The emergence of a multipolar world gives Western democracy advocates cause for both optimism and anxiety. China’s success sparks fears of the spread of an autocratic development model. Yet democratic states such as Brazil, Indonesia, India, South Africa, and Turkey are also gaining ground. These countries serve as powerful examples of the universal appeal of democracy and possess unique experiences with democratization. The United States and Europe understandably hope that rising democracies will use their growing prominence to defend democratic values abroad, potentially revitalizing international democracy support. 

Rising democracies, however, are often reluctant to publicly embrace a democracy and human rights agenda. Most of them are exponents of the pro-sovereignty, anti-interventionist approach to international politics. They emphasize inclusive cooperation among developing countries and are disinclined to confront autocratic leaders. They are also habitually wary of Western, especially U.S., intentions in the developing world and thus frequently suspicious of Western democracy promotion.

Western powers should not dismiss the potential contribution that rising democracies can make to democracy support, but they should moderate their expectations and proceed with caution. They should start building cooperation with rising democracies through low-visibility, sustained endeavors rather than high-visibility, short-term gestures. Western actors must also be flexible in considering rising democracies’ differing conceptions of how best to support democracy. Support for partnerships between nongovernmental actors in established and rising democracies may offer the best way forward.

An engaged but balanced Western approach is the best option for encouraging rising democracies to play a productive role in the challenge of responding to the serious backlash against international democracy support that emerged over the last decade.