Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content


Doug Saunders

Democracy promotion? Poof, it's vanished … Add to ...

In this season of summitry, as the world's leaders and ministers flit between Seoul, Lisbon, Jerusalem and Washington, it is worth tuning out the words being spoken, for a moment, and paying attention to those that have disappeared.

Chief among these is "democracy." A decade or even five years ago, any major meeting to discuss the Middle East, Afghanistan, Sudan, North Africa or Eastern Europe would have been dominated by talk of democratic reform. In fact, democracy would have been the basic precondition for many of the proposals being discussed.

Today, you just don't hear it. When we deal with Sudan or Libya or China today, it is to make deals or to guarantee military support, not to demand elections in exchange for any of that. The more important goal is not democracy but stability. And, by paying large sums to sustain the rule of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, or by paying the regimes of Syria, Libya or even Sudan to help us, we are buying stability at the explicit price of democracy. After the huge effort and attention devoted to the 2005 and 2009 elections in Afghanistan, we virtually ignored this autumn's parliamentary vote: Afghan stability now trumps democracy.

The proponents of democratization, too, are disappearing. This week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sacked foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, a leading proponent of pro-democracy "liberal interventionism." Voters in Britain and the United States have tossed out democratic idealists on the right and left in favour of pragmatists.

It also appears that our governments are no longer giving financial and political support to democracy movements in other countries as much as we used to. Stephen Harper may make speeches in Ukraine about the need to return to full democracy, but we no longer finance or back pro-democracy opposition groups there.

On Thursday, I spoke with William Hague, the British Foreign Minister, shortly after he had held a bilateral summit in Washington with Hillary Clinton, his U.S. counterpart. Democracy, I mentioned, had only come up as an incidental matter, not as a principal goal in Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, the Middle East or most other regions discussed.

At first, he defended himself, noting (rightly) that they had discussed Burma and Zimbabwe, two countries where democratic reforms very much remain a precondition.

But Mr. Hague, a shrewd reader of international currents, knew what I was talking about, and he continued.

"Clearly, we are in a different situation from 10 years ago," he said. "We have had the war in Iraq, we are heavily engaged in Afghanistan. We are emphasizing conflict prevention to a greater degree. That's been a major part of our work on Sudan, on Yemen … we are shifting more of our attention in foreign policy to preventing conflicts. There has been that shift in the light of what's happened over the last decade."

I only understood the full meaning of those words later in the day, while attending a talk by Richard Youngs, head of the Madrid-based Foundation for International Relations and Exterior Dialogue.

He has examined the support by Western nations for democracy movements, and found them drifting off the agenda. And governments, he said, are "much more cautious about supporting [democracy]organizations that are not sanctioned by the incumbent regimes" in authoritarian countries. In other words, we no longer back the resistance.

He has also studied the fate of "democratic conditionality," the demand, in foreign policy, that if countries want to receive aid and assistance, or if they want to participate in military alliances or free-trade blocs, they must first show progress in making their institutions and governments more democratic.

This, too, has virtually disappeared.

On one hand, democratic reform was a victim of its disastrous failures - notably in Iraq, where the U.S.-led war was the most expensive experiment in democratization ever, and unquestionably the least satisfying. Democratization, once a goal that united left and right, became a neoconservative brand. This, Mr. Youngs said, has poisoned the well.

"During the Bush years, many governments understandably lost their enthusiasm for democratization," he explained. Both the rhetoric and the policy of democracy promotion became associated with U.S. excesses. Now, Mr. Youngs says, "there's a disappointment in that they have not returned to the agenda after Obama has taken office … It's slipped down the agenda."

We now talk about stability, or containment, or conflict prevention. Because the word was abused so violently by Mr. Bush, it may be a generation before democracy returns to that list.

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular