fb-pixel Skip to main content

Are the new democracies pro-democracy?

The United States is learning it can’t count on emerging powers like India and Brazil to promote freedom in their neighborhoods.

Javier Zarracina/Globe Staff

India today stands as the world’s largest democratic state, a nation of over a billion people that stitches together countless ethnic groups, castes, and languages. Indian officials long have boasted of their nation’s deep and founding commitment to democracy, a public emphasis that has only grown stronger as China and India increasingly become global competitors.

You might expect, then, that India would have been an important force behind the new openness in its neighbor Myanmar, with which India shares an 800-mile border, and which until very recently was one of the most closed and oppressive states in the world.

You'd be wrong. Over the past decade, while Myanmar, formerly called Burma, was under authoritarian leadership, India became one of its largest trading partners and economic supporters, with a "Look East" policy that even brought former Burmese Senior General Than Shwe on a state visit in the summer of 2010. India ignored international resolutions condemning the Burmese regime's human rights abuses and sold arms to its government. And India has taken the same approach to many other authoritarian nations, maintaining friendly, even supportive relations with Sri Lanka during its violent suppression of Tamil rebels, developing close ties with Iran, and backing a series of undemocratic regimes in Nepal.

What holds true for India appears to be emerging as a far broader trend around the world—one that worries pro-democracy activists, and poses a serious problem for the
United States and the liberal West. By the late 2000s and early 2010s, many rights activists, world leaders, and American officials—recognizing that the United States' own power to persuade was declining—had begun to place their hopes in big emerging democracies like India, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa. As these grew, they were expected to—and often promised to—become regional and global champions of human rights and democracy.


Today, however, such hopes are looking naive. The big emerging democracies have not only failed to step up as global advocates of democratization but have, in many cases, moved in the other direction, propping up some of the world's most authoritarian governments—helping preserve the same kind of repressive regimes they themselves often had escaped, reinforcing divides, and often siding with autocrats against Western democracies.


"Some of the most prominent rising powers are ringleaders of developing-country blocs...[but] impede multilateral cooperation by reinforcing obsolete ideological divisions between the North and the South," says Stewart Patrick, an expert on international organizations and rising powers at the Council on Foreign Relations.

For anyone concerned about promoting more open societies around the world, these nations' hesitancy suggests cause for pessimism: It's becoming clear that there is no inherent momentum in the march toward democracy, and that the spread of political openness will require more of the West. For most people in the countries themselves, their governments' reluctance is likely to have costs, just as the West's support for friendly Cold War dictators did: Close relationships with authoritarian states can infect democracies from within, and create economic and political instability that can rebound for a generation.


Throughout the Cold War , the United States and its NATO allies served as figureheads for democracy in the rest of the world. But that role came at a price—not only a financial one, but also the perception that some open democratic societies were simply American puppets. Repressive regimes from Libya to North Korea claimed legitimacy in part from their resistance to American power.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, observers noted an encouraging trend: The Western powers weren't the world's only high-flying democracies. New powers like India were emerging with democratic governments and regional clout, and starting in the later part of the Clinton administration, the United States and other Western nations began aggressively trying to enlist them in global democracy promotion. The Clinton administration helped establish the Community of Democracies, a global meeting of nations held for the first time in Poland in 2000, which eventually expanded to create a democracies' caucus at the United Nations. Other regional pro-democracy groups sprang up around the world, often with US help and support. At one such gathering, the World Movement for Democracy, held in Jakarta in the spring of 2010, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said: "I am convinced that ultimately the 21st century instinct is the democratic instinct....No political system can ignore this."


With countries like Indonesia on board, the push for democracy no longer looked like a stealth American plan for regime change around the world. And the emerging powers often wielded far more influence in their own regions than the United States or other Western democracies did. India is by far the dominant player in South Asian politics; South Africa, another democracy, is the biggest economy in Africa. And in Latin America, while the United States still looms large for many leaders, it is Brazil's increasingly powerful economy, and left-leaning government, who now have greater immediate influence.

But 15 years into the effort to make democracy promotion a global goal shared by these and other emerging powers, the results are becoming clearer, and they aren't encouraging. By studying the voting patterns of the major emerging democracies at the United Nations, Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution recently showed that most of these new giants adhere to strict principles of nonintervention and sovereignty—leaving their neighbors alone, or even building closer ties to them, despite nondemocratic, even violently repressive, regimes.


As an example, many human rights activists had enormously high hopes for South Africa's ruling African National Congress after the end of apartheid. Under Nelson Mandela, the ANC passed one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, and vowed to become a force for human rights across the continent. Yet in recent years the South African government has used its influence very differently. At the UN and at African organizations, it has protected Robert Mugabe's brutal regime in Zimbabwe, which is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of political opponents as well as economic devastation. South Africa also opposed the multinational effort to end the brutal regime of Libya's Moammar Khadafy, and ignored international efforts to bring Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir to justice for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

Brazil, too, has taken a "see no evil" approach. While former Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, himself a longtime union activist who had fought years of military regimes in Brazil, spoke out against some egregious human rights abuses elsewhere in the world, and offered asylum to an Iranian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery, his government was openly supportive of Venezuela's autocratic Hugo Chavez. On one occasion, Lula called Chavez—who jailed independent judges, crushed most of the press, and oversaw constitutional changes designed to tilt any election to him and his allies—"the best president of Venezuela in the last 100 years." Questioned by Newsweek about why Venezuela was allowed to participate in a South American trade bloc that is supposed to be open only to full democracies that respect human rights, Lula responded, "Give me one example of how Venezuela is not democratic."


Thailand, another emerging economy, also for years propped up the junta that ruled Myanmar with trade and economic incentives. And Turkey for years was reluctant to take a strong line toward authoritarian governments in neighboring nations like Iraq and Syria, for fear of losing its trade with them.


In light of local politics and economic ambitions, these individual policies make some sense: Many emerging powers are competing for influence and looking to make money, just as the United States does. India wants a larger chunk of Myanmar's growing oil and gas industry, and doesn't want China dominating relations with neighbors like Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Similarly, many Brazilian leaders believe that the country needs to take a soft line with Chavez in order to maintain strong economic ties and a healthy supply of Venezuelan oil.

But their hesitancy about more actively promoting democracy has deeper philosophical roots as well. Many of the emerging democratic powers, like India, Brazil, and Indonesia, had been leading members of the nonaligned, anti-imperialism movement during the Cold War, and felt uncomfortable joining any international coalition that smacked of American interventionism. And "sovereignty above all"—the right of nations to be left alone—is a powerful argument for countries like India or Turkey that have their own territorial issues to worry about.

Overall, it's clear that leaders in many emerging powers don't see their interests clearly coinciding with those of established democracies. Although it may feel justified to their leaders, these nations' abdication of interest in international human rights or democracy is already causing harm. The autocracies over the border have been sources of serious instability: Until recently, as Myanmar began to open up politically, refugees of the Burmese regime have swarmed India and Thailand. Myanmar is also the second-largest heroin producer in the world, and the source of some of the most drug-resistant strains of HIV/AIDS. Similarly, Zimbabwe's repression and economic problems have led hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans to flee, straining the entire region.

Too much friendliness with autocracies can also corrupt a democracy from within. The Thai military and police, for example, allegedly long have used their connections in Myanmar to exploit natural resources and profit from the cross-border drug trade. Brazilian construction companies with a large presence in Venezuela court Chavez's government with an enthusiasm that skirts outright bribery. Such interests exist in Western democracies, too, but longer-established democracies tend to have stronger human rights groups and independent media as a counterweight. In younger or weaker democracies, criticism of government policies—even anti-democratic ones—can be an excuse for a crackdown.

One piece of good news is that the emerging powers' "see-no-evil" strategy is not inevitable. A few powerful developing nations have taken a different tack. One example is Poland, a formerly Communist country that has used its influence to support reformers in other Central and Eastern European nations like Belarus—to the relief of many Belorussian activists. As Western nations, including the United States, decline in global influence—and face their own economic challenges at home—creating more Polands will be critical to ensuring that democracy doesn't stagnate.

There is a limit to how much the United States and other Western nations can do without being seen as meddling, but one opportunity exists in the form of supporting multilateral pro-democracy organizations such as the Bali Democracy Forum, which tend to be underfunded.

And there is public relations value in showcasing the gains to be made from championing democracy. Turkey, for example—which has begun to press for rights and democracy in some neighboring nations, despite its own internal suppression of journalists who disagree with Ankara's policies—is now reaping benefits as nations in the Arab-Muslim world throw off their tyrants. In the quest for a functional form of secular and liberal rule, the "Turkey model"—its successful evolution from a shaky, army-dominated nation to a solid and vibrant democracy—frequently tops the list, giving Turkey fresh influence in the Muslim world, especially in Egypt. The prospect of that kind of power suggests that pushing for democracy isn't just a matter of well-meaning interventionism: it can make strategic sense as well.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, "Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government" (Yale University Press).