Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rethinking Democracy Assistance

Yesterday I went to an event at GW on "Democracy Promotion in the Middle East." The three speakers,  Steven Heydemann, Eva Bellin and Ellen Lust, have all been writing about the persistence of authoritarianism in the Middle East for years. And unfortunately, they focused mainly on that question as opposed to pivoting to the supposed topic of the day: how the US can help more effectively support democratic reform in the region.

Nonetheless, their talks reflect the importance of understanding what's happening in the region as a prerequisite for formulating effective policy. While they did not explicitly address democracy promotion, their analyses imply certain policies, some of which would be quite unorthodox.

For example, Heydemann emphasized that it's not just the opposition that learns how to better agitate for their rights, but regimes also learn how to better repress their citizens. He calls this "upgrading authoritarianism," in which regimes can become "stronger, more flexible, and more resilient" over time. Specifically in the past few months, the leaders of countries like Yemen and Syria have seen the way Ben Ali and Mubarak have been treated and learned that: 1) more violence is needed 2) if I step down, I might end up in jail or worse.

Based on Heydemann's anlaysis, democracy promotion policy should look closely at the strategic calculus of these leaders to learn how to best coax them to implement actual reforms, or when necessary, step down. This means ICC investigations of Qaddafi are counterproductive. Promises of immunity are untrustworthy. And safety in exile becomes paramount. Enhancing programs like the Mo Ibrahim Prize, which grants former African leaders a nice stipend for transferring power peacefully, would make sense. As unsavory as it sounds, offering President Saleh a mansion in the Hamptons might be more effective use of democracy promotion money than funding civil society programs.

Eva Bellin focused her analysis on the decision of the security apparatus to repress its citizens. For Bellin, so long as the military is capable and willing of shooting civilians, authoritarian regimes will survive. She provided three variables to determine willingness to shoot: the size of the protests, the nature of the protests (peaceful or violent), and finally the professionalism of the military.

This analysis suggests that US assistance to foreign militaries could actually have a democratizing effect. While such assistance undoubtedly increases the capacity to repress, if it is executed in a manner that professionalizes the military (instills institutional pride, builds national identity, weakens patrimonial ties, etc), then the military will be less willing to sacrifice its self interests by shooting civilians in revolutionary moments. Coincidentally, we are working hard to professionalize militaries in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon. This policy prescription is quite counterintuitive, as military assistance is usually considered an example of propping up authoritarian regimes.

Finally, among other topics, Lust identified the importance of considering the variable of time. Combined with Heydemann and Bellin's emphasis on the robustness of authoritarianism, we should consider the difference between promoting democratic evolution versus democratic revolution. Currently, we hope that minor changes over time will accrue and eventually lead to democratic systems. But if authoritarian regimes are in fact so adaptive and coercive, then maybe only revolutions can bring democracy in the Middle East. In that case, why waste resources on policies designed for evolutionary change?

Now I'm not saying these policy prescriptions are what Heydemann, Bellin and Lust would prescribe. Nor am I saying I think they are correct. In fact, I think some are flat wrong, and they are wrong because they are based on flawed understandings of why the Middle East is undemocratic. But that just proves the more general point: we need to understand the region before we understand how to democratize that region. So even though this event largely ignored policy prescriptions, it still was quite useful in learning how we might formulate policy in the future.

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