US Democracy Promotion through Civil Society

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for

This is the first of a short series of articles on democracy promotion. The topic has been picked up because of its increasingly controversial nature in international politics. In the first two pieces, the democracy promotion policy carried out by the US and the EU are analyzed. In the remaining articles, a more comparative and critical examination will be developed.

The attempt to influence other regimes is a constant element in the history of international politics. It is a key part of foreign policy almost by definition. By looking at the XX century, eminent examples are provided by the struggle against fascist regimes during WWII or the competition between the USA and Soviet Union in influencing the regimes of third countries. It is however only in the last twenty five years that the practice of democracy promotion has acquired an unprecedented level of publicity and openness, becoming a legitimate policy field with an increasing level of acceptance at the international level. Despite the harsh criticisms recently raised against this policy (which are discussed below), the institutional recognition of the democracy promotion policy and of its underpinning principle of the “right to democracy and good governance” in the international system has clearly grown.

With the end of the Cold war era and the unrivalled hegemony of the west, first the US and later on the EU launched a new policy line centered on the promotion of democracy and human rights in transition countries. Among the elements that contributed to create a suitable context for the intensification of such policy we may point, on the one hand, to the democratic waves of the ‘80s in Latin America and Asia and those of the ‘90s in Eastern Europe, Soviet Union, and Sub-Saharan Africa, and, on the other, to differentiation between development and political aid which decreased the generalized suspicion on any foreign intervention.

The first structured democracy promotion programs were launched by US Agency for International Development (USAID) in the ‘90s. After this, many other similar programs were initiated by governmental bodies such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) or by the European Union with its European Union Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR).

These governmental programs have often worked in close cooperation with non-governmental organizations and think tanks that have played an important role in both funding and operating democracy promotion policies. In the US, particularly important are the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) established by the Reagan Administration already in 1983, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the International Republic Institute (IRI). In the UK, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and in Germany the political foundations Heinrich Böll Foundation and Konrad Adenauer Foundation. At the European level, the network European Partnership for Democracy (EPD).

Democracy promotion is carried out in different forms. Diplomatic pressure, economic bargaining, moral suasion, or just military intervention are all common instruments for democracy promotion. In terms of targets, the policy of democracy promotion aims at bringing about changes at different levels: institutional reforms, economic restructuring, or social transformations. The following table produced by Schraeder provides a good summary of the main sub-areas of intervention of democracy promotion policy according to three main thrusts (security, economic or humanitarian interests):


Table Schraeder web
                                                                                                                                                                                           (Source: Schraeder 2003, 35) [I]

We can also understand the previous taxonomy along a temporal continuum. If we assume an historical perspective we may notice that the shape of democracy promotion policy evolved over time. At the beginning (mid ‘80s – early ‘90s) it was in fact primarily focused on electoral assistance. In a second phase, the focus shifted toward reform programs of major institutions such as for instance the reform of the judicial system. Finally, since the mid ‘90s, central attention has been put on strengthening pro-democracy forces within civil society and more direct political assistance. It is on this last mode of intervention that the remaining of the article concentrates.

The specific institutional turning point of the democracy promotion policy towards supporting civil society organizations occurred in the ‘90s in the US during the Clinton administration (1993-2001). Under his presidency, new pro-civil society appointments were decided to fill key offices in the main US programme for democracy promotion, USAID. This generated a trickle-down effect with significant change in the actual implementation of such policies also in other countries, proving once more how important are the US in shaping the content of many international public policies.

The turning towards civil society organizations (CSOs) was due to a couple of principal reasons. On the one hand, in the ‘90s with the end of the cold war, the American fear of (leftish) political movements and ideologies decreased. This made possible turning the traditional US skepticism into an open support for civil society organizations, including those on the left-liberal camp. On the other hand, the failure of the previous democracy promotion strategies led to a reconsideration of a bottom up path. The initial democracy promotion policies in fact contributed at times also to the emergence of so-called hybrid regimes [II] characterized by the simultaneous presence of both formally democratic elements such as elections and oppositions and illiberal features such as concentration of power in the government. This reconsideration pushed for a move from formalistic to more substantive democracy promotion activities and led to the support for civil society with the intent of challenging the hybrid regimes through elections from below.

According to this perspective, the instrumental values of CSOs laid on the assumption about their alleged virtues. CSOs were ultimately expected not to have vested interested in the old system and thus to be on the overall reform oriented. They were also seen as a potential and unique source of pressure for reform which did not required a direct engagement of foreign governments. And finally, but not insignificantly, CSOs were usually small organizations which needed small money to function. If compared with multi-billion project of institutional reform previously funded, providing financial support to CSO was then seen as an excellent cost-effective instrument to achieve the goal of democracy promotion.

Among the different kind of civil society organizations, a specific subset was preferred: Professionalized NGOs dedicated to advocacy or civic education working on public interests issues directly related to democratization.
Differently from rooted mass movements, this kind of NGO was perceived as «non-partisan civic engagement», without a real constituency, and in this sense a better counterpart for allegedly neutral reform programs. Allying with social movements and more politically oriented groups would have created a number of problems and have immediately generated an image of partisanship. However, NGO were not only selected as receiving organizations for their supposed impartiality and un-rootedness, but also because of their administrative capacity. To run funding programs, any governmental body needs administratively efficient counterparts that are able to speak English, have a formalized internal structured, are legally accredited, and have standardized internal procedures in line with the donor accountability system.

The aid provided from abroad was intended as a contributing factor to improve local capacity in several, mutually reinforcing ways. A primary focus was in strengthening the ability of local groups to do independent election monitoring, including the capacity to hold parallel vote counts. Fostering broad civil engagement in the electoral process and delivering voter education was also important. Advocacy and activism on political and civil rights was preferred to that on socio-economic and cultural-identity issues. And finally, funding was also directed to provide equipment or other material assistance to opposition parties to help them campaign effectively and to encourage them to work together and build broad coalitions. This way pressure was indirectly mounted on governmental transparency and democracy enhancement.

Why is in the ultimate analysis democracy promotion carried out? This is a very controversial debate. Liberal pundits tend to argue that this is in line with universal values entrenched in the human rights regime, that these values are also coinciding with the most profound western and American political principles, and that the US by promoting democracy abroad shape a safer world (according to the democratic peace theory), hence democracy promotion is fully legitimate and in line with both universal and national interests in a win-win situation. Realist-like commentators would rather argue that this is primarily in the interest of the promoters (and perhaps secondary in that of the receivers too). The expansion of democracy and free market globally would serve in the first instance the interest of the West by advancing stability and legality (in particular property rights) in the international system. From this perspective, democracy promotion is considered equivalent to any other instrument conducive to the strengthening of national power. For this reason, it might well be used for purely rhetorical purposes, i.e. to hide more malicious goals. Other critical and Marxist commentators would finally argue that democracy promotion is the best tools in the hand of the economy of the center of the world to integrate in the capitalist system the peripheries. Accordingly, such induced low-level democratization would be the best sterilizer against any backlash movement opposing the global US-led integration-cum-homogenization.

Beyond the scholarly interpretations, the political controversy is acute. The accusation of illegitimate political meddling [III], framed in terms of both the inherent contestability of the notion of democracy and the hidden political agenda of the democracy promoters, is very often raised [IV]. Today we witness a considerable discomfort about the policy of democracy promotion around the world. In the post-soviet space, in Asia, in the Middle-East, in Africa, and in Latin-America, it is frequent to hear complaints about an attitude of democracy promoters that is perceived at its best hypocritical and most of the time straightforwardly imperialistic. The endorsement of the policy in the case of Iraq by former president George W. Bush just made the connection between this policy and regime change very tight in the mind of many. Also, the ambivalent attitude of the west towards the so-called “Algeria problem” (what to do when a free election brings to power an actively hostile government?) or more recently the “Gaza problem” or the “Egyptian problem” added even more suspicion towards this policy.
[I] Peter J. Schraeder (2003) The State of the Art in International Democracy Promotion: Results of a Joint European-North American Research Network, Democratization, 10:2, 21-44.
[II] As a counter reaction, the classification in terms of hybrid or semi-authoritarian regimes sparkled into an intense debate about the inherent contestability of the notion itself of democracy, which continues in our days.
[III] Reference made to the 1965 UNGA resolution 2131 (XX) on the Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty.
[IV] The classical response that is given by the supporters of the policy points to the fact that this policy works openly, not in secret, that its goals are not to achieve specific electoral outcomes, but to ensure free and fair elections, and that outside aid is necessary to level electoral playing fields and create safeguards against the manipulation of the process by authoritarian regimes.