L. Mitchell: Democracy Promotion at the age of anti-liberal revolt

OLIVER WEIKEN

Tourists walk on either side of remnants of the Berlin Wall which separated Germany from 1961 to 1989 in Berlin, Germany, 23 November 2016.

What happens if you strip democracy promotion from US legitimacy


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What's This?

The crisis of liberal democracy in Europe and the United States brings to the fore some questions about the future. We know that democracy is an unstable political system and that inconsistencies lie at the heart of democracy promotion. For some liberally-minded, as well as sovereigntist and conservative pundits, the very term “democracy-promotion” is aggravating. But, it is perhaps the only issue that makes us face up to the question “what is our democracy about”?

Lincoln Mitchell is very much a democracy-promotion insider.

mitchell

The Democracy Promotion Paradox, Lincoln Mitchell

He has spent a good part of his life in the democracy promotion vein of political science and practice. He has worked from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe with a commitment to the principle of democracy but also the detachment of a reflective scholar. As a political activist and consultant, he has worked for the most prestigious institutions of democracy promotion, including Freedom House, Democracy International, the National Democratic Institute, UNDP, and the United Nations Democracy Fund. As a scholar, he has taught at Columbia University, and he is a Research Associate at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

He is also the author of the “Democracy Promotion Paradox,” (Brookings, 2016) a book in which he acknowledges and discusses the inconsistencies inherent in the very concept of democracy promotion, a political project that he associates with the emergence of the US as a hegemon. At the same time, he also asks the question of what democracy is and whether or not it can be promoted.

New Europe: Is the crisis of liberal democracy a cause or an effect of the decline of US hegemony?

It is an effect.

Declining US hegemony has been a recurrent theme in discussions of American foreign policy for decades. Clearly, this is not the heady 1990s when we {the US} were into democracy promotion with the confidence of a superpower. At the time, democracy promotion was broadly agreed upon across the political spectrum. Now, there is a sense that we may be backing from democracy promotion globally, not because we choose to, but because domestic issues require our attention.

Trump’s victory was significant for states like Ukraine or Georgia, but even more significant for the state of democracy in the US. American political stability, and indeed the state of American democracy, is important to the world. For the moment, we are going through a period that is domestically unstable, like the early 1970s, but with two key differences.

First, the US has lost the ability to tell its own story. Half the world sees a police officer choke Eric Garner, an African-American in Staten Island, to death and realizes the enduring impact of racism in America. Racism was always there, but now America is not necessarily the author of the story about racism in America. That is very different from, for example, when Harvey Milk was murdered. At the time, very few people outside San Francisco realized its significance.

Secondly, as we are entering the Trump Presidency, it is clear we are dealing with a President that is unlike Carter, the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama in that he is divisive and, on some issues, far from the mainstream thinking of American foreign policy.

epa04851450 Carol Dudek with a sign in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal as she heads to a rally for Eric Garner, killed one-year ago today, Staten Island, New York, USA, 17 July 2015. Eric Garner was killed by police during his arrest on Staten Island for selling loose cigarettes. EPA/Bryan R. Smith

Carol Dudek with a sign in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal as she heads to a rally for Eric Garner, killed one-year ago today, Staten Island, New York, USA, 17 July 2015. Eric Garner was killed by police during his arrest on Staten Island for selling loose cigarettes. EPA/Bryan R. Smith

New Europe: What is the main difference between US democracy-promotion in the 1950s and 1990s?

One main difference is that in the 1950s we were promoting democracy against the USSR and in the context of the Cold War. At the time, we saw ourselves as primarily motivated by our national interest. In the 1990s we did not have to make compromises, like Chile’s Pinochet, in the name of fighting communism. There was no global alternative to democracy. We were everywhere because we won the Cold War. Had we lost, people like me would not travel around the world explaining democracy and my mother in California would be learning the basics of Socialism.

Another difference is that in the 1990s the US was public about what it was doing. The National Democratic Institute is much more open about what they do than the Central Intelligence Agency. There is no downside to being public about promoting democracy.

Of course not every state has bought into the universal discourse of democracy promotion. For instance, Putin sees Color Revolutions as the promotion of US national interests. The fact that we see democracy as a universal good makes it difficult to see how others see it as a threat to their national interests.

epa03964073 Ukrainians continue their protest on Independence square in Kiev, Ukraine, 24 November 2013. Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in Kiev on 24 November to demand that the Ukrainian government roll back a decision from last week and continue work on a landmark association agreement with the European Union. The demonstration was the biggest street protest in the country since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004, whose leader was now-imprisoned former premier Yulia Tymoshenko. The opposition put the number of protesters at more than 100,000 in Kiev, but police said there were 20,000 participants. The protesters called for President Viktor Yanukovych to sign an association and free trade agreement with the 28-member bloc. Kiev said 21 November it was suspending work on the deal. EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

Ukrainians continue their protest on Independence square in Kiev, Ukraine, 24 November 2013. Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in Kiev on 24 November to demand that the Ukrainian government roll back a decision from last week and continue work on a landmark association agreement with the European Union. EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

New Europe: What is more threatening to democracy: the destruction of the middle class in Europe and the United States or the failure of democracy to build a middle class in Eastern Europe?

Both are very threatening. The latter leads people outside of the democratic world to lose faith in democracy; the former weakens democracy in the democratic world.

Definitions are important when we talk about democracy. Smart people wrestle with the link between free market and democracies. That includes questions like, for example, the minimum wage. For much of the history of our democracy in the United States and Europe, such issues have been at the heart of political discourse. One of the problems of the 1990s is decoupling issues of democracy from questions about the economy, de-substantiating the quality of both discussions.

epa03819372 A 'No Trespassing' sign stands on the lawn of evicted homeowner Mark Harris as a group from Occupy Our Homes Atlanta camped overnight in the front yard of Harris' foreclosed home, in Avondale Estates, Georgia, USA, 10 August 2013. Harris, a Desert Storm Iraq War veteran, had owned the house since 1996, before the foreclosure and eviction on 09 August. He and a group from Occupy Our Homes Atlanta, an offshoot from the Occupy Wall Street movement, camped overnight in the front yard of the house to protest the foreclosures. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER

‘No Trespassing’ sign stands on the lawn of evicted homeowner Mark Harris as a group from Occupy Our Homes Atlanta camped overnight in the front yard of Harris’ foreclosed home, in Avondale Estates, Georgia, USA, 10 August 2013. Harris, a Desert Storm Iraq War veteran, had owned the house since 1996, before the foreclosure and eviction on 09 August.  EPA/ERIK S. LESSER

New Europe: Can we, in fact, have an illiberal democracy or is that a contradiction in terms?

No. Democracy that it is illiberal is undemocratic. Illiberal democracy is the tyranny of the majority. Traditionally, we have responded to this challenge by creating structures that check the power of the majority. But, the idea that there is something unpatriotic about dissent is one of the problematic ideas we are dealing with in the US right now.

In the current context, it matters more for instance how much Republicans will stand up to Trump than whether or not Democrats will. When Donald Trump intimidates the media or works with a foreign power to steal an election, we need three Republicans in the Senate to make a stand. Will they?

epa04890115 Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite (L), Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis and US senator John McCain during NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence opening ceremony in Riga, Latvia 20 August 2015. The NATO StratCom COE, based in Riga, Latvia, contributes to improved strategic communications capabilities within the Alliance and Allied nations. EPA/VALDA KALNINA

Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite (L), Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis and US senator John McCain during NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence opening ceremony in Riga, Latvia 20 August 2015. EPA/VALDA KALNINA

New Europe: what is left once you strip the language of US legitimacy from the democracy-promotion narrative? 

Let me be clear: I did not expect Trump to win when I wrote the book on democracy promotion. I was assuming a typical President. But, even if Hillary Clinton had won, we would still need to face up to the question of democracy promotion in a world we are not the only Superpower. We don’t like this question. In the Trump era, it is unavoidable.

I don’t believe Trump will try to go after democracy promoting institutions. The NED and other democracy promotion related budgets will remain in place, even if it requires some horse trading. But, there will be less preaching. US agencies will go out to places like Armenia with a “we are learning with you” attitude rather than a “transferring expertise” approach.

Of course, IRI will need to be answering for Trump, which places them in a harder position.

In the book, I have defined possible scenarios for the future of democracy promotion. The first is we continue with the same one-size-fits-all attitude, satisfied with modest impact. The second is that we eliminate democracy promotion as such. The third is that we become more confrontational with semi-authoritarian regimes. The fourth is that we target fewer countries, strategically, with programs that are tailor made and can make a difference.

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