Thomas Carothers. Foreign Affairs. Volume 85, Issue 2. March/April 2006.
The Autocrats Push Back
In January, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a controversial new bill imposing heightened controls on local and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the country. The new legislation, which requires all NGOs in Russia to inform the government in advance about every project they intend to conduct, is another marker of the country’s dispiriting slide back toward authoritarianism.
The law is also a sign of an equally disturbing and much broader trend. After two decades of the steady expansion of democracy-building programs around the world, a growing number of governments are starting to crack down on such activities within their borders. Strongmen—some of them elected officials—have begun to publicly denounce Western democracy assistance as illegitimate political meddling. They have started expelling or harassing Western NGOs and prohibiting local groups from taking foreign funds—or have started punishing them for doing so. This growing backlash has yet to coalesce into a formal or organized movement. But its proponents are clearly learning from and feeding off of one another.
The recent “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan and the widespread suspicion that U.S. groups such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), Freedom House, and the Open Society Institute played a key behind-the-scenes role in fomenting these upheavals have clearly helped trigger the backlash. Politicians from China to Zimbabwe have publicly cited concerns about such events spreading to their own shores as justification for new restrictions on Western aid to NGOs and opposition groups. Yet there is something broader at work than just a fear of orange (Ukraine’s revolution came to be known as the Orange Revolution). The way that President George W. Bush is making democracy promotion a central theme of his foreign policy has clearly contributed to the unease such efforts (and the idea of democracy promotion itself) are creating around the world. Some autocratic governments have won substantial public sympathy by arguing that opposition to Western democracy promotion is resistance not to democracy itself, but to American interventionism. Moreover, the damage that the Bush administration has done to the global image of the United States as a symbol of democracy and human rights by repeatedly violating the rule of law at home and abroad has further weakened the legitimacy of the democracy-promotion cause.
Just as the sources of the backlash have been multilayered, so too must be the response. To remain as effective in the next decade as they have been in the last, groups that promote democracy must come to grips with how the international context for their work has changed. This will mean rethinking some of their methods. The Bush administration, meanwhile, must also face some unpleasant realities, specifically about how the president’s “freedom agenda” is perceived around the world, and must engage seriously an effort to build credibility for its democracy endeavor.
Just Saying No
The most systematic and forceful resistance to Western democracy aid has come from Russia under Putin. The NGO law is just one of a series of recent actions Moscow has taken to constrain or challenge democracy-promotion groups. The Kremlin has also attacked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for its election-monitoring work in Russia and neighboring countries. Several U.S. democracy-promotion groups have experienced minor but pointed harassment from Russian authorities. Putin’s government has criticized Russian NGOs working on human rights or other politically sensitive issues for accepting outside funds, and senior Russian officials have denounced external democracy aid as subversive and anti-Russian. President Putin has also taken to warning fellow autocrats in surrounding countries of the dangers of allowing such aid, and Russia has started building its own capacity to provide parallel forms of assistance, through election monitors and political consultants. Putin’s supporters have cast his campaign against pro-democracy groups as a security imperative, asserting that the United States is trying to encircle Russia with pro-Western governments and subvert its political order.
Russia is not the only country pushing back against Western democracy assistance; the resistance has become a widespread post-Soviet pastime. Uzbek President Islam Karimov is currently in the process of shutting down most of the Western democracy programs in his country, as well as most of the domestic NGOs that work on democracy issues: in 2005, more than 60 percent of Uzbekistan’s active NGOs were put out of business. Articles in the state-controlled media have accused the United States of trying to undermine Uzbek sovereignty through the Trojan horse of democratization. Meanwhile, in Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenko has also forbidden most external political aid and has relentlessly stamped out political challengers and independent civil society. After first putting all foreign funding destined for local NGOs under state control, in 2003, Lukashenko banned foreign funding of any political or educational activities in the country. The Tajik government announced new regulations in April 2005 requiring foreign embassies and foreign organizations working in the country to give the authorities notice before making any contact with local political parties, NGOs, or media organizations. Government-controlled newspapers in Tajikistan have accused the United States of criminality in its support for Ukrainian and Kyrgyz activists and have praised Belarus for its resistance to Western interference. Nearby in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has enacted similarly tight restrictions on cooperation between foreign entities and Kazakh political parties. In a speech last September, he added his voice to the regional chorus warning foreign NGOs not to try to destabilize former Soviet states.
The backlash against democracy aid has also started to spread outside the former Soviet Union. One enthusiastic participant is China. Last April, an article in the People’s Daily condemned the United States’ “democratic offensive” in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere as self-serving, coercive, and immoral. The following month, the Chinese Communist Party reportedly mapped out a strategy for resisting U.S. and European efforts to promote color revolutions in China and its neighborhood. Beijing has delayed the passage of a new law that would liberalize the rules on NGOs in the country and has cracked down on various local groups that receive foreign funding, including a human rights group supported by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a private foundation funded by the U.S. government devoted to supporting democracy worldwide. Beijing is also tightening restrictions on foreign media by stepping up measures to scramble external radio broadcasts and reversing an earlier decision to allow the local publication of foreign newspapers. Elsewhere in Asia, governments have enacted similar restrictions: in Nepal, for example, after 15 years of relative openness to Western democracy programs, the government recently issued new regulations sharply restricting such activities.
The backlash is spreading to Africa as well. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has driven out Western NGOs and forced the closure of many local groups that get external support, claiming that they are fronts through which Western “colonial masters” subvert the government. In December 2004, Zimbabwe’s parliament passed legislation prohibiting local NGOs from receiving any outside aid. Mugabe has not yet signed the bill but has kept up his rhetorical attacks on alleged Western meddling. Further north, Ethiopia expelled the IRI, the NDI, and IFES (formerly the International Foundation for Election Systems) prior to national elections last May. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stated on Ethiopian television that “there is not going to be a ‘Rose Revolution’ or a ‘Green Revolution’ or any color revolution in Ethiopia after the election.” And in Eritrea, the government enacted a new law last year forbidding local NGOs from engaging in any work other than relief activities and blocking them from receiving external support. In August, Asmara asked the U.S. Agency for International Development to cease operations in the country, stating that it was uncomfortable with the agency’s activities, which include promoting citizen participation in economic and political life.
In South America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez regularly blasts U.S. democracy promotion as being part of a Bush administration campaign to oust him. Chvez has accused groups such as the NED and the IRI of supporting the Venezuelan opposition and has intimidated many local NGOs that receive outside funding. And like Putin, Chvez is not content just to block U.S. aid at home. He has allegedly used his petrodollars to support anti-American parties and candidates in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and elsewhere, in the hope of spreading what he calls his “Bolivarian Revolution.” Although Chvez remains an extreme case, wariness of U.S. democracy promotion is rising in the region, which is rife with anti-Americanism and increasingly dominated by left-leaning governments. The rejection last year by the Organization of American States of a U.S. proposal to establish a new regional mechanism to monitor governmental compliance with democratic norms reflected this growing skepticism.
What exactly explains this global backlash against democracy promotion? The recent revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan were clearly important events. The dramatic upheavals in these countries showed what huge numbers of ordinary citizens can do when they rally bravely for democracy. But as accounts multiplied of U.S. support for key civic and political groups in these countries, the color revolutions also spread the idea that the United States was the shadowy guiding force behind these events.
Although fear of democracy aid as a tool of the United States may have spiked with the color revolutions, it is best understood as the culmination of a longer trend. When democracy promotion first flourished, during the rapid democratic expansion of the late 1980s and early 1990s, activists usually had to work in one of two contexts: in authoritarian societies, where the door to democracy promotion remained firmly shut, or in newly democratizing countries, where the door to such activities was generally wide open. As time passed, many of the newly democratizing countries evolved into another, intermediate type: the semiauthoritarian state, which proliferated in the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.
Such regimes typically attempt an artful political balancing act. Their leaders allow enough political freedoms to gain themselves some credit and legitimacy as reformers. Typically, this means holding regular elections and permitting the creation of a few opposition parties, a scattering of independent civic groups, and an independent newspaper or two. But these regimes also maintain a strong enough hold on the levers of power to ensure that no serious threats to their rule emerge.
At first, many pro-democracy organizations found themselves stymied by such semiauthoritarian arrangements. Over time, however, the more experienced groups (such as the NDI, the IRI, IFES, and Freedom House) settled on a more effective approach. Drawing on lessons some of these groups had learned during earlier successes, such as their support for the opposition to General Augusto Pinochet in the Chilean plebiscite of 1988 and for the opposition to Sandinista rule in the Nicaraguan elections of 1990, the approach consisted of providing technical and financial aid to a broad range of local civic and political groups working together to challenge the government through elections. The aid focused on improving local capacity in several, mutually reinforcing ways. First, Western groups helped locals gain the ability to do independent election monitoring, including the capacity to hold parallel vote counts, in order to ensure that citizens could at least learn the real results of elections. Second, they provided backing to independent civic groups, often including dynamic new student organizations, that could foster broad civic engagement in the electoral process. Third, they trained and sometimes provided equipment or other material assistance to opposition parties to help them campaign effectively. And they encouraged these parties to work together and build broad coalitions.
At the end of the 1990s, this approach was brought to bear—first, in an incomplete form, against Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar of Slovakia and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, and then, more fully, against President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. U.S. and European pro-democracy groups mounted a well-coordinated and well-funded (to the tune of $60 million to $100 million) aid campaign to help Serbian civic and political groups mount an electoral challenge to Milosevic, who was already under pressure from Western economic sanctions and punitive diplomatic measures. As the 2000 elections unfolded, all the pieces fell into place: with Western help, Serbian civic groups convinced large numbers of ordinary citizens to bet on change and engage in the electoral process; the opposition parties performed better than they had in the past; and independent monitoring efforts laid bare Milosevic’s effort to override the results. The outcome was the autocrat’s ouster in a largely peaceful “electoral revolution.”
Since then, Western groups have applied similar strategies—although never as amply funded or as strongly backed by diplomatic pressure—in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, and have frequently been met with accusations of illegitimate political meddling. The groups usually respond by pointing out that they work openly, not in secret, and by arguing that their goals are not to achieve specific electoral outcomes, but just to ensure reasonably free and fair elections. Outside aid is necessary, they argue, to level electoral playing fields and create safeguards against the manipulation of the process by regimes.
The truth, however, is that although most external democracy activists may indeed be primarily interested in achieving free and fair elections, they also frequently hope that their efforts will increase the likelihood that autocrats will lose office. The motives of U.S. government agencies that fund (but do not specifically direct) many of the democracy groups are similarly complicated, ranging from the principled to the instrumental, depending on the country in question and the officials in charge. Not surprisingly, these subtleties are generally lost on the targets of democracy-promotion drives, who tend to view such efforts as concerted campaigns to oust them, instigated or at least backed by powerful Western governments, especially the United States.
Although autocratic leaders regularly cite concerns about outside influence and the threat of instability as their motivations for resisting pro-democracy efforts, a question naturally arises: Are they genuinely afraid that relatively modest Western democracy-training programs and financial aid for often weak civic and political groups will undermine their hold on power, or is this fear just a convenient justification for repressive measures they would take anyway? The answer varies, depending on the country.
In some places, especially larger countries such as Russia and China, the latter explanation probably holds. The Russian and Chinese governments enjoy a strong grip on power and face no significant challengers. Putin’s offensive against Western democracy aid appears to be a way for him to portray his authoritarian project to Russians as a defense of the country’s national security. The Kremlin may have been somewhat rattled by the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, but it worried more about the influence it would lose in neighboring states than it did about a political uprising at home. Moreover, denigrating the Orange Revolution as the result of U.S. machinations helped Putin put a positive spin on what was one of his most glaring foreign policy failures: namely, his support for the losing side in the Ukrainian elections. Similarly, the Chinese government’s recent invocations of the color revolutions appear to be nothing more than the presentation of a convenient rationale for broadening the antiliberalization campaign it has been conducting for several years.
In other cases, especially in smaller, weaker countries, some genuine fear seems to be at work. The specter of clever U.S. political operatives quietly fomenting local revolutions does seem to have spooked some strongmen, even though in actuality Western democracy aid is not so powerful. Although Washington may spend more than $1 billion on pro-democracy programs this year, the money is spread over more than 50 countries and goes to a wide range of efforts, including court-management programs and assistance for government decentralization efforts. Like all types of external assistance promoting political, economic, or social change, this aid is far from being a magic elixir. It can help boost existing civic groups and opposition parties. But it cannot create them where they do not exist or strengthen them when they are fundamentally weak. Even in the case of Serbia—a high-water mark in terms of pro-democracy programs’ assertiveness and scale—outside aid played only a supporting role for the courageous and skillful local activists who led the way. And the very same types of assistance have so far proved far less effective in countries such as Belarus, where the political opposition and civil society are relatively weak and the regime is very powerful.
And yet, many people around the world—not just autocrats feeling the heat—view external democracy assistance skeptically. They assume that if the United States decides to shape political outcomes in relatively weak countries, it can do so. In many places, the current wave of assertive democracy aid conjures up memories of covert U.S. actions during the Cold War, when Washington did try, and sometimes succeeded in, swinging elections or overthrowing legitimate governments.
To make matters worse, some Western NGOs, whether propelled by hubris or the desire to convince funders of their importance, have a tendency to claim substantial credit for political events in which they played only a very minor role. Occasional stories in the Western media that portray U.S. democracy-promotion programs as having been the crucial factor in certain countries’ transitions to democracy also contribute to the misperceptions.
A (Dim) Light Unto the Nations
The backlash against democracy aid can be understood as a reaction by nondemocratic governments to the increasingly assertive provision of such aid. But it is also linked to and gains force from another source: the broader public unease with the very idea of democracy promotion, a feeling that has spread widely in the past several years throughout the former Soviet Union, western Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. President Bush, by embracing democracy promotion in the way he has, is largely responsible for this discomfort.
Washington’s use of the term “democracy promotion” has come to be seen overseas not as the expression of a principled American aspiration but as a code word for “regime change”—namely, the replacement of bothersome governments by military force or other means. Moreover, the Bush administration has also caused the term to be closely associated with U.S. military intervention and occupation by adopting democracy promotion as the principal rationale for the invasion of Iraq. The fact that the administration has also given the impression that it is interested in toppling other governments hostile to U.S. security interests, such as in Iran and Syria, has made the president’s “freedom agenda” seem even more menacing and hostile. This is especially so since when Bush and his top advisers single out “outposts of tyranny,” the governments they invariably list are those that also happen to be unfriendly to the United States. Meanwhile, friendly but equally repressive regimes, such as that in Saudi Arabia, escape mention.
This behavior has made many states, nondemocratic and democratic alike, uneasy with the whole body of U.S. democracy-building programs, no matter how routine or uncontroversial the programs once were. It also makes it easier for those governments eager to push back against democracy aid for their own reasons to portray their actions as noble resistance to aggressive U.S. interventionism. And the more President Bush talks of democracy promotion as his personal cause, the easier he makes it for tyrannical leaders to play on his extraordinarily high level of unpopularity abroad to disparage the idea.
The Bush administration has further damaged the credibility of U.S. democracy advocates by generally undermining the United States’ status as a symbol of democracy and human rights. Even as the president has repeatedly asserted his commitment to a “freedom agenda,” he has struck blow after self-inflicted blow against America’s democratic principles and standards: through the torture of prisoners and detainees at U.S.-run facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan; the holding of hundreds of persons in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; the rendition of foreign detainees (sometimes secretly abducted abroad) to foreign countries known to practice torture; the establishment of a network of covert U.S.-run prisons overseas; eavesdropping without court warrants within the United States; and the astonishing resistance by the White House last year to a legislative ban on cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of any person in U.S. custody anywhere. Taken together, these actions have inflicted incalculable harm to the United States’ image in the world. This fact is plainly and painfully evident to anyone who spends even modest amounts of time abroad. Yet it is one about which President Bush and his team, with the possible exception of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, appear unaware or unconcerned. Yet the damage has made it all too easy for foreign autocrats to resist U.S. democracy promotion by providing them with an easy riposte: “How can a country that tortures people abroad and abuses rights at home tell other countries how to behave?”
Pushing Back, Carefully
So how should the United States respond? There are two answers, corresponding to the two interconnected but different facets of the problem, namely, the efforts by some governments to shut down democracy aid and the growing global distrust of democracy promotion in general.
With regard to the former, Washington should closely monitor measures by other governments to block democracy aid and develop a coherent, nuanced way to express U.S. opposition to such measures and to reverse them when possible. The Bush administration recently succeeded in persuading Putin to water down certain aspects of the Russian NGO law. This effort was reasonably well executed, but it represented a one-time scramble, not part of a systematic plan to address the more general issue.
Fighting the antidemocratic pushback will require a subtle diplomatic hand. In some cases, going public or pushing back hard may get results; in others, it may only fuel nationalist sentiments and be counterproductive. U.S. officials must be reasonable about what they expect from foreign governments in this area, and deciding what is reasonable is not always easy. There are relatively coherent international norms about democratic political practice, embodied in a raft of multilateral and regional agreements. But there is no well-settled body of norms about acceptable forms of involvement in democratization across borders. In fact, the line between reasonable and unreasonable restrictions on outside political aid is not at all clear. Simply pushing other governments to follow U.S. or Western standards in this area will not help much. To the extent there are generalized standards, they generally allow less space for outside influence than Western democracy promoters usually seek. Would Washington countenance the presence, during elections, of foreign organizations—especially ones funded by a powerful, possibly hostile government—that underwrite and help carry out voter-education campaigns, the training of and provision of material aid to political parties, parallel vote counts, and citizen-mobilization efforts?
To overcome objections to this double standard, U.S. democracy promoters need to stress (and sincerely believe) two things. First, they must underscore that democracy promotion is not, as President Bush invariably portrays it, a singularly American endeavor. Many established democracies, as well as multilateral organizations, are part of the democracy-promotion community. U.S. democracy groups usually work alongside or directly with European groups and international organizations such as the OSCE and the UN Development Program. Second, they must emphasize that the point of assertive democracy aid is to help or push governments with a record of violating democratic norms to comply with them, not to allow any outside country control over their politics.
No matter how well democracy promoters make their case, however, many people in countries on the receiving end of such efforts will not be persuaded of the legitimacy of their efforts. Democracy promoters may believe that poor democratic performance reduces a country’s right to invoke its sovereignty to block external intervention. That idea may be gaining currency in established democracies. Yet it is unlikely to command wide support in the developing and postcommunist worlds, where sovereignty is jealously guarded by governments of all political stripes.
Western democracy advocates thus face a hard choice, which they have yet to frame or debate openly. Should they keep mounting sophisticated, pointed aid campaigns to support challenges to foreign despots, or should they trim their sails to avoid fueling a backlash that might prevent them from doing any work at all in a growing number of countries? The question boils down to how best to ensure the maximum reach and impact for democracy aid.
Return to the Light
There is only so much the Bush administration can do to ease the broader discomfort with democracy promotion generally. The close association of democracy promotion with U.S. military intervention will not go away for the remainder of President Bush’s term. Moreover, even if a relatively stable, peaceful, and democratic regime is achieved in Iraq in the next few years, Washington should not expect this to change many people’s minds about the legitimacy and desirability of using military force to promote democracy. On this issue there is a fundamental rift between the thinking of the Bush team and the bulk of world opinion—a rift that will continue to seriously taint the president’s “freedom agenda” in many people’s eyes.
President Bush can, however, win back some credibility by showing that he is serious about democracy promotion as a matter of principle, not just as an expedient way to justify military action or the use of other tactics of regime change against unfriendly governments. Pursuing democracy as a matter of principle does not mean focusing only on lofty ideals and ignoring hard interests. But it does mean acting with at least a modicum of consistency. In his second inaugural address, Bush seemed to acknowledge this point when he promised to abandon Washington’s unfortunate history of supporting autocratic regimes that served U.S. economic and security interests. Arguing that repressive societies breed extremism that can evolve into anti-Western terrorism, he pledged to stand up for freedom everywhere.
So far, however, he has yet to put his money where his mouth is. In regard to the most significant cases—Russia, China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia—the Bush administration has spoken mildly, at best, about the need for political reform. Meanwhile, it has carried on business as usual with these countries. The same goes for U.S. relations with Egypt, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. Last autumn, the pro-U.S. autocrats in all three of these countries faced national elections. Commendably, the Bush administration let all three know that it wanted them to hold free and fair elections. But all three leaders played the classic game of friendly tyrants facing a bit of U.S. pro-democratic pique: they made some modest improvements early on in the electoral process; then, in the crucial late stage of the elections, they cracked down hard on opposition groups, tampered with the votes, and took other measures to ensure they would win lopsided victories. Faced with these tactics, the Bush administration also reverted to the old script, making too much of minor achievements and too little of major failures. Since then, U.S. officials have said little in public about the events. It seems that all three of these strongmen will pay no significant price for their antidemocratic defiance.
Of course, it is unrealistic to expect Washington to become perfectly consistent in its promotion of democracy. But having staked his reputation on the idea that fighting terrorism requires abandoning the United States’ cozy relationship with friendly tyrants, President Bush must do something to make good on his pledge. Obviously, a drastic reversal of U.S. relations with important governments would be neither feasible nor desirable. But letting phony elections pass with little response only solidifies the already widespread perception that Washington is hypocritical.
The Bush administration could also burnish its democracy credentials by getting its own house in order. In this area, too, the damage is not going to be remedied anytime soon; actions such as the torture of Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers are now indelibly etched on the minds of foreign observers. But the administration can and must do better. The necessary remedial steps are hardly mysterious. They range from rectifying once and for all U.S. mistreatment of prisoners and detainees abroad to coming clean on secret prisons, renditions, unlawful abductions, and unauthorized domestic eavesdropping. Every country facing a terrorist threat struggles to find the right balance between security and respect for civil liberties. But unless the Bush administration resolves the staggering contradiction between its unapologetic proclivity to violate individual rights in the name of fighting terrorism and its preaching to others that liberty is an antidote for terrorism, its democracy-promotion agenda will continue to rest on a shaky foundation. Meanwhile, the democracy backlash will continue to grow.