Democracy Rising?

Jeremy Kinsman on why successfully building and renewing democracy depends on civil society.

By: /
18 September, 2013
Jeremy Kinsman
By: Jeremy Kinsman
CIC Distinguished Fellow

The world’s democratic skies have darkened. The once-inspiring Arab Spring now seems a false dawn as country after country spirals down into violence. Ill-prepared and ill-intentioned clans are clashing in contests for control and sectarian divides are deepening. The democratic dreams of Syrians are being crushed under a cruel dictator’s boot. In Russia, an egotistical leader’s patriotic nationalism is eroding hard-won democratic space from the historic post-Soviet experiment. The Chinese Communist Party is doubling down on dissidents who question its political monopoly, making a mockery of the notion of universal human rights.

Freedom House records a “democratic recession” when for the seventh year in a row, democratic retreats outnumber gains. Western democratic publics are turning inward, chastened by economic disarray and political gridlock at home, worn out by costly wars, and disillusioned by false claims that we could enable democracy in other cultures that have shown no prior vocation and have no preparation.

It all sounds bleak. In the euphoria of the Cold War’s end, and in the midst of over 60 successful and generally peaceful democratic revolutions since 1974, it was easy to assume that democracy had been validated as the natural and inevitable end-point of human social and political development. In a spirit of self-congratulation, Westerners took on the role of norm-givers to aspiring democratic norm-takers in Russia and elsewhere.

If only it were that easy. Democratic practice isn’t a process or an “app” to transfer or download; it is behavioural. It has to be learned.

Kicking out a dictator is usually the easy part compared to what democracy theorist Thomas Carothers has termed “Chapter Two”, which begins the morning after.

 The international democracy project, which I have directed for seven years in the name of the Community of Democracies, has just released an expanded and updated third edition of A Diplomat’s Handbook for Democracy Development Support. The Handbook, published by CIGI, tries to identify the reasons why democratic transition succeeds in some countries and not in others.

Most decisive is a society’s preparedness for democracy. Has it had the time and support necessary to grow the healthy civil society upon which democracy must be founded? Outside democracies can help, not to change regimes, but to contribute to democratic capacity, as part of what Vaclav Havel termed the “venerable tradition of human solidarity.”

It is the help provided by external networks of democrats in international civil society – what the autocrats label “outside interference” – which has the power to rattle regimes from Moscow to Tehran to Cairo.

How much depends on how such help is provided. Governments don’t do capacity-building abroad very well, but civil society often does. Democratic governments should help NGOs reach out to support civil society elsewhere. This is not proselytizing – the Internet revolution enables people everywhere to know what democratic norms apply elsewhere. Everywhere, how people relate to their government is changing. Increasingly individuals are insisting on the right of agency over their own lives. The Arab Spring shows that no region is immune to this aspiration. Democracy will emerge. The challenge is to have it succeed. We can and should help.

Here are some self-evident but generally decisive ‘lessons learned’.

  • Democracy has to be home-grown. It can’t be exported or imported but has to emerge from the people themselves when they are ready. There is no single model or template; each trajectory is different depending on local circumstances and cultural histories.

  • The building blocks are in civil society, where the habits of give and take and compromise are learned. It takes time. As Carothers pointed out, the rule of law is much more than statutes and courts; it has to reside “within the heads” of democratic citizens.

  • Taking power away from a dictator by force seldom works because the state can usually out-violence insurgents. If soldiers refuse to fire on peacefully protesting fellow-citizens, as was the case in 1989 in Eastern Europe and later in Kiev and Tunis, nonviolent uprisings succeed; if security forces crush protests with lethal force as in Tiananmen, Tehran, or Dara’a, the advent of democratic change will be deferred (though as we have seen in Myanmar, the long arc of history is on the side of the people).

  • Elections, free and fair, are important but only one of several starting-points once a dictator is gone. It’s what happens after the election that counts most, as the tragedy unfolding in Egypt illustrates. Almost all societies are pluralist by ethnicity, sect, class, and culture. Will the post-election outcome be inclusive? Will electoral majorities respect and include minorities? Reconciliation can be vital. The new order coming in needs to find ways to compromise with the old order going out, or bitter divisions will spoil the chance of building and sustaining consensus.

Where are the responsibilities of existing democracies? The further inward we turn, the greater our risk of dismissing, as Chamberlain did, the struggles of other peoples’ as a “quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Too often, because of overarching interests in securing allies in a Cold War or one “on Terror,” we strike convenient alliances with harsh regimes, and forget the aspiration of the people within for the basic human rights we take for granted. Too often, in a failure of imagination, we defer to the status quo as stable without realizing that dictatorial regimes are inherently unstable. We buy into false binary alternatives – that we must either back a police state OR risk the spread of Islamic extremism – only to be surprised when the people, having risen up, hate us for our hypocrisy, for placing our “interests” ahead of our values.

The fact is we can and should pursue values and interests consistently on dual tracks everywhere. Strategic partnerships because of security and economic interests don’t rule out standing by our values by supporting the rights of human rights defenders; in practice, the two tracks can reinforce each other.

Of course, if our own democracies at home are fractious and failing, our influence as exemplars is nil. We have to keep learning and trying. In the preface he penned for the first edition of the Handbook, Vaclav Havel hoped “that this book will inspire all its readers to take a creative part in the propagation of civic freedoms and democratic standards throughout the world.” That hope remains.

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