Consider three different meetings:

  1. A group of Western diplomats and policy experts gather to review policy options relating to Iran.  After analyzing a series of technological issues regarding Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, they turn to the political experts in the room and pose two urgent questions:  given what those experts have learned in the past 20 years about authoritarian collapse and democratic transitions in other parts of the world, how likely is it that the current Iranian regime will collapse in the face of the Green Movement and what can be done by outside actors, including the United States government, to support the opposition without discrediting it?

  2. A group of US policy makers, aid officials, private foundation representatives, and democracy activists meet in Washington to discuss strategy options for promoting democracy in Russia.  They want to know why past efforts to promote democracy in Russia have fallen short, what Russia’s current democratic prospects are, and what new efforts should be undertaken to support democratic change there.

  3. A newly appointed senior US foreign aid official walks into a room to meet with an assembled set of democracy promotion specialists.  The purpose of the meeting is for him to learn more about the overall domain of democracy and governance assistance.  His first question to the self-confident group of democracy mavens: what are the “big wins” on democracy relating to development?  In other words, which investments in the democracy aid realm will produce the greatest gains on socio-economic development in the recipient countries?

I have been in all three of these meetings during the past few months.  They are a representative sample of the demands for research-based insight on democratization and democracy support that bubble up regularly from the policy world.  The first two meetings raised questions both about comparative political trajectories and choices relating to democracy support policies and programs.  The third added the issue of links between democracy aid and socio-economic development.

From none of these three meetings did the policy officials come away fully satisfied.  On Iran, they did not hear a clear consensus on the prospects for regime survival.  Nor did they hear consensus about how much outsiders could or should do to help the Iranian opposition.  On Russia, considerable uncertainty prevailed about the likely future of the current political system and no big new idea on democracy promotion emerged to galvanize the room.  On aid and development, no clear, broad-gauged research findings were offered that would lend themselves to the formulation of headline-style policy directives.

Yet, in all three gatherings, some accumulated learning surfaced; the conversations were not barren.  The situation in Iran was analyzed in the light of research about successful and unsuccessful electoral revolutions—with some insights available about the conditions under which such revolutions succeed or fail and what types of outside support were most significant in contributing to them.  At least some light was shed on Russia’s apparent political exceptionalism based on research on differing forms of competitive authoritarianism, the methods such regimes use to check externally-sponsored democracy promotion, and the potentialities of local level democratic initiatives.  And although the broad question of what forms of democracy support best advance socio-economic development remained resistant to simple answer, the democracy mavens offered some insights about constituent parts of the puzzle, such as the effects of governance gains on policymaking, the wider value of elections, the ties between strengthened local level civil society development and better government performance...