Europe’s liberal power ‘a two-way street’?


The West is losing credibility in furthering democracy around the world because of mounting dysfunctionalities in its own political systems, notes Carnegie analyst Richard Youngs. Now in question are two core assumptions of the democracy promotion domain—that well-functioning Western systems are able to provide lessons, models, and resources to help others perfect their democratic politics and that the direction of influence is one-way, from the West outward. Western democracy supporters today confront what might be called an internal-external challenge, he writes.

Most European diplomats and democracy promoters would accept that initiatives to deepen democracy externally must go hand in hand with efforts to improve democratic quality internally. But they remain vague on what this might mean in terms of specific policy adjustments:

European democracy organizations need to take the internal focus further, through formal programs and indicative allocations of funding. EU institutional initiatives need to consider similar steps. Ring-fenced components could be added to initiatives like the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, for example to expose rights-oriented groups in Europe to the experiences of similar groups that the program funds in other regions. The European Endowment for Democracy would be well placed to oversee EU-funded projects aimed at building bridges between pro-democracy activists inside Europe and those outside.

More broadly, the EU and its member states must search for ways to cultivate non-Europeans’ involvement in safeguarding European democracy. The internal-external link must be about European countries absorbing lessons and pressures from outside Europe. It is about the EU becoming a recipient of and not only a provider of international influence, notes Youngs, the author of The Puzzle of Non-Western Democracy (Carnegie, 2015).

Non-Western democracies have a wealth of experience that would be relevant to Europe’s current problems, he adds. Specific areas where non-European expertise could be useful include:

  • Economic Crises: Attempting to maintain democratic norms in the context of serious economic crisis and draconian structural adjustment is a normal, default state of affairs in developing countries; it is a predicament to which European Union countries now also have to become accustomed. Latin American countries have a rich experience in this area.
  • Democratic Diversity: Europe’s creeping illiberalism is to a large extent the result of popular concerns about immigration and religious-cultural heterogeneity. Other countries around the world have a much richer and more positive experience of dealing with such diversity without resorting to nativist illiberalism. Several African countries, as well as India and Indonesia, offer interesting experiences with managing diversity in a democratic fashion.
  • Community and Moral Values: Non-Western expertise can shed light on how to combine the development of liberal rights with community and moral values that might help mitigate the kind of alienation and politics of fear that now drive European illiberalism. Asian democracies provide examples of countries that have grappled with this challenge.


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