Testimony of Thomas Carothers, Director, Democracy and Rule of Law Project
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify at this hearing. The subject of democracy promotion has in recent years moved to the center stage of U.S. foreign policy as a result of the heightened awareness of the strong connections between the state of democracy in the world and vital U.S. national interests. The U.S. government is devoting greater resources than ever before to the task of supporting democracy abroad. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a crucial role in implementing U.S. democracy assistance programs. Many organizations involved in the democracy field are encountering significant obstacles and difficulties in the current international context, some of which are the result of problematic U.S. policies and some of which are the result of causes outside the control of the United States. Understanding these new challenges and their causes is crucial to improving the effectiveness of all democracy promotion efforts, governmental and non-governmental alike.
The Challenging International Context
Democracy promotion is never easy. In the past several years, however, a number of events and trends have rendered the overall context for democracy promotion unusually challenging.
First, suspicion about and resistance to U.S. democracy promotion activities in developing countries and postcommunist countries is at an all-time high. Democracy building work has long been greeted with skepticism abroad by persons unsure about the true motivations of democracy promoters and wary of what sometimes appears to them as foreign-sponsored political interference. But a combination of two different developments in the past several years has greatly increased such negative attitudes around the world:
• The Bush administration’s emphasis on the Iraq war as the leading wedge of its democracy promotion policy in the Middle East has closely associated democracy promotion with the assertion of American military power and security interests. With the U.S. intervention in Iraq viewed as illegitimate in most parts of the world, the legitimacy of the general concept of democracy promotion has suffered accordingly.
• The recent “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan have also contributed to growing global unease about democracy promotion. The dramatic, inspiring political breakthroughs in these countries were an important advance for democracy. Yet as accounts of U.S. support for key civic and political opposition groups in these countries spread, so too did the incorrect but seductive idea that the United States was the shadowy guiding hand behind those events.
Although these two developments—the Iraq war and the color revolutions—were unconnected, their coincidence has caused many authoritarian and semiauthoritarian governments to take a new, much harder look at U.S. democracy promotion activities on their territory. Many governments have started actively pushing back against democracy assistance, arguing that blocking such programs is necessary to defend their national security against what they portray as a United States bent on carrying out regime change against governments it does not like.
Although this new pushback against democracy promotion is occurring in many places, including Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the most concerted resistance is coming from Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has mounted a major campaign against Western democracy promotion, not only taking a series of punitive measures to limit the activities of Western democracy groups in Russia but also encouraging neighboring governments, especially those in Central Asia, to do the same. Non-democratic governments have often put up obstacles to democracy promotion. This is the first time since the Cold War, however, that a major government has made such a systematic and public campaign against democracy aid and worked across borders to enlist other governments in the cause. The fact that the campaign is originating not from a hostile government but from one of the United States’s G-8 partners is especially significant.
Second, the high price of oil and gas is bolstering the position of many non-democratic governments around the world, especially in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East but also in Africa and Latin America. Almost all oil-rich states outside Europe and North America are autocratic; the surge of oil and gas revenues they are currently enjoying is helping strengthen their hand at home. Moreover, some of these governments, particularly those in Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, are taking advantage of this revenue windfall to fund their own cross-border political work. They are passing money to political allies or favorites to help influence the domestic politics of nearby countries in ways they hope will be favorable to their own interests. More than almost any other single factor, a significantly lower price of oil would be a tremendous boost to the fortunes of democracy abroad.
Third, again for the first time since the end of the Cold War, democracy no longer enjoys an unchallenged place on the international scene as the only political system viewed as successful and credible. China’s continued economic success has elevated the “strong-hand” political approach to managing economic development as an attractive model in many parts of the developing world. Authoritarian leaders in the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere justify their repressive tactics by citing the Chinese example. Citizens in some countries with poor development records show a willingness to sacrifice some of their freedoms for the possibility of better economic development. Although Russia’s recent economic growth is substantially due to high energy prices, President Putin’s has received much of the credit for it, bolstering his popularity and contributing to the growing appeal of the strong-hand political model.
Fourth, the status of the United States as a symbol of democracy and as a leading promoter of democracy has been greatly damaged by the abuses committed by U.S. military and intelligence personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere, as well as by other elements of the war on terrorism, such as the secret rendition of foreign terrorism suspects to countries that regularly practice torture, reliable reports of covert prisons in Europe, and governmental eavesdropping without court warrants within the United States. The damage to America’s image has been enormous, a fact that is plainly and painfully obvious to anyone who is internationally aware either abroad or at home, but which the administration refuses to acknowledge. The widespread perception that the war on terrorism entails the frequent violation of individuals’ rights by the U.S. government sharply contradicts President Bush’s efforts to tell the world that liberty is the best antidote for terrorism.
Fifth, a narrower development, but one that goes to the heart of the U.S. push for democracy abroad, is the success of Islamist groups in two recent elections in the Middle East, in Egypt and the Palestinian territories. The surprisingly strong showing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the victory of Hamas reopened old debates about whether democratization in the Middle East might actually be harmful to American interests by allowing Islamists parties or groups to come to power. Some commentators and some quiet voices in the U.S. government have reacted by urging the administration to retreat from its embrace of a democracy agenda for the Middle East. The United States now faces some very hard choices about whether to sacrifice its commitment to democracy for the sake of opposing political forces it believes are dangerous to U.S. interests.
The fact that the international context for U.S. democracy promotion work has become more difficult does not mean that the United States should give up trying to support democracy’s advance in the world. But it does mean that U.S. democracy promotion actors, non-governmental and governmental alike, must take adaptive steps.
Imperatives for Non-Governmental Organizations Engaged in Democracy Promotion
U.S. non-governmental organizations engaged in democracy promotion should do several things to respond to this unusually challenging international environment for their work.
First, they must adjust to operating in contexts of heightened suspicion about democracy promotion generally and about U.S.-funded efforts specifically. This means they need to communicate more fully and effectively with citizens in host countries about what they do and why they do it. Misunderstanding about the nature of democracy aid is very common in recipient countries and many democracy promotion organizations have not taken serious steps to change that situation. Rather than assuming that most people will be neutral or favorably inclined toward democracy promotion work, as many democracy promoters seems to do, they need to proceed from the assumption that many people, both political elites and ordinary citizens, will start with a negative view of any U.S. organization working on democracy issues.
It also means that democracy promotion groups need to refine strategies for pushing back against pushback. In some cases pushing back hard and publicly against measures to block outside democracy aid will be the right approach. In other cases, it will only fuel nationalist sentiments and be counter-productive. Figuring out what is the right approach in different situations is difficult but crucial. Also critical is knowing when to push for broader diplomatic support from the U.S. government against resistant host governments. The recent U.S. effort to counteract the Kremlin’s proposal to prohibit Western organizations from operating representative offices in Russia was successful but had the quality of an improvised campaign rather than one drawing upon a well-planned response strategy to democracy pushback. Furthermore, as they develop their strategies and tactics for pushing back, U.S. democracy groups need to be reasonable and realistic about what sort of access they expect to get in host countries. The United States and all other established democracies put limits on the political activities of foreign organizations operating within their borders. Expecting other governments to allow greater access to foreign organizations than that allowed by the United States is unrealistic, especially in situations of tense relations between the United States and the country in question.
Second, U.S. democracy promotion groups must focus attention on the fact that they can no longer assume a majority of citizens in countries where they work believe that democracy is necessarily the best possible political system. Dissatisfaction with the social and economic performance of new democratic systems is rife in the developing world. The growing attractiveness of the “strong-hand” model in many places means that democracy promoters must think about how to engage citizens in host countries in fundamental debates about the strengths and weaknesses of competing systems. Simplistic civic educational efforts extolling the virtues of democracy are inadequate; more sophisticated efforts that explore the complexities of the issues at stake are needed, especially efforts that seek to reach youth.
Third, given the sensitivities in many societies about U.S. government intentions with respect to democracy and political change, U.S. non-governmental organizations must take advantage of their organizational (though often not financial) independence from the U.S. government to reach out to political actors in other societies who may be important parts of potential democratic processes but are wary of close contact with the U.S. government. A good example in this regard are moderate Islamist parties and groups in the Middle East and parts of South and Southeast Asia. Such parties and groups often have a crucial role to play in political life but prefer to keep their distance from the U.S. government. U.S. non-governmental organizations can establish important lines of communication with such groups, helping expose them to democratic practices and norms as well as increasing understanding in both directions about intentions and outlooks. They may be able to do the same with populist movements and leaders in other parts of the world, especially Latin America and Central and Southeastern Europe.
Imperatives for the U.S. Government
Although this hearing is focused on the democracy-promotion role of publicly and privately funded NGOs, the role of the U.S. government in democracy promotion is so crucial, and has in recent years been so troubled, that I feel impelled to note at least briefly several imperatives for the U.S. government as well.
First, the U.S. government must not make the mistake of confusing regime change with democracy promotion. Regime change policies, in which the U.S. government seeks to oust foreign governments it views as hostile to U.S. interests, whether through military force or diplomatic and economic pressure, fail to gain international legitimacy and contaminate democracy promotion when they are presented as democracy promotion efforts.
Second, the United States must get its house in order with regard to violations by U.S. military and intelligence personnel of the rights of foreign detainees and prisoners abroad. The repeated tendency of the Bush administration to downplay serious abuses by U.S. personnel, to fail to pursue responsibility up the chain of command, and to not take clear steps at the top to make sure there is no ambiguity about the impermissibility of torture by U.S. personnel must be reversed if U.S. democracy promotion efforts are to operate from any base of significant credibility.
Third, the Bush administration must steer clear of its growing habit of taking sides in foreign elections, whether through statements of preference about electoral outcomes by U.S. ambassadors (as has occurred in several Latin American countries) or aid programs which are designed to make the incumbent party look good against a challenger the United States happens to disfavor (as occurred prior to the recent Palestinian elections).
Fourth, the Bush administration must reduce the glaring double standard in democracy promotion in which unfriendly non-democracies are singled out for pointed attention to their political failings while those non-democracies that are helpful to U.S. economic and security interests get a free pass. The weak U.S. response to the manipulated 2005 elections in both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, for example, undercuts the U.S. assertion of democratic principles in Belarus. The same kinds of disparities also hurt U.S. democracy policies in the Middle East. Perfect consistency in democracy-related policies is not possible given the varying mix of U.S national interests in different parts of the world. Yet at least some effort to push harder on friendly autocratic regimes that are undermining democratic reforms is necessary to give credibility to forceful U.S. criticisms of unfriendly autocratic regimes.
Fifth, the U.S. government must give greater emphasis and prominence to efforts to work in partnership with European governments and international organizations on democracy promotion. Although the United States is a leading actor in democracy promotion, it is only one of many in what has become a very widely populated field. Portraying the United States as a “city on a hill” or having a uniquely special calling for democracy promotion sends the incorrect and unhelpful message to the world that democracy promotion is all about the assertion of U.S. power and interests rather than something that nearly all established democracies are concerned with and involved in. If a “freedom agenda” is to be effective it must not be a U.S. agenda but a global one.