Making Democratization Work: Overcoming the Challenges of Political Transitions. (Democracy)

By Karnatnycky, Adrian | Harvard International Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Making Democratization Work: Overcoming the Challenges of Political Transitions. (Democracy)


Karnatnycky, Adrian, Harvard International Review


Over the last 15 years, the world has seen the emergence of nearly 60 new democratically elected governments. While in 1987 there were 69 electoral democracies among the world's 167 independent states, today there are 121, an increase of 52 democracies from just 15 years ago. In a handful of cases, fragile electoral democracies have fallen and reverted to military (Pakistan) and authoritarian rule (Kyrgyz Republic and Zambia). In all, today there are 192 countries, 64 percent of which have democratically elected governments. At the same time, the Freedom House Survey Freedom in the World has shown that the number of "free" countries--states in which electoral democracy is combined with respect for fundamental rights in the context of the rule of law--has significantly expanded.

While electoral democracies acknowledge basic political rights and offer significant space for rival political movements, they are by no means all paragons of human rights compliance. Electoral democracy and the collapse of an old authoritarian order are necessary--though not sufficient--elements in the establishment of an open society firmly rooted in respect for human tights and the rule of law. Many of the world's 52 newest electoral democracies are weak and fragile, have a poorly evolved rule of law, and are plagued by endemic corruption and influential oligarchs. Some confront debilitating ethnic and sectarian strife or its legacies. In short, most new democracies need the engagement and support of established democracies.

Successes and Failures

The record of such engagements is mixed, however. There have been many efforts to encourage democratic reform, but also a significant number of missteps, miscalculations, and outright failures in the democracy-building effort. While the United States and other established democracies have a moral obligation and a strategic interest in supporting the world's new democracies, and although many aid and assistance initiatives supporting democratic openings have helped promote reform and stability, such engagement is rarely the decisive factor. In the end, apart from a handful of externally imposed, usually military interventions (i.e. those resulting from war or international action), the preponderance of recent democratic transitions has been driven by domestic forces. Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the capacity of aid and diplomacy to strengthen the hand of democratic reformers or the impact of targeted support focused on civic movements.

What, then, is the balance sheet of Western engagement on behalf of democratic transformation in recent years? What are the lessons of success and failure? Amid rising democratic ferment around the world, the United States and a number of other old, prosperous democracies have made assistance to democratic transitions and democratic openings an integral part of their diplomacy and aid policy. The momentum toward such an explicit goal began to be articulated during the US presidency of Ronald Reagan. In 1982, Reagan delivered a major address at Westminster, declaring that the United States would embark on an international campaign to promote the spread of democracy. Initially interpreted by some as a Cold War propaganda ploy, the campaign expanded US efforts beyond the Soviet bloc and constructively intervened to promote democratic change in such settings as the Philippines, South Korea, and Chile.

As established democracies encounter a world characterized by political ferment, they confront transitions that, in the end, can be divided into two major categories: those that occur in the context of violent conflict and those that come about peacefully. Change is driven primarily by either mass-based civic action or the actions of elites. Not surprisingly, the record of engagement by the established democracies is more auspicious in settings free of debilitating violent conflict. …

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