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Democracy Promotion in the Era of Complex Interdependence: A Case of All Roads Lead to Rome?

BRICS 615w (att Wikimedia Commons)

~ If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, let's just call it a duck ~

I recently attended an international conference in Ottawa on the role of emerging powers in democracy promotion. As the theme suggests, the objective of the conference was underpinned by a two-part assumption, the first being that democracy promotion has an inherent value – presumably in line with the instrumental dimension of the democratic peace argument, which makes a case for expanding the circle of liberal democracies as a cost-effective strategy to promote world peace, stability, and prosperity. The second part of the assumption flows from the first and suggests that as contenders for seats in privileged multilateral forums, rising powers in the South should play their part in providing this global public good.  The subtext of this construct suggests that there is a golden standard [read: Western standard] of promoting democracy that emerging powers don't seem to measure up to. The objective of the conference was therefore to examine why these new claimants to world power, distinguished by their own democratic credentials, appear to display so much reluctance in sharing the burden of expanding the global community of democracies, as if to echo President Obama's recent bemoaning in Pretoria that "everybody wants a seat at the table, but when it comes time to step up and show responsibility, sometimes people want to be free-riders."

By the time the conference came to a close after two days of deliberations, the problem with this line of thinking had become apparent to all - even to the organizers, I believe.  On the surface, the review of the 'democracy promotion' activities - or lack thereof - in Brazil, India, South Africa, Indonesia, and Turkey seemed to concur with the assumption of the conference that emerging powers are underperforming in this global responsibility. Every country study highlighted how regional sensitivities, South-South solidarity, preoccupation with economic and other strategic interests, and even lingering anti-hegemonic sentiments all come together in one way or another to dissuade emerging powers from actively promoting or, as one participant put it, defending democracy in their spheres of influence.  This is the analytical lens that was advanced for explaining South Africa's apparent regression from Mandela's democracy crusade in Africa; India's reluctance to partner with the U.S. in democratizing its South Asian neighborhood; or what some observers consider to be Brazil's inconsistency and tepidity in dealing with undemocratic regimes in Latin America and elsewhere. It is also the framework suggested for fathoming Indonesia's less than satisfactory record of entrenching human rights and democratic values within the ASEAN community, or Turkey's disinclination to incorporate governance issues into its development assistance program in Afghanistan.

Emerging Powers' Promotion of Democracy: Interpretations

However, the objective narrative of the contribution of emerging powers to promoting or defending democracy is open to two possible interpretations. The first reading, which I identify with, would see in this seemingly disappointing record a reflection of the practical challenges or, I dare say, the idealism that is associated with the very notion of universalizing a set of political values in a world system that is structured first and foremost around safeguarding national sovereignty and the pursuit of nationally-defined interests. Without discounting the values of freedom, equality and justice, which are often touted as the ultimate end of democracy promotion, this understanding of the playing field should guide us to recognize the limits of this exercise and moderate our expectations of what any powerful state or group of states, emerging or otherwise, can achieve in this regard.

The second interpretation, which, arguably, was inferred in the theme of the Ottawa conference and which is often echoed by Western policymakers, leads to the conclusion that emerging powers are not taking their international responsibilities seriously. The problem with this interpretation is that although it is based in Euro-American standards of democracy promotion, it tends to shy away from making a link between the assessment of the democracy promotion activities of emerging powers and the extent to which the U.S. and Europe have lived up to their own standards. Thus, by de-contextualizing the record of democracy promotion, the interpretation creates a false impression of the motives, desirability and even the feasibility of democracy promotion as has been traditionally conceived. Furthermore, it glosses over the double standard, self-interest, and sometimes chaotic outcomes that have animated Western democracy promotion efforts in the past decades.

More importantly, it fails to give due recognition to the seemingly small, but nonetheless significant, efforts of emerging powers, which may not have a big bang effect but are making incremental contributions to transforming the governance landscape in the South. For instance, the perspective that tends to deride subsequent South African leaders for straying from the legacy of Mandela's ethical diplomacy in Africa often conveniently overlooks the investment of his successor in the formulation and diffusion of new norms of governance on the continent. Granted, Mbeki was confronted with major dilemmas, which did not only condition South Africa's heavy reliance on multilateral forums to promote democratic principles on the continent. It also undermined the successful implementation of his African Renaissance vision. And, although the new continental institutions emerging from his advocacy like the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) are yet to gain favor with a considerable segment of the African political elite, the values and hope they represent are not inconsistent with the objectives of any genuine effort to root democratic governance within the continent.

Development and Democracy: Two Sides of the Same Coin

A similar argument can be made with reference to the reluctance in some quarters to appreciate the fact that contemporary efforts to promote democratic ideals can come in different forms, which calls for caution in passing judgment on the contributions of emerging powers in the provision of this supposed public good. In the era of complex interdependence where power and influence are no longer the reserved for a select group of states but are diffused across all kinds of political, economic, and social formations, none of which can lay claim to self-sufficiency, there has been an increasing will to challenge conventional philosophies and models of development, and the corresponding governance and diplomatic arrangements that underpin these. Here, Amartya Sen's conception of development as freedom becomes very relevant. If, as Sen argues, development is a condition where people have the mutually-reinforcing political, economic, social, and cultural freedoms to live fulfilling lives, then one can safely argue that development and democracy are two sides of the same coin.

This perspective brings into question the relevance to local communities of Western democracy promotion efforts, which are premised on the neoliberal philosophy of development and often find themselves limited to creating conditions for competitive politics and the functioning of the free market economy while overlooking or frustrating processes that may give rise to social, economic, and cultural freedoms. However, it also suggests that, although not sufficient to provide the full spectrum of the democratic ideals, inclusive social and economic policies can empower citizens with the capabilities to positively engage in governance processes to the end of further expanding their freedoms. In this context, the technical cooperation initiatives of emerging powers such as Brazil, which are focused on capacitating other developing countries to design and implement inclusive development policies, should count no less as democracy promotion efforts as does electoral support.

What is more, accepting the plurality of actors and transnational linkages that define the present epoch of perforated sovereignties means that due recognition should equally be accorded to the cooperation activities of an array of sub-state actors dedicated to strengthening democracy and good governance. Here, reference should be made to the peer-to-peer learning and capacity-building exchanges being pioneered by legislatures as well as municipal and regional governments from leading states in the South, which in no small measure are creating conditions for accountable and participatory governance in a host of developing countries.


In the end, what really matters is not the form that initiatives to promote or defend democracy adopt but rather the impact that these efforts would have on the daily lives of the citizenry in the target countries. Appreciating and embracing this reality could make the difference between getting stuck in the past and asking the wrong questions on the one hand, and having the aptitude to discern opportunities for viable partnerships in the interest of furthering the common goal of entrenching democratic ideals worldwide on the other.

Fritz Nganje is researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue ( and a Southern Voices Network African Research Scholar at the Wilson Center.

Photo attributed to Wikimedia Commons.

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