Autocracies Failed and Unfailed: strategies for ‘good enough governance’


Successful democratization attempts depend mostly on the interests of local elites, Stanford University’s Stephen D. Krasner argues in Autocracies Failed and Unfailed: Limited Strategies for State Building, the third of the Atlantic Council Strategy Papers series. To address this “fundamental challenge,” Krasner outlines the three elements of “good enough governance” that contribute to a relatively successful democratization effort: 1) security; 2) better service provision; and 3) economic growth.

The fundamental challenge to promoting better governance in closed autocracies is that opportunities to improve the political climate are in large part dependent on the preferences of national elites, writes James B. Cunningham, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, the Khalilzad Chair on Afghanistan and Senior Fellow Atlantic Council. Focused on maintaining and building their own wealth and power, these elites are most often dedicated to preserving the status quo and undermining or sabotaging any attempts to construct the inclusive institutions necessary for the growth of democracy, he contends in a foreword to the paper. Without the endorsement of these elites, external aid programs are fated to struggle and risk failure.

The fundamental challenge for modern wealthy democracies committed to promoting better governance is that their opportunities are hostage to the preferences of national elites in closed-access polities, where political power is exercised in arbitrary ways, and where most of the population lacks access to services, including the rule of law, writes Krasner (right):

The nature of an elite is to be self-interested, and to that end, elites work to maintain political control, offering them the most assured path to wealth and power. They will not support programs for free and fair elections, the general elimination of corruption, or the creation of Weberian legal-rational bureaucracies that treat all citizens equally according to law, as any of these could threaten their access to power and wealth. Despite the potential for corruption, the support or endorsement of local political elites is a necessary condition for success. Without such support, external actors will fail in their efforts to improve local governance. They must therefore focus on modest objectives that include the preferences of the national elites.

Three Kinds of Polities

There are three kinds of polities in the contemporary world, he continues:

  • The first is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) world, which is composed of wealthy consolidated democracies. The high-income, consolidated-democracy members of the OECD have effective governance. In the OECD world, government authorities are able to exercise authority—albeit, not always perfectly—over a dizzying range of activities including policing, the penal system, contract enforcement, property-rights protection, social-welfare payments, education, health, infrastructure, healthcare, macroeconomic management, disaster relief, and anticompetitive activities.1 The arbitrary exercise of power is checked by many different mechanisms, including elections and courts, as well as professional organizations, NGOs, civil activists, and independent media.
  • In “closed access,” or “exclusive,” polities, citizens do not have the right to form organizations. Only the elite have access to the legal system, so political leaders and other powerful figures are not constrained by the rule of law. Citizens’ economic well-being is primarily determined by their political connections. State policies create opportunities for corruption that provide direct benefits to political leaders or their supporters. Corruption may be tamed, but it cannot be eliminated; leaders could not stay in power without illegal resources. Elections are manipulated. Civil-society organizations are constrained. There is no free and independent press. Businesses are beholden to the state. At best, political parties engage in clientilistic practices that benefit only selective groups. At worst, individual corruption is pervasive, and corrupt funds end up in private bank accounts in Dubai, the Cayman Islands, or some other tax haven. There is no creative destruction. Economic innovation is limited, because technological advances can upend the hierarchy of political power. When political elites lose power in closed-access orders, there are no comfortable retirement programs or cushy, well-paying lobbying opportunities. Loss of office can mean political exile, or even death. The difference in status, money, and security between being in office and out of office is huge. Political elites do not go quietly into the night.
  • The third kind of polity lies between open-access and closed-access orders. It is easy enough to theoretically describe such polities, but difficult to identify them empirically. In mixed-access orders, some members of the political or economic elite have an interest in open-access orders with effective rule of law available to all citizens; others do not. Political leaders in mixed-access polities might have life experiences that allow them to operate effectively in both closed-access and open-access orders. Mixed-access polities have adopted the same ambitious template for the scope of government activities that exists in the advanced, industrialized democracies. In mixed-access polities, more public goods will be provided than is the case in closed-access orders. There are more opportunities for external actors to improve governance because, for whatever reason, there are more individuals among the elite interested in the same objective. However, there is no guarantee that a mixed-access order will make the jump to the OECD world. Moreover, identifying mixed orders—and the individual members of the elite within them who could effectively support better governance and reforms that might eventually lead to consolidated democracy—is a daunting task, one that requires more intimate knowledge of polities than

Consequently, democracy advocates should give more consideration to the three elements of “good enough governance” – a term coined by Harvard University’s Merilee Grindle – Krasner contends:

  • Security– The first goal of good enough governance must be to provide some level of security. Without a minimum level of security, economic growth and the provision of many services will be impossible. It is easier to move from a closed-access polity with no security to one with some security than it is to move to an open-access order that provides almost all of its citizens with security, access to the rule of law, the right to form organizations, and the protection of property rights. Better security now is not a guarantee of stability in the long run, especially if a regime cannot secure good enough inclusion, but there may be no better short- or medium-term options. Better security is the necessary condition for the better provision of some services and for economic growth. Higher levels of economic growth make the transition to intermediate, or even full, democracies more likely, but this is a long and unpredictable process. Even with security, some countries may make the jump to open-access orders, with high wealth and consolidated democracy. …
  • Better Service Provision – Even in rent-seeking, closed-access polities, external actors can contribute to the improvement of some services. The key condition for success is that such activities do not compromise the ability of political elites to secure resources, especially resources that they need to pay off those that keep them in power.
  • Economic Growth and Job Creation – Even where political elites use rent-seeking to pay off key supporters and repress independent organizations, external actors might be able to support some policies that would be consistent with economic growth, or at least with job creation. The overall record of foreign assistance is problematic. Some studies have found no relationship between foreign assistance and growth. Others found a negative relationship, and others a small positive one. There are arguments that suggest that aid impedes growth, because it breaks the relationship between rulers and citizens. If rulers get their resources from foreign actors, they will respond to the preferences of donors rather than their own citizens. Often, external donors will be most interested in the external policy compliance of recipient countries’ leaders. Even when donors are interested in promoting economic growth, they may support initiatives that are suboptimal, or even counterproductive, because they lack intimate knowledge of the local environment. Other analysts, following the logic of modernization theory, have argued that aid can promote growth by providing capital or technology.

In general, initiatives to encourage economic growth would be the most promising initiatives that could be taken by external actors trying to encourage movement toward a world of consolidated, democratic states. Greater prosperity does not guarantee consolidated democracy, but it does make it more likely, Krasner concludes:

Growth requires some reasonable level of public order. This level of order would initially have to be provided by rule by law—not rule of law— and by security forces beholden to self-serving political elites. In polities where there is some tolerable degree of security, advanced democracies might consider unilaterally opening their markets, especially to manufactured goods produced by low-cost labor. They should support NGOs that might circumvent state bureaucracies. They should encourage bilateral investment treaties that include third-party enforcement of contracts. Ideally, OECD countries should robustly enforce their own foreign-corrupt-practices acts, although this might be counterproductive in polities where China offers substantial aid. In trying to improve conditions in autocratic regimes, whether failed or not, it will be necessary to put aside aspirations for democracy, for rule of law, and for efficient and rational bureaucracies. External actors must focus on more modest objectives where there is some complementarity between their preferences and those of national elites.


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