It is easy to claim that Western attempts to export or promote democracy have failed to initiate genuine democratic reform. Democracy here is understood as a form of social organisation intended on balancing competing social interests. As to […]
It is easy to claim that Western attempts to export or promote democracy have failed to initiate genuine democratic reform. Democracy here is understood as a form of social organisation intended on balancing competing social interests. As to the causes of this failure, there are usually three explanatory approaches: the first claims that democracy can not be exported, but can only arise from within a society. The second, that the failure of “democratic export” is due to the unsuitability of target countries for democracy itself. The third considers the form of democracy that is to be exported or promoted in the target countries. In consequence, democratisation processes may be initiated from outside the society, but local conditions must be taken into greater account. What we now call for is modesty in Western democratisation eﬀorts. On one hand, because of their inconsistency or duplicity and, on the other hand, because such interference often backfires, practicing democracy itself becomes a disservice. At this juncture, we call for an alternative approach which relies less on politics and more on jurisprudence. Perhaps it still needs pointing out that democracy is neither solely a Western invention nor achievement, even if understood as such by the general discourse. Consider the Xeer legal system in East Africa or the Mande Charter of West Africa. In the course of colonization, Europe in particular destroyed many such forms of peaceful coexistence.
Democracy Demand and Promotion as an International Policy Instrument
For decades, concerns of democracy hardly played any role in relations between Western nations and developing countries. Much more important for Western nations was an aﬃliation to the “West”. Despite the discourse on democracy in the 1990s, there has been no substantial changed. Political interests continue to take precedence over democracy. Not that democracy was not important to developing countries themselves. For example, the French discourse (prompted by Mitterand’s speech in La Baule), which began after the end of the East-West conflict, was a delayed reaction to democratic aspirations felt in many places in Africa since the late 1960s. France was similarly overrun by events in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring”. Basically, the Western turn to democracy of the 1990s was but an adaptation to a reality already appearing in many countries. By adaptation, we mean an attempt to influence such changes in keeping with one’s own ideas and interests. This attempt to influence mildly may be conducive or obstructive for democratization. In other words, the demands and subsidies of Western democracies have both positive and negative eﬀects on democratization processes in the target countries. The exact consequences depend on the conflicts between the power, economic, security and geopolitical interests of Western countries and the democratization of the target countries. It is a balancing act, but as a rule, democracy is disadvantaged if the tension between these interests is too enormous. Turkey is currently the best example of this, given that European demands for democracy in Turkey are dimming, given the essential role Turkey plays in tackling the EU’s current refugee crisis. The EU also behaved this way towards Muammar al-Gaddafi when Libya played a similar role.
We can not fail to recognize that the world still functions today according to the logic of the spheres of influence and alliances formed by the Western and former colonial powers. If the influence of one of these countries is threatened, it can usually count on the support of the others. In the same way, Western countries restrain their critique of democracy when an authoritarian regime has the full backing of one of the Great or colonial powers. In francophone African countries, for example, France sets the tone. Germany cannot presume to criticize elections in a country like Côte d’Ivoire, if France has already given its blessing, whether there was massive electoral fraud or not. This logic must be overcomed, as it must be remembered that Western countries almost always share the
same position when condemning some authoritarian regimes while tolerating others. Truly, every state should act first and foremost to the best of its knowledge and belief and on the basis of democratic values, while the interests of allies should remain secondary. Germany attempted this in the wake of the Libyan war and, looking back, it can be recognized that the abstention of Guido Westerwelle at the UN Security Council was one of his best achievements as Foreign Minister, while most critics of this decision seek to justify their criticism merely by the fact that Germany had not sided with the Allies.
From a Western perspective, dictatorships or authoritarian regimes may even be better negotiating partners than democracies. This is easily understood, especially concerning migration. A country marked by high numbers of immigration and benefits from remittances would never sign a repatriation agreement, considering that in some countries these remittances account for up to 20% of GDP. It should be noted that even undocumented migrants make remittances, as well as relieve the already overheated labor markets in their countries of origin. For both reasons, deportations are extremely unpopular in the countries of origin and democratic states tend to reject repatriation agreements.
Unless the Western partner makes an oﬀer that cannot be refused. The oﬀer can either be fair, in the sense that it contains, for example, more legal migration opportunities that can at least partially oﬀset irregular migration, or unfair, in the sense that it is based on an exercise of power, such as threatening to cut development aid. Mali is an example, successfully resisting such an agreement with France before the war, not least because Mali was a democracy. By contrast, authoritarian regimes seeking international recognition are more willing to support European anti-immigration policy. The example of Libya has already been noted. Currently, Morocco or Sudan could also be counted in this group.
Although used as a mantra by Western states, there is no coherent concept behind the term “democracy”. It always depends on political considerations. In Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, governments were not determined by purely democratic rules but by American interests. From this point of view, it is impossible to evaluate previous attempts to export democracy. For it is quite conceivable that any fiascos are due to political considerations rather than to target countries being unfit for democracy or having received it in an inappropriate form. And of course, such failures can also be partly explained by reactions on the ground.
Negative Eﬀects of International Interference in the Target Countries
Western attempts to influence or support the democratization process may also trigger a negative response, made manifest by nationalist excesses. From this perspective, Western interference in democratization appears toxic and especially so when interference is expressed through support of the opposition forces or civic society organisations. The consequences of this form of interference are increasingly grave. The topic of homosexuality is a good example. It is doubtful whether the sometimes intrusive Western demand for the homosexual rights has really improved the situation of homosexuals. In many countries, the opposite seems to be the case. Until some 20 years ago, though the topic was taboo, homosexuals could more or less live out their sexuality, as this was often regarded as an expression of certain occult practices. Today it seems that they are being increasingly persecuted, precisely because homosexuality is discussed more often. In the meantime, the topic now plays an important role in elections, though not in terms of granting equality. It is exactly those politicians or regimes that have fallen out of favor with Western countries who are exploiting the issue. Although homosexuality is something that has always existed in all societies, in the dominant African discourse it is dubbed a Western phenomenon, now being exported to Africa. The predominant externally led removal of taboos surrounding homosexuality has in some countries resulted in a radicalization against homosexuals, as evidenced by the new anti- homosexual laws in Uganda. A survey by the Pew Research Center (2013) revealed the highest levels of rejection of homosexuality in Africa. In Nigeria, for example, 98% of the population rejects homosexuality. Based on this negative attitude of the population and the danger of political instrumentalization, the West’s demands for equality should be more sensitive. This applies as well to the work of Western NGOs.
Less Political Interference, More International Jurisprudence
We base our approach on two pillars. Promotion and demands for democracy should continue to play a role internationally. However, these should be more modest and accompanied by eﬀective international jurisprudence. Democratisation should be pursued at political and technical levels. These should take place within the framework of bilateral negotiations, preferably diplomatically and behind the scenes. On a technical level, Western countries can help to promote democracy by assisting the construction of democratic infrastructures, such as organizing elections. In addition, experiences of democracy can be shared and processes learned from each other. In contrast, bypassing the state to support domestic forces such as civic society organisations, opposition forces, or even rebels is usually counterproductive and often leads to societal division and civil war. Thus, the promotion of democracy should not be addressed to domestic actors, especially as such support is not transparent and thus incompatible with democracy. In the context of this article, we assume that democratization must be initiated and primarily supported by the forces of internal transformation. We posit that such forces exist in all societies. For the pursuit of freedom, justice, and participation is not only reserved for Western citizens, but represents something natural, the expression of which is reflected in every society.
Our approach is not a step backwards in terms of international demands for democracy, but an attempt to resolve the practice of political power games rooted in conflicting interests. Less international political interference should go hand in hand with robust international jurisprudence. To this end, the international court should be reformed. To accomplish this, the entire international community (and not just a few Western states) would have to agree on a few key democratic principles, whose infraction could be punished. These principles could include, for example, transparent elections, freedom of the press and freedom of expression, the rule of law and a prohibition on unilateral intervention. Regional courts are also an option, perhaps within the framework of the African Union. The universal principles of democracy that the international community has agreed upon should be designed in such a way that national circumstances and traditions may continue to determine the essential form of a democracy. Democracy must be created within the aﬀected society. The promotion of democracy combined with a robust international jurisprudence can support democratic processes in the world much more eﬀectively than the current international practice of democratic demands caught in the clutches of geopolitical interests.