Engage civil society in party-building to consolidate democracy


Criticizing U.S. missteps in promoting democracy is certainly reasonable—particularly in light of the debacles in Iraq and Libya—but elevating these criticisms into high doctrine and principled critiques of democracy promotion more generally misses the point, argues Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2007 to 2009.

It is not the strategic rationale behind democracy promotion that has steered U.S. policy off course. Rather, U.S. setbacks have resulted from the failure of recent administrations to match their rhetoric and goals on democracy with the practical investments that are necessary to help local leaders build democratic institutions over the long term, he writes for the National Interest.

Our biggest shortcoming, in my judgment, is the failure to translate civil society efforts into party-building activities that ultimately allow liberals to compete effectively in elections. I learned the hard way as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq that illiberal actors are often best prepared to take advantage of elections. We are weakest in supporting the consolidation phase of a democratic transition, when new leaders must stand up to institutions to deliver security, services and the rule of law, notes Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

Even the darkest days of my ambassadorships in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, did not fundamentally diminish my support for promoting democracy abroad. While I am concerned about the global backsliding in democracy and human rights, pessimism about democracy’s future is ultimately belied by polls across the world that consistently register high support for democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Our political class may be losing confidence in our ability to promote democracy, but authoritarian regimes still fear our efforts enough to blame them for the so-called “color revolutions” that have ushered in democratic transitions around the world.

My experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq in some ways made me more optimistic about the U.S. role in promoting democracy. As an implementer on the ground, I realized that a small number of capabilities and reforms could have made the difference between major successes and defeats on the democracy front. I attribute the recent resurgence of authoritarianism, in large part, to the sorry but hardly inevitable shortcomings of new democracies in addressing practical governance challenges.

Going forward, I would prioritize a few changes in our democracy promotion efforts, he adds:

  • We should provide financial and operational support to liberal democratic parties in order to level the playing field with illiberal forces in elections. This means allowing ambassadors and intelligence officials to use discretion in backing liberal parties in sensitive elections, as was done in Europe after World War II;
  • We should cultivate democratic counter-elites in a more systematic way, by training individuals from developing countries in the work of promoting democracy and making institutions deliver after a democratic transition;
  • And we should establish an effort analogous to the Cold War–era Congress for Cultural Freedom, which created the infrastructure for publications and intellectual discourse aimed at advancing democratic values. Today’s iteration would emphasize lessons on how to establish the rule of law, foster inclusive economic growth, and reform educational institutions to encourage critical thinking, reason and innovation—all of which can contribute to the long game of promoting moderate political forces in China, Russia and the Muslim world.


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