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How can America really promote democracy abroad?

One lesson of the Arab Spring: We’re putting billions of dollars into efforts that may not help

Of all the authoritarian Arab states researchers studied, only one now meets the standards of electoral democracy.

Modern democracy tends to come with a strong evangelical spirit. If voting and personal liberty are good for us, the thinking goes, surely they’re worth spreading to the world as well.

The foreign policy driven by this belief is known as “democracy promotion,” and has long been an explicit goal of Western governments. At least since the 1950s, institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have aimed to promote democratic values in the economic and political life of developing countries.

The favored method is a top-down approach: Democracy-promotion groups funnel money to nascent political parties and help train people to run the institutions considered central to democracy, from elections commissions to associations for judges and lawyers. Western advisers push democratic ideas and try to strengthen local civic organizations. Then, when the opportunity for a new government arises, the wisdom goes, we have only to step back and watch citizens embrace it.


Tunisian voters lined up at a polling station in Menzeh, near Tunis.Amine Landoulsi/Associated Press/file 2011/Associated Press

It may sound naive to think you can midwife societal change or transplant political ideals, but this method has long been almost universally accepted among policy makers. Even those lukewarm in their support for democracy promotion itself have believed it can work this way.

Then came the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. America and other Western nations had been working for decades and investing hundreds of millions of dollars to support a vast network of pro-democracy organizations across the Arab world. Based on prevailing theories, once protests started to shake one authoritarian government after another, the popular momentum should have been unstoppable.

Instead, the results have been dismal. In nearly every case—arguably, the only exception is Tunisia—the countries that rose up against dictators ended up less democratic than they began. Now, armed with new case studies from the Arab uprisings, a group of contrarian political scientists is arguing for a radical reconsideration of the whole notion of how to spread democracy to other nations—or if it’s even possible at all.

“We should be much more humble about what the best possible outcomes are,” said Tarek Masoud, a political scientist at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who recently coauthored a study of the Arab transitions titled “Why the Modest Harvest?” The study, which took a systematic look at the results of the Arab Spring, concluded that the authoritarian regimes enjoyed a structural stability that no amount of Western-funded political idealism was likely to displace.


Masoud, once a believer in traditional democracy promotion, has become a vociferous new critic of its tactics and ambitions. Based on his research, he has come to believe that a more effective approach would be to focus on the underlying conditions that allow democracies to flourish—skipping the election coaching and party-building in favor of basics like education, health, and economic growth. If it means working with nondemocratic regimes to help get there, and giving up our vision of democracy sweeping out tyranny at the first opportunity, so be it. “Maybe in a place like Syria or Libya,” he said, “the best possible outcome is one in which the old regime is at the table.”

Masoud and other skeptics aren’t ideologues. They profess a deep personal preference for democratic rule, and sympathize with oppressed peoples who oppose tyranny. But, they say, our desire to see freedom spread has been clouding our judgment about what actually allows it to take root.

Although modern democracy promotion has ideological roots in the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union competing for influence in smaller countries around the world, by the 1980s it began to be accepted as a common-sense investment in human well-being. As an increasing number of nations climbed the economic ladder, and some replaced authoritarian regimes with democratic ones, most political scientists came to agree that bolstering civil society and good governance helped bring about both prosperity and democratic rule.

This dominant school of thought is called “voluntarism,” and it is fundamentally optimistic: It assumes that individual actions can change the course of nations, and that democracy can be nurtured by giving the right skills to promising leaders and activists. Duke political scientist Timur Kuran, in a highly influential 1991 paper on the Eastern European revolutions, put forth the notion of “cascades.” In a fear-based dictatorship everyone hides their opposition, he wrote, but if one or a few courageous individuals take a public stand, they might suddenly be joined by great waves of supporters emboldened to reveal their preferences.


In policy terms, the conventional wisdom on democracy promotion has translated into billions of cumulative foreign-aid dollars earmarked for programs that train everything from young journalists to labor organizers to members of parliament. The underlying assumption is that even when they don’t lead directly to democracy, these efforts are good for society, and from time to time they’ll yield a great leap forward in freedom.

While it started with national governments and intergovernmental organizations, democracy promotion has grown into an industry of its own. High profile groups funded by the US government, like the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, have became ubiquitous on the international scene. They help design elections, train political parties, and give advice to student groups and labor unions. A plethora of less-well-known organizations fund workshops and international travel for lawyers, human rights advocates, and community organizers.

Although George W. Bush talked about democracy more pointedly than Barack Obama, the amount of money invested in democracy promotion has steadily grown even under the current administration, according to Thomas Carothers, a democratization expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Today, Carothers estimates, about $10 billion a year is spent worldwide promoting democracy in countries from Iraq to Mongolia, from Honduras to Pakistan.


At the time that the Arab uprisings broke out in late 2010, Masoud says, he was firmly persuaded by the conventional wisdom about democratization and transitions. Buoyed by the brave actions of so many individual activists and politicians across the Arab world, he expected to see the dictatorships replaced by a wave of democratic, or at least more democratic, regimes. Even in the worst cases, most scholars and policy makers assumed, surviving authoritarian regimes would be held to new standards and forced to govern more transparently.

Of course, that is not what happened. Instead of falling like dominoes, most of the Arab regimes prevented or crushed popular uprisings. In cases like Egypt, where longstanding president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, the current military regime has turned out to be even more repressive.

Masoud and two fellow political scientists studied 14 Arab states under authoritarian rule and found that in the end only Tunisia experienced an unequivocal improvement on the democracy scale. Elsewhere, within a few years of the revolts, even countries that had appeared promising, like Egypt, Syria, and Libya, were headed in a negative direction, their hopeful democratic movements having crashed against an immovable structural obstacle.

What made the difference? Masoud and his fellow researchers found that the biggest determinant of whether authoritarian regimes survived had nothing to do with civil society, individual protest leaders, or even the workings of the political system. The calculus turned out to be much simpler. As long as regimes had sufficient money and loyal security forces, they seemed able to ward off any pressure to democratize, regardless of whether they were monarchies or republics, or whether they were endowed with oil wealth. Though Western countries had spent enormous money and effort to support the development of democratic institutions in these places, this factor seemed to make little difference.


So what does help democracies take root? Even amid the mass support for the voluntarism theory, there’s always been a contrarian school of thought. “Modernization theory” argues that for any democracy to thrive, economic development must come first—and that the most useful way to encourage struggling countries is to help them improve literacy, per-capita GDP, and other benchmarks economists use to measure human development levels. Once a country is wealthy enough, better institutions, governance, laws, and political systems can take root and thrive. An influential 1997 paper by NYU political scientist Adam Przeworski argued that wealth didn’t cause democracy—the prosperous but authoritarian nation of Singapore shows that clearly enough—but in wealthy states that achieved democracy, the new order tended to hold.

For Masoud and other critics, the Arab uprisings made this view suddenly far more persuasive. The failures there couldn’t be blamed on lack of desire or exposure to democratic ideas. Rather, they pointed toward structural factors that had nothing to do with civic groups or courageous individuals.

Once the dust had settled on the Arab uprisings, Masoud began a separate research project comparing conditions in the Arab world to other nations that successfully made a transition to democracy, measuring literacy, per capita GDP, and other indicators of modern development. The results were striking. Egypt, he found, had literacy levels comparable to England in 1850, long before universal suffrage there. And Egypt’s per capita GDP wasn’t even where Argentina’s was in 1970, when that country embarked on a final round of dictatorial rule before emerging as a democracy.

It was this lack of wealth and development, Masoud concluded, that is currently impeding democracy in the Arab world. No one knows what causes democracy to break out, but Masoud believes the evidence shows what’s necessary to sustain it: an advanced economy. Otherwise, strong authoritarian regimes will be able to rebound even after a brief bout of democracy, just as has happened in Egypt.

Masoud and his two coauthors—political scientists Andrew Reynolds at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Jason Brownlee at the University of Texas at Austin—have expanded their research into a book to be released this fall, which takes a deeper look at the structures that enable or prevent new, more democratic politics.

Though the three differ in their prescriptions for US policy, they all agree that the prevailing expectations for our abilities to seed change are unrealistic. “We need to recognize that there is a historical time to these processes that can take generations,” Brownlee said. “There’s an impulse to want to accelerate these processes, to think that because we’re in the 21st century things move more quickly.”

Reynolds has spent decades designing new electoral systems for nations in transition; currently he’s helping to set up a regional parliament in a new semi-autonomous zone of the Philippines. The Arab revolts have made him “more pessimistic” about democracy support, he said. Now, he thinks only limited assistance can work. Instead of the vague and sprawling complex of democracy promotion programs we currently fund, he suggests, we should invest in technical help in situations where local powers have already agreed to do something.

Masoud, the most skeptical of the three, sees the policy implications as quite stark. The United States should preserve small, values-based programs, he says, like promoting human rights and opposing torture, in the hope of encouraging small but tangible improvements even in authoritarian countries. But we should dispense entirely with the fiction that our policies can bring about democracy directly. Not only doesn’t it work, he says, but it gives a false expectation of US support to antiregime activists challenging despots in places like Syria or Ukraine.

Not everyone is rallying to their position. Eva Bellin, a political scientist across town at Brandeis, looked at the Arab Spring and came to exactly the opposite conclusion: that ideology and individual choice really did matter, at least in Egypt and Tunisia. Once a dedicated believer in the importance of modernization, she has effectively switched places with Masoud in the debate. “The events of the last three years in the Arab world have persuaded me of the crucial importance of individual choice,” Bellin said. “As my 17-year-old daughter tells me, I have embraced the old ‘great man in history’ approach.”

There’s also an argument that we simply can’t tell how well democracy-promotion efforts work, since they’re always happening in the context of other foreign policy operations as well—some of them working at cross-purposes, and at a much larger scale. In Egypt, for example, the United States spends a few millions on overt democracy-promotion efforts, supporting civil society groups that monitor the regime’s abuses of human rights, while simultaneously giving billions to support the same repressive regime as a political ally. In Iran, the United States aims to empower citizens to challenge the ayatollahs in street demonstrations and on Twitter, but at the same time impoverishes them through economic sanctions. In Bahrain, which depends on a US naval base for military protection, the United States stood aside while the government violently crushed its pro-democracy movement in 2011, apparently deciding the security relationship trumped its interest in nudging a nation toward democracy.

It may be, as Masoud suggests, that international democracy training programs amount to well-intentioned but ineffectual junkets. But there is another possible reading of this complicated picture as well. When those unexpected jumps toward democracy do happen—in Mongolia in 1990, Indonesia in 1998, Tunisia in 2011, Burma’s halting moves toward democracy today—it’s surely because of a web of factors.

It may be that we need to put more money into basic development for authoritarian countries—education, health, and so on—and put less faith in our ability to promote democracy directly. But it may be premature to cut off democracy promotion efforts as sharply as their harshest critics suggest. In the mysterious and complex picture of what leads countries toward democracy, it seems that we’re still figuring out which tools actually work. Until we do, it may not pay to get rid of the one that probably does the least harm.

Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at