Does Autocracy Promotion Matter for Democracy Assistance?

Jan. 10, 2011, 8:08 p.m.

Autocracy promotion and export are increasingly mentioned in discussions about democratization and world politics. Stanford’s Michael McFaul, who is currently special assistant to President Obama, notes in Advancing Democracy Abroad (Rowman and Littlefield 2010) that autocracies such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela are increasing the resources they devote to exporting their forms of government. By the end of the Bush presidency, they ‘did not simply defend their own autocratic systems, but provided ideas and resources to other anti-democratic governments and social movements’ (p.6). China’s own illiberal development, its defence of principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention, and its growing international commercial and financial ties that benefit governments of various hues, have all stirred anxieties about the implications for the spread of democracy and international democracy support.  In The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Knopf 2008) Robert Kagan mused on whether a global power shift, or transformation and inter-state rivalry, are now sealing the end of democracy’s advance.

The questions that arise are not simply how far democrats should be concerned but whether there are specific implications for democracy assistance. While the answers are not yet clear, a strong case can be made on precautionary grounds for developing new ways of assessing the true measure of autocracy promotion/export and evaluating it against the performance of democracy support.  Although setting a difficult challenge in its own right, this work could help move democracy assistance and democratisation forward in the challenging times that at present both of them undoubtedly face.

Taking the issue seriously

The first point is that what autocracy promotion and export actually mean, and the differences between them, are rather murky. Further clarification is needed before we can discover in as complete and systematic a way as possible how much substance there is behind the claims. Once we have a more precise understanding of what we are looking for, the development of tools to assess how far autocracy export and promotion achieve results, and under what conditions, would be big steps forward. Even as democracy practitioners continue to develop ways of evaluating their own performance in assisting the spread and consolidation of democracy, a different mountain seems to be looming: how to make similar assessments for the new kid on the bloc - one that is not just a mirror image - and then to compare the results.

Assuming that there is rarely smoke without fire, then, the sequel should be to discern what all this means for democracy assistance, and how that could or must respond. Depending on the empirical evidence about what autocracy promotion and export are thought to mean, practical implications will exist on at least two levels. One is the ‘backroom’ analytical function of democracy assistance support; another comprises policy and front line practice.

Analysing the problem

A large and well-resourced democracy assistance organisation could set up a unit specifically to monitor autocracy promotion, gathering and examining the relevant data. Alternatively, these roles could be commissioned from outside. Either way, it would be important that such work make the following three distinctions.

The first distinction is between conscious attempts to export (diverse) authoritarian models or institutions ,where the evidence could prove to be rather thin, and autocracy promotion understood in a looser and more wide-ranging sense. In this second and more inclusive sense, autocratic tendencies inside any country might be maintained or reinforced by external agency or forces even when no foreign agent deliberately intends that, or has it as a policy goal. This is more complex than a simple authoritarian counterpart to conventional democracy aid. For observation of authoritarian-leaning regimes that are already suspected of supporting similar forms of rule abroad should not be to the exclusion of actions by other regimes that could have similar effects: in theory even some occasions of democracy assistance might have to be placed under the microscope.

In a second distinction, looking at the consequences for a country’s politics and democracy in particular is not the same as looking for the impact on international democracy assistance projects and programmes. Nevertheless, one option is to concentrate the monitoring and analysis on countries that are priorities for democracy assistance, omitting those whose chances of achieving a full democratic opening are rated slim even though – or precisely because – they are vulnerable to autocracy promotion.

A third distinction marks out investigating the ‘supply side’ from countries on the receiving end. The former means keeping abreast of foreign policies, diplomatic manoeuvres and relevant institutional initiatives among the ‘usual suspects’, looking for increased allocations of resources to exporting or promoting autocracy abroad. This should not concentrate on government agencies alone. It must look for any source of actions or international engagements that could benefit authoritarian tendencies elsewhere. These could come from non-state actors, uncivil social groups including trans-national groups for instance. An example is the cross-border spread of extreme religious or ethno-nationalist sentiments that express illiberal or anti-democratic values or will provoke an illiberal or anti-democratic reaction, or risk both effects.

Implications for democracy assistance

Going beyond just monitoring and analysis, what could the findings mean for thinking about democracy assistance and its future?  While firm recommendations should await more detailed data-gathering, analysis and assessment of the threat, the appropriate responses could potentially vary quite markedly. Four issues, in particular stand out, although others merit consideration, too.

One issue is how many resources are allocated to assisting the spread and consolidation of democracy. Must these now increase because of the emerging competition? If the constraints posed around the world by sovereignty and non-intervention become more restrictive, due to the growing influence of actors like China on the global stage, then democracy assistance may have to shoulder more of the burden of supporting democracy abroad, compared to other, less obviously consensual ways. The funding implications are self-evident.

A second issue concerns the allocation of democracy assistance – where it goes to. For instance, should the distribution now be skewed towards countries that are most at risk from autocracy export and promotion – meeting the competition head on?

A third implication involves the content of democracy assistance, that is, the sectoral allocations to building the institutions of democratic governance.  This includes –the ability to stage free and fair elections, capacity-building in civil society, the development of political parties, and the dissemination of liberal norms and values. Should these and other efforts, and the balance among them, be tailored to meeting how autocracy promotion is seen to be working? To illustrate, a spontaneous regional diffusion of values bearing strongly illiberal overtones would warrant a different response compared to the international monitoring of elections by groups sent by an authoritarian-leaning regime that has no commitment to best practice or high international standards. Countering high-level trade in technologies for suppressing free expression through control of internet-based channels of communication is different again. Different responses require distinct branches of democracy support; some may offer more traction than others.

A fourth issue concerns the distinction between countries at risk from autocracy export/promotion and the supply-side actors themselves. Should more of the democracy support be focused on bringing about democratic breakthroughs in the very countries that are believed to be exporting or promoting autocracy abroad? The logic would be that helping topple autocratic rule there would benefit democracy’s chances in the other countries too – a double dividend. Moreover, if autocrats’ sense of their own insecurity is what motivates their efforts to combat democratic trends in nearby countries then maybe they are ripe for change, once international democracy assistance magnifies its efforts. Is Russia a case in point? Or is the reverse logic more compelling: withdraw from trying to influence democratic progress in those very countries where it has provoked the regime to support authoritarianism beyond its own borders? The reasoning in this case is that as democracy support runs down, the reaction that it inflamed - autocracy promotion - would be scaled down too.

Safeguarding the future

Perhaps democracy’s spread and consolidation should take little heed of whatever the close monitoring and analysis of autocracy export and promotion tell us. Maybe some of the above suggestions concerning democracy assistance’s response are being attended to already, prompted by reflections that predate this new debate. After all, evaluations of democracy assistance are now routine and these may already be directing attention to autocracy export/ promotion, as they seek explanations for the failures that come to light alongside the successes. And perhaps the idea that democracy assistance planning should draw on an understanding of democratization, as well as evidence from its own past performance, is so compelling that there is no additional value to be gained by looking to ‘borrow tips from the enemy’.

Nevertheless, the post-Cold War era of democratic advance now looks over, the world order is changing fast, and democracy assistance appears to be on the defensive or at least looking for new ideas. The precautionary principle suggests that special efforts are required. The development of a practicable methodology for assessing the measure of autocracy promotion/export, to include both close monitoring and a comparative evaluation with the performance of democracy support, is undoubtedly a challenging task. Nevertheless, it could help move democracy assistance forward, illuminating how much needs to be committed, where it should be focused and the forms it must take.

Based upon Promoting Democracy Abroad: Policy and Performance Copyright c (2011) to be published by Transaction Publishers in March 2011. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Peter Burnell is a Professor of Politics at the University of Warwick, England

comments powered by Disqus