To advance democracy overseas, the United States needs a strategy with clear goals, a definition of success that is specific to context, and measurable metrics to gauge progress. Its effectiveness will depend on harnessing the lessons from past successes and failures, including the recent failure in Afghanistan. Absent a broader strategy, the Biden administration’s projected Summit for Democracy will generate buzz but will not result in more countries democratizing, argue analysts Seth D. Kaplan and Patrick W. Quirk:
Today’s transitions are different than in the past. Whereas transitions in prior “waves” of democracy occurred in countries with relatively favorable conditions (e.g., Poland), the countries trying to democratize today (e.g., Afghanistan) often have more challenges to overcome: weaker institutions, greater social divisions, poorer economic fundamentals, less supportive neighbors, and domineering militaries. These difficulties are only made more complicated by the fact that authoritarians now use more effective techniques to squash dissent.
We recommend using a framework that groups countries into one of three zones along a continuum depending on how sturdy their democratic foundation is, they write for the National Interest:
- Countries that have more cohesion, more robust institutions, better security, stronger economic fundamentals, and a better neighborhood (zone 1) are likely to have excellent prospects for democratization; elections can come quickly, with less concern over electoral design and state capacity.
- In countries with middling foundations (zone 2), reformers should be more incremental and opportunistic.
- Countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, and Burma have a frail foundation (zone 3), with highly fragmented political cultures, weakly institutionalized state structures, fragile neighbors, poor economic fundamentals, and potentially high levels of negative foreign intervention. In these countries, activists should be cautious, investing in the foundation and seeking only gradual change.
Plans should be designed to be more politically astute and adaptable to local conditions by ensuring that aid is designed so that there is ample scope to monitor, evaluate, learn, adapt, and reformulate, Kaplan and Quirk add. Funding mechanisms should be designed to respond rapidly to opportunities, with programming (not goals) altered as needs evolve. RTWT