James Hughes, LSE professor of Comparative Politics and editor of Development and Transition, engages Carothers on the linkages between development and democracy, the appropriate place for external democracy promotion, the future of the European Union, the value of democracy indices, and possible implications for Eastern Europe and Russia of the Obama administration.

James Hughes: To what extent is economic development a precondition for democracy?

Thomas Carothers: ‘Preconditions’ imply that you must have ‘this’ before you can do ‘that’–I don’t think this is necessarily the case. For every supposed precondition there is a country that has done fairly well with democracy that lacks it. Should India never have attempted democratization? India was quite a poor country in the late 1940s, lacking almost all of the traditional preconditions for democracy. Still, if one studies the patterns of democratization in the world over the last 30 years, societies that start at higher levels of economic development tend to do better in democratization. But just because a poorer society faces more disadvantages does not necessarily mean that democratization is a mistake in that society.

What does the East European experience add to our knowledge of democratization?

I think it adds a lot and I don’t think we’ve sufficiently digested all of it. One lesson is the importance of legacies, historical experience. A fairly sharp line can be drawn between Central and Eastern Europe on the one side, and the former Soviet Union on the other: democratization on one side of that line has been much more favourable than on the other.

You attribute that to historical legacies?

I think that legacies are part of the explanation. Central and East European countries were independent when communism collapsed, whereas in the former Soviet Union many new states had to be formed after 1991. The Central and East Europe countries’ experiences with parliamentary rule in the late 19th century and early 20th century gave them important historical reference points. When they approached the post-1989 transitions they could say ‘we are recovering something we had before’. Of course, these legacies had authoritarian and other troubling features, but there were significant experiences with multi-partyism, political pluralism, parliamentary life, the rule of law, and so on. Having had that experience and that reference point helped to recover that pattern. The desire for a ‘return to Europe’ and the EU framework often complemented this recovery of a ‘usable past’. The former Soviet republics had to reach back to their pre-Soviet experience, which was so remote that it often had little practical meaning.

On the role of the EU: is this an argument about the importance of geography? Or is geography just a short-hand for the EU’s attractiveness as a political and economic organization? EU accession prospects were an enormous incentive for these countries not to back-slide on democratization.

We have to be careful about conflating the attraction of the European Union with the broader concept of a ‘return to Europe’. My experience from Romania in the early 1990s was not that Romanians were thirsting to be members of the EU, but that they wanted to be ‘Europeans’–a much broader concept than EU membership. Romanians wanted to come back to Europe, but the Europe they were dreaming of was not necessarily that of the European Union. The ‘return to Europe’ ultimately meant EU membership because that’s the structure that existed.

How important do you think US and EU democracy promotion has been for the region?

It was an important helping hand, but was probably not determinative. I believe that if there had been no such thing as the European Union, if Western Europe had been simply living peacefully together as states without a political and economic union, the idea of rejoining Europe would still have been very powerful in Central and Eastern Europe. They would have seen these countries as models and said ‘That’s the sort of society we were trying to be in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before we got side-tracked by fascism and communism’. Of course, adding the support of the EU was helpful. But it was helpful more slowly than many people might think. During the 1990s these countries had to be socialized into what the EU was and what it entailed. The US parallel in a certain way was NATO membership, which also helped in defining a basic democratizing trajectory. While NATO doesn’t have the same political criteria as the EU, it did have the implicit condition that you have to be a democracy to be a member.

Democracy assistance is something like additional petrol in the tank which allows the car to go further and faster, but it’s not the driver or the steering mechanism. These societies were headed in a democratic direction after 1989, and were aided by their historical legacies and external framework. EU and US democracy assistance programmes helped these countries move more quickly, but I don’t think that they were determinative. If there had been no political party assistance, no parliamentary strengthening, no judicial reform, media, or civil society support, some of the societies–particularly Bulgaria, Romania, and maybe Slovakia–probably would have struggled harder with their transitions, or it would have been slower and more difficult. But I think they would have made it anyway.

A lot of this assistance reached dynamic people in their 20s and 30s, who wanted to break free and do something new and different. It helped forge this new generation, the one that is in power in most of these countries now. Almost all of the interesting socio-political actors in Central and Eastern Europe were touched by Western assistance in some way: educational opportunities, NGO experience, etc.

US presidents have afforded democracy promotion varying degrees of interest and emphasis. At the working level, has there been more consistency in US foreign policy?

US democracy assistance has ‘high’ and ‘low policy’ elements. High policy is reflected in the actions senior US officials take vis-à-vis other governments: economic assistance or sanctions, diplomatic praise, invitations to visit the White House, and so forth. ‘Low policy’ is much quieter and less visible, and resides mostly in the democracy assistance programmes that operate day-in, day-out, in close to 100 countries. These programmes are often complemented by quiet diplomacy at the embassy level, with very little direction from the top. While there has been oscillation with respect to high policy, there’s been considerable continuity in low policy. Since the mid-1980s, USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, the political party institutes, and other organizations have worked to create fairly continuous engagement for democracy support. This work has been quite consistent over time, and has not varied much from administration to administration.

How useful do you find the various democratization indices: Freedom House, Bertelsmann, and Polity?

All three are professionally done and valuable. I tend to look at them as photographs of reality. Photographs are useful for describing reality, but they’re less useful for telling you why reality is the way it is. If I say ‘Show me a photograph of this country’, these indices will say: ‘the media is in this condition, the level of civil liberties is in that condition’. These photographs don’t answer questions like: ‘How might it change? How did it become this way? Where are the fault lines?’

Are these indices taken seriously at the policy level? 

Yes. These indices are useful because they help sum up conditions in a way that a policy maker can say is objective and allows them to push on the country. So for example if somebody in the State Department is receiving a minister of the interior from another country, the US official can say, ‘Freedom House says that you’ve gone from being partly free to not free, and we’re very concerned about that’.

So it would be used as overtly as that?

Oh definitely, unquestionably.

Does this ‘low policy’ continuity mean that it’ll be ‘business as usual’ under the new US administration? Or might there be more emphasis on democracy assistance?

The Obama administration faces major challenges in trying to re-formulate US democracy promotion after the mistakes and damage of the Bush years. It will have to find ways to re-establish US credibility, both at home and abroad. These things obviously go together: the damage done to the image and reality of US democracy, particularly in terms of the human rights abuses exacted against some people persecuted in the ‘war on terror’, did great harm to US democracy promotion in the world. At the same time, some US foreign policies (like the intervention in Iraq) which were held up as exemplars of US democracy promotion, besmirched the concept of democracy promotion generally. In order to re-engage more constructively, the Obama administration must back away from some of the overly assertive approaches of the Bush administration without giving up on the subject.

Don’t you think there’s a huge image problem? Will there not be cynicism and negative responses to Americans who come around talking about democratization?

Yes. But you don’t fix the image problem by stopping democracy promotion. You fix the image problem by changing the actions that damaged your image. The election of Obama has helped in that regard. If he is able to position the United States differently in the region at a high policy level through for example a different approach to Iraq, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to Iran, this will allow democracy promotion to operate in a more favourable environment.

How much interest will the Obama administration have in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union region?

There are many problems pressing on the United States, particularly in the Middle East. But relations with Russia are very important, as is continuing the relatively productive relationship with China, the relationship with India, and improving relations with Europe. I don’t think that Central and Eastern Europe will either gain or lose very much from an Obama administration. The main question I think is for countries like Poland and the Czech Republic that have enjoyed very favourable relationships with the United States: will their somewhat privileged positions weaken under an Obama administration? Although these countries are concerned about US-Russian relations, I think that establishing a more productive US relationship with Russia–which the Obama administration will want to do–does not have to mean sacrificing good relationships with Central Europe.

But might it entail a downplaying of the rhetoric about democracy in Russia?

The United States didn’t really push very hard on democracy in Russia under Bush. There was a bit of rhetoric, but actually the Bush Administration was focused on trying to get along with Putin. The problems in the US-Russian relationship were not due to the United States pushing Russia so hard on this.

What are the implications of the global economic crisis for democracy promotion?

First we have to ask ourselves: ‘What will be the crisis’s effects for democracy in the world?’ And even before that we should ask: ‘What will be the effect of this crisis on world politics?’ Economic problems can be expected to put pressures on all political systems, democratic and non-democratic. The concern that citizens in struggling democracies will withdraw their support for democracy because they’re disappointed with its socio-economic performance is compelling in some ways. However, I think we should be careful about assuming simple anti-democratic reflexes on the part of disappointed citizens. While the socio-economic performance of new and struggling democracies in the past decade has generally not been that good, support for the idea of democracy has remained largely stable, according to relatively reliable public opinion polling. In almost every region, 60-70 percent of citizens remain attached to the idea that democracy is the best form of political governance. Citizens may get disappointed, but so far they have been turning their disappointment more on particular governments or parties than towards the very idea of democracy itself.

Is democracy ‘the only game in town’? In the 1950s, the Soviet Union and China were seen by many post-colonial countries as attractive alternative development models. Given the current strength of China, is there any potential for the revival of a counter-democracy model?

China’s very successful economic performance over the last 30 years has made a powerful impression on the developed and developing worlds. Many people in developing countries undoubtedly ask themselves ‘How could we have such strong economic performance? What is it that China’s doing that could help us?’ On the other hand, what we call the ‘China model’ is not new–it’s a new version of what used to be called the East Asian model, which was similar to the Pinochet model, which was rather similar to the strong-hand approach in Brazil and other Latin American states of the 1960s. Since the early 1960s many western and developing country policy circles have argued that a strong-hand government is necessary for development; that really only an authoritarian government can break the eggs necessary to cook the ‘development omelette’. China has refreshed this idea by showing that even in a globalized world, such an approach can work.

I think the China model is very useful to policy makers in authoritarian states as a way of justifying their repressive grip, allowing them to say ‘we’re following the China model’. But I can’t think of a single country that had been democratic converting and saying ‘We’re giving up on democracy and moving to the China model’. Also, even those leaders who invoke the China model do not necessarily follow that model. If we deconstruct the China model and ask ‘What are its central components?’ we might find less consensus than we think. Is it a set of certain economic policies, regarding trade liberalization or foreign direct investment? Is it authoritarian control over labour unions or the internet? This is less clear than often appears. Moreover, although China’s economic performance is extremely impressive and heartening, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Malawi, or Bolivia, or Mongolia can replicate the China model, because they’re not very much like China in many ways. It’s funny that the China model is coming out of a country which is among the most exceptional in the world. China is nearly unique in its size, complexity, heterogeneity, and political trajectory. Given China’s many unusual features, why should we expect its development model to be easily replicable?