The world is becoming increasingly multipolar. Emerging powers from the developing world are seeking—and obtaining—increased influence in nearly every aspect of international relations. In a Q&A, Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs discuss the place of democracy in a changing world and the role of rising powers in international democracy support, a field long dominated by the United States and Europe. Carothers and Youngs are authors of a new paper that explores the potential benefits and likely challenges of encouraging rising democracies to support democracy abroad.
Is a more multipolar world helpful or harmful to democracy?
There is reason for both anxiety and optimism. Democracy advocates fear that the rise of China will create a credible authoritarian alternative to liberal democracy. A more self-confident Russia may exert greater pressure against democratization in its neighborhood. Some emerging powers in the developing world see some international rules and organizations as disadvantageous to developing nations. This skepticism can extend to human rights norms and has led a number of people to argue that emerging powers will work against a liberal international order.
On the other hand, a multipolar world entails the rise of important democratic states such as Brazil, Indonesia, India, South Africa, and Turkey. These countries serve as powerful examples of the broad appeal of democracy. They refute the notion that democracy is incompatible with non-Western societies or countries struggling with economic development. Their democratic transitions are compelling stories with both inspirational power and practical utility for citizens in authoritarian states or new democracies.
At a time when international democracy support is facing a serious backlash and struggling to shed its image as a Western geostrategic project, the active participation of rising democracies could energize and lend new legitimacy to the effort.
Are rising democracies interested in democracy support?
Ask foreign ministry officials in rising democracies whether they view democracy promotion as a priority and the answer will most likely be no. These states for the most part adhere to a pro-sovereignty, anti-interventionist approach to international politics. Their efforts to develop more proactive foreign policies and gain greater global influence are centered on cultivating friendly relations with other governments and increasing South-South cooperation. They are wary of undermining important economic and diplomatic ties by bringing up sensitive human rights and democracy issues. Furthermore, they are struggling with their own development challenges at home and do not want to spend scarce resources on democracy support. They are also deeply suspicious of Western, especially U.S., intentions in the developing world.
At the same time, however, in principal rising democracies are in favor of the international spread of democracy and interested in contributing to it. They see a more democratic world as being in their long-term interest. They are wary of the term “democracy promotion” because of its association with Western interventionism, but have expressed interest in sharing their experiences abroad and taking other low-key measures to support democracy.
What are these states currently doing to support democracy?
The record is mixed. On the one hand, rising democracies have taken a variety of steps to assist democracy outside their borders. Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia have worked to strengthen democracy and governance standards in their respective regional organizations. India, South Africa, and Turkey have engaged in what they call pro-democratic mediation of regional conflicts. India and South Africa have shared election expertise with their neighbors. Indonesia created the Bali Democracy Forum to start an Asian conversation on democracy and share best practices. Several states have promised to work with the United States to share experiences and innovations on open government issues. Furthermore, all of these states claim they take advantage of their friendly relations with other developing countries to advocate for democracy and human rights behind the scenes.
Yet rising democracies have shied away from publicly condemning human rights abuses and have sometimes defended repressive leaders. With the exception of Turkey, the rising democracies are reluctant to support country-specific human rights resolutions at the United Nations, even in the cases of highly repressive regimes such as Myanmar and North Korea. Leaders in Turkey and Brazil were quick to congratulate President Ahmadinejad of Iran on his disputed election victory in 2009 and played down the significance of heavy post-election repression. The South African government has long defended Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and South African mediation after the 2008 elections was widely seen as allowing Mugabe to remain in power.
Are there any signs rising democracies are becoming less tolerant of dictators?
Yes, to some extent. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil has signaled she will be less friendly to Iran than former president Lula and pay more attention to human rights abuses. South Africa has recently increased pressure on the Mugabe regime, including seeking a resolution from the Southern African Development Community condemning intimidation and violence in Zimbabwe. Turkey has seen its “zero problems with neighbors” policy upended by the Arab Spring and Turkish leaders are clearly losing patience with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a once close ally.
These developments indicate that rising democracies are not necessarily sovereignty fundamentalists, but it does not signal a shift in their basic foreign policy orientation and ideals. They still believe in sovereignty and non-intervention in all but the most extreme situations, and they are unlikely to become consistent defenders of democracy and human rights. Like all countries, the rising democracies have a variety of economic and security interests that require good relations with dictators. None of them is likely to start criticizing China anytime soon.
What can Europe and the United States do to encourage these countries to do more to support democracy?
Policymakers in the United States and Europe hope that rising democracies will play a larger role in international democracy support. The idea is an integral part of President Obama’s effort to recast democracy support away from the unilateralist, military-oriented, and regime-change associations of the Bush years. European democracy supporters favor the idea as well, seeing it as a natural extension of Europe’s instincts toward multilateral, inclusive approaches to policymaking.
Rising democracies can make important contributions to democracy support, but Western powers should moderate their expectations and proceed cautiously. This requires honesty about the serious limitations of Western democracy support. Western countries—as rising democracies will quickly point out—maintain their own cordial relations with many undemocratic governments.
Western policymakers must avoid at all costs the notion they sometimes put forward behind closed doors that “we must enlist the rising democracies in our cause.” This is likely to turn rising democracies against the idea of democracy support. Western actors should start building cooperation with rising democracies through low-visibility, sustained endeavors rather than high-visibility, short-term gestures. Support for partnerships between nongovernmental actors in established and rising democracies would be a good start. It will be much easier to foster ties between Western nongovernmental actors engaged in democracy and rights issues and their counterparts in rising democracies than it will be to create common positions among high-level policymakers.
Western democracy supporters should be flexible in considering rising democracies’ differing conceptions of how best to support democracy. A variety of approaches is in fact valuable in democracy support—in many places, Western efforts have bounced off stubborn contrary realities. New strategies are needed, especially when it comes to entrenched strongmen who cultivate pressure from the West as a political badge of honor and legitimacy.