The Limits of Liberal-Democracy Promotion

By Hobson, Christopher | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, October-December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Liberal-Democracy Promotion


Hobson, Christopher, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


One of the few unambiguously positive outcomes of the George W. Bush years is a greater interest in the practice of democracy promotion. However, the expansion of scholarship in this area has not been matched by an equal expansion in its scope. There continues to be an overwhelming tendency to focus exclusively on empirical case studies and policy prescriptions, usually informed by a set of unstated liberal assumptions. Nothing is necessarily wrong with this per se. The problem stems from the lack of attention directed toward the larger theoretical and conceptual frameworks that inform and shape these practices. Responding to this state of affairs, this article examines the way certain theoretical tendencies and commitments have helped give rise to many problematic aspects of liberal democracy promotion. It is necessary to challenge the restrictive framework that currently dominates. It is argued that to do so entails rethinking, extending, and pluralizing the way democracy itself is conceived. Keywords: democracy, liberalism, democracy promotion, democratization.

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A commonly observed feature of the post--Cold War world has been the ideational dominance of liberal democracy. Indeed, a characteristic aspect of the so-called "velvet revolutions" that marked the beginning of this period in 1989 was their distinctly anti-utopian nature. (1) No new political economic models were floated, as capitalist liberal democracy was widely accepted as the sole route to "normality." For some these events reinforced a growing belief that democracy may truly be considered a "universal value," (2) for others democracy had achieved its ascendant position almost by default, reflective more of the failure of alternatives. (3) Underpinning liberal democracy's ideational strength has been a geopolitical environment favoring a core group of industrially advanced, established liberal democracies, with the United States as the self-appointed vanguard of this global democratic movement. One consequence of this constellation of forces has been the rise of a much more expansive and assertive liberal-democracy promotion agenda, which has been institutionalized and embedded in the foreign policies of the United States and the European Union, as well as many other states and international organizations. In this regard, the policies of the recent Bush administration should not be mistaken as an aberration from past practice, as the "freedom agenda" was essentially an extension (albeit a considerable one) of pre-existing trends.

Following the failure and discrediting of the "Bush Doctrine," democracy promotion is now more contested than it was during the liberal Zeitgeist of the early 1990s. If it appears that McFaul was too quick to suggest that an international norm supporting democracy promotion had emerged, (4) it would be equally mistaken to overstate the extent and potential impact of the backlash currently under way. In the case of the most prominent actor, the United States, a longstanding foreign policy tradition of fostering democracy abroad combines with an institutionalized--and growing--democracy-promotion "bureaucracy," (5) which suggests it is likely these practices will continue. More broadly, democracy has become an important form of legitimization for states. This is unlikely to change anytime soon, despite the growing strength of China and Russia, powers that threaten to unsettle the putative liberal democratic consensus. Indeed, one must be careful not to exaggerate the changes brought about by recent events, as there are strong continuities between the liberal Zeitgeist following the fall of the Berlin wall and the contemporary international environment. Crucially, democracy promotion remains an essentially liberal project, and even if weakened, liberalism remains hegemonic.

Despite the rapid growth in democracy-promotion practices over the last three decades, scholarship has lagged noticeably behind. …

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