Cultivating resilience: When democracy support goes wrong


To cultivate democratic resilience it’s imperative to “restore basic democratic values—promotion of democracy, treating people decently, opposing corruption and abuse of human rights—to a prominent role in our foreign policy,” argues Indiana University’s Lee Hamilton. “Effective foreign policy requires a lot of components, but the moral dimension is key to making our leadership more attractive and more potent,” says the former National Endowment for Democracy (NED) board member.

Roman Waschuk spent the last decade of his career running fragile states stabilization programs and learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work when it comes to democracy support, he writes. Western actors are quick to tout their successes, but he shares the rather less publicized top five mistakes — usually made with the best of intentions – and positive lessons for aiding transitions:

1. Buying into the perfect at the expense of the good

2. Focusing on anti-corruption instead of strengthening the rule of law more generally 

3. Messaging: iconic beats bureaucratic

4. Investigative self-destruction

5. Too much caution when speed is required

Getting it right the next time

What are the lessons for dealing with a post-revolutionary or post-election situation in a country with lots of human capital, low levels of income and a threatening neighbor — say, Belarus or Moldova? Waschuk asks:

  • Prioritize aid for what is most important for national resilience and work with local stakeholders to adjust your own level of ambition, if not necessarily theirs.
  • Do not do unto others what you would not try on yourself. Your partner country is not a laboratory for ideal-world experimentation. Enemies of change who know their system far better than you do revel in the obstructionist power of complexity. Don’t add to it unnecessarily.
  • Never assume that deposed elites are permanently vanquished or that progress is inevitable. Overpromising and underdelivering (both on the part of national governments and international partners) feeds revanchism. If transitional austerity is unavoidable, allow for some timely reallocation of tangible benefits for the broad public to buffer the shock.
  • Give your technocratic stick figures the spark of life by infusing your governance concepts with relatable local context that people can take to heart.
  • Be wary of subsidizing the left hand to demolish what the right hand is building. Support for independent media should not be a license for inquisition or vendettas, especially in the absence of effective libel laws.

Over the past decade, we have been facing what democracy expert Larry Diamond (above) calls a “democratic recession” [and others call democratic fragility] in which authoritarian governments have flourished and the rule of law has been undermined—a situation that he worries might evolve into a full-scale depression on the scale of the 1930s, Stanford’s Francis Fukuyama writes for the Wall Street Journal.

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