Expert engagement series: Tom Carothers & Richard Youngs

(Above: Tom Carothers from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace talks to WFD staff in the latest expert engagement series)

If there is such a thing as a celebrity in the world of democracy-strengthening, as WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation Graeme Ramshaw put it, then Tom Carothers is probably it. This explains why staff were so keen to hear Mr Carothers speak at WFD’s London headquarters last week.

Mr Carothers first visited WFD one year after its establishment in 1992, at a time when the “air we breathed” was full of positive assumptions. Democracy was full of momentum, had no serious challengers, and doors were wide open to international democracy support.

How things have changed. By the second decade of the 21st century, those assumptions are being challenged. The same doors are “literally being closed to people”. Yet Mr Carothers is upbeat. “There’s something profound about the idea that people can work across borders to help each other figure out solutions to political problems. I still believe that’s possible, and necessary, for a better world,” he adds.

Mr Carothers and his team at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have spent recent years researching ‘rising democracies’: countries like Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia which have begun promoting democracy abroad in their own, distinctive ways. Carnegie’s conclusion on their work is balanced. While these states are doing more in a quiet, under-the-radar way than many give them credit for, their approach is not quite as original as they claim.

“They always say ‘we have a distinctive approach’,” as Mr Carothers describes it. “You say, what is it? What they describe sounds like an EU document on democracy support. They describe a consensual, non-confrontational approach [driven by] values, harmony. They’re working against a caricatured idea of western democracy support.” In extremis, this caricature ties all western democracy-strengthening work to the foreign policy of George W. Bush’s White House. Richard Youngs, a senior colleague at Carnegie Europe who has previously engaged with WFD on his work, adds: “They have a perception of western democracy support as being about regime change, whereas they are defending democratic regimes against an unjust global system.”

(Above: Professor Richard Youngs of Carnegie Europe addresses WFD staff)

Part of the problem, Mr Carothers suggests, is that non-western democracies feel like they are being asked to do the “hard things first”. Why should South Africa transform its relationship with Zimbabwe, for example, because the USA wants it to? Would the USA respond positively to an equivalent request – for it to shake up its relations with Saudi Arabia, for example?

Getting over this barrier appears difficult, but comments from WFD staff at the session suggest it is at least plausible. Much of WFD’s work is about encouraging south-south learning; as with the recent trip by Iraq’s Anti-Corruption Commissions to their counterpart organisation in Indonesia. “Positive peer pressure,” as WFD’s Director of Programmes Devin O’Shaughnessy puts it, can work wonders. But funding this work is difficult. “No-one’s thinking in a more creative way about how we do provide funding to build those kinds of relationships,” he said. “Your research encouraged us to look more at south-south work, to build a community of people who want to defend democracy.”

WFD understands that each country approaches democracy from its own perspective; it’s why we take pride in being able to share the full breadth of the UK’s unique democratic experience, but also why we recognise that other countries’ approaches are just as unique. Carnegie’s new research has highlighted the unique nature of non-western democracies, like Brazil, and the different experience they bring from their own democratic transitions. Brazil, for example, has been interested in peacekeeping, while Korea and Japan see democracy through the lens of economic modernisation.

But, this leaves organisations like WFD left to wonder whether the scope for western democracy promotion is ending. Tom Carothers and Richard Youngs remain positive about the potential role of rising democracies. “We think there is still merit in trying to build up triangular networks with these countries,” Prof Youngs says and WFD agrees wholeheartedly.

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