional leadership in democracy promotion in a similar manner to Brazil. Jakarta made specific efforts to encourage Myanmar to begin the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

The Bali Democracy Forum (BDF), established in 2008, is another medium through whichIndonesia has promoted international norms of democracy, even though Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran regularly participate in the forum and rarely face overt criticism. The Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD) – created in the same year as the BDF – supports the BDF’s goal of instilling concepts and skills for peace and democracy through intellectual exchanges, training practitioners, developing joint missions, network building, publications, and capacity building.

The notion that democracy is the ideal political system forms part of public discussions in all of the countries described above; many young citizens are helping these countries to adapt to the ever changing realities – for example by discussing ideas such as “digital democracy.” Democracy is as much an Indian – or Brazilian, Indonesian and South African – value as a Western one, and this convergence of values could provide a key foundation for a strong partnership. However, given profound doubts about Western intentions and memories of foreign intervention, the reluctance of emerging powers to cooperate has often led to disappointment in the West.

The best way forward, therefore, is to keep cooperation in the field of democracy as technical as possible. Ideally, the term “democracy promotion” should be used as little as possible when engaging with emerging democracies, as it evokes images of the United States’ intervention in Iraq in 2003 and other imperialist episodes. Asking Brazil, India and South Africa to join Europe in confronting Russia, for example, is bound to fail; indeed, these three countries not only refused to impose sanctions in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, they also issued a joint statement condemning attempts to “push Russia against the wall.”

Rather, joint projects could be described as “election monitoring,” “transparency initiatives” and “promoting political participation.” In the same way, preventive work is likely to be less controversial. For example, training journalists, judges and financing NGOs to help promote public debate is something countries like Brazil and India could be interested in as part of a trilateral framework with European countries. These are all issues that democracies in the Global South care deeply about – just like Western countries.

Oliver Stuenkel, assistant professor of International Relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in São Paulo.

Read also:

Book review: “21st Century Democracy Promotion in the Americas” By J. Heine and B. Weiffen

Rising Powers and the Future of Democracy Promotion: the case of Brazil and India (Third World Quarterly)

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