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Democracy Promotion and the Theory of Diplomacy

April 24, 2011

After a few days in the countryside I’m catching up on what’s been happening.   I was reading Patricia Kushlis’s piece on US democracy promotion in the Middle East.  One of the things that I find interesting about this kind of activity is the tension created by providing democracy support to activists in a country with which you have good diplomatic relations.  In the Ron Nixon piece in the NYT that triggered Patricia’s reflections there is evidence of the tension between the US and the activists and the US and the host governments triggered by this activity.

While I was out running this morning I suddenly realized what this reminded me of:  the old Soviet doctrine of peaceful coexistence.  This used to drive other governments up the wall.  In the Soviet lexicon peaceful coexistence meant that they wanted peaceful and mutually beneficial relations with you (so far so good) but they still hoped that your capitalist regime would hurry up and collapse and if you thought that they were going to stop funnelling aid to the local communist party you had another thing coming (anyway you can’t change the direction of history)

The US (and to a lesser extent western) view on democracy promotion seems structurally similar from the point of view of the governments on the receiving end of this.  You can’t stop the historical movement towards democracy (it’s the technology as well), we’re just going to funnel government money through front organizations to people who share our agenda (and who probably want to overthrow you) but in the mean time can your goverment give us a hand with this foreign policy problem we’re working on.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have any problem with democracy promotion and it represents excellent value for money – my point is that it is important to recognize the potential political implications of this kind of activity and the tensions that follow from it.   While it may be important to present this activity as non-political in practice it is anything but.   This is particularly important to keep in mind given the rise of the ‘axis of sovereignty’ led by China that keep to a more Westphalian notion of sovereignty than the West has followed in recent years.  It maybe that in the future countries will have more alternatives to putting up with this form of aid conditionality.

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