Democracy Promotion and the Role of the ‘Democratic Emerging Powers’

by Gerd Schönwälder

A preview of the conference on ‘Promoting Democracy: What Role for the Emerging Powers?’ to take place at the University of Ottawa on October 15-16, 2013.

Millions around the world continue to name democracy as their preferred form of government and profess adherence to democratic values. However, democracy promotion has acquired something of a bad name. For many, it has come to mean the mindless ‘export’ of institutional and other ‘blueprints’ to places ill-suited for them, where democracy has no roots and where the chances of implanting it are remote. For others, following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, promoting democracy has become synonymous with ‘regime change’: violent interventions by Western powers to overturn the established order—ostensibly to protect human rights and further the rule of law, but really meant to defend and project the West’s wealth, power, and influence.

Like all black-and-white pictures, there is some truth in this one, even though it downplays genuine efforts by western democracy promoters—including many non-governmental agencies and civil society groups—to better understand local realities and help build more accountable and responsive institutions and more open and tolerant civil societies. But having said this, there is little doubt that the democracy promotion enterprise is at a “puzzling half-way stage”, as one observer put it, with Western democracy promoters unsure as to what works and why, and what to do next.

Enter the ‘democratic emerging powers’ (DEPs)—countries such as India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia or Turkey. Their phenomenal economic ascent has brought them membership in global governance forums such as the G20 and increased clout in global trade negotiations. At the same time, these countries have been called upon to help deliver a range of ‘global public goods’, among them democratic governance and greater respect for human rights. Certainly, the increased prominence of the DEPs has given rise to new expectations: couldn’t these countries shoulder some of the burden that Western democracy promoters have carried for so long? And wouldn’t they be able to do better where Western democracy promoters have often struggled—notably in designing more context-sensitive, locally-adapted forms of democracy support and in accommodating forms of democracy that differ from (albeit complement) the Western liberal-representative model?

Going by the papers to be presented at the conference, the answer seems to be ‘no’, or perhaps ‘not yet’. Not unlike Western countries before them, the DEPs have carefully hedged their bets, generally engaging in democracy promotion activities only when this wouldn’t harm their other (read: strategic and economic) interests. Insisting on ‘southern solidarity’ and on the value of not interfering in another nation’s sovereign affairs, they have been critical of the West’s initiatives and sometimes turned a blind eye to questionable human rights practices by others. Add to that the risk of empowering authoritarian rivals not bound by democratic niceties—particularly China—and that of highlighting deficiencies in their own democratic polities, and you have a powerful case for not promoting democracy elsewhere.

At the conference on October 15-16, made possible by a collaboration between CIPS and the German Development Institute (DIE) and supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the participants (half of them scholars from the DEPs themselves) will dig deeper into the reasons behind this state of affairs. But they will not stop there. They will ask what could turn into the DEPs into more enthusiastic democracy supporters and what would make them place greater emphasis on the ‘instrumental value’ of more democratic surroundings: greater security, more trade and prosperity and, arguably, a greater willingness to address common problems collectively.

Stay tuned for a report on the conference and updates on related activities. Plans for a book publication based on the conference papers are already in the works.

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