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Rethinking democracy promotion


Despite the fact that democracy promotion is a major part of liberal foreign policies, the discipline of International Relations has not paid much systematic attention to it. Conversely, the study of democracy promotion is dominated by comparative politics and pays hardly any attention to the international system. This mutual neglect signifies a core weakness in the theory and practice of democracy promotion: its failure to comprehend the development of liberal democracy as an international process. This article argues that a thorough engagement with John Locke explains the failures of democracy promotion policies and provides a more comprehensive understanding of the development of liberal democracy.

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1 Cox, Michael, Ikenberry, G. John, and Inoguchi, Takashi, ‘Introduction’, in Cox, Michael, Ikenberry, G. John and Inoguchi, Takashi (eds), American Democracy Promotion. Impulses, Strategies, and Impacts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 10.

2 Carothers, Thomas, Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004), p. 2.

3 Michael, McFaul, ‘Democracy Promotion as a World Value’, The Washington Quarterly, 28:1 (2005), p. 156.

4 Finkel, Stephen E., Perez-Linan, Anibal, Seligson, Mitchell A., and Azpuru, Dinorah, Effects of US Foreign Assistance on Democracy Building: Results of a Cross-National Quantitative Study (Vanderbilt University, 2006), p. 86; Carothers, Critical Mission, p. 5. Diamond, Larry, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), p. 23.

5 Though modernisation theories and policies are sometimes excluded from the field of democracy promotion, I include them for two reasons: first, because the field of democracy promotion has historically developed out of modernisation theories (the theoretical basis for modernisation policies) with strong continuities between the two (see Cammack, Paul, Capitalism and Democracy in the Third World: The Doctrine for Political Development (London: Leicester University Press, 1997)); secondly, excluding modernisation policies on the grounds that they focus on economic development would logically lead to an exclusion of the entire ‘economic’ strand of democracy promotion theories and policies.

6 Rose, Gideon, ‘Democracy Promotion and American Foreign Policy: A Review Essay’, International Security, 25:3 (2000/1), p. 191; Jahn, Beate, ‘The Tragedy of Liberal Diplomacy: Democratization, Intervention, Statebuilding I’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 1:1 (2007a), pp. 94102.

7 Latham, Michael E., Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and ‘Nation Building’ in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Packenham, Robert A., Liberal America and the Third World: Political Development Ideas in Foreign Aid and Social Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).

8 Wehler, Hans-Ulrich, Modernisierungstheorie und Geschichte (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975); Roxborough, Ian, ‘Modernization Theory Revisited’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 30:4 (1988), pp. 753–61; Cammack, Capitalism and Democracy; Tilly, Charles, ‘Reflections on the History of European State-making’, in Tilly, Charles (ed.), The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975a), pp. 383; Tilly, Charles, ‘Western State-making and Theories of Political Transformation’, in Tilly, Charles (ed.), The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975b), pp. 601–38.

9 Dahl, Robert A., Polyarchy. Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), pp. 209–10.

10 Cox et al., American Democracy Promotion; Jonas Wolff and Iris Wurm, ‘Towards a Theory of External Democracy Promotion? Approximations from the Perspectives of International Relations Theories’, unpublished manuscript, presented at the ISA conference in New Orleans (2010); Cowles, Maria Green, Caporaso, James and Risse, Thomas (eds), Transforming Europe: Europeanization and Domestic Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); Magen, Amichai, Risse, Thomas, McFaul, Michael A. (eds), Promoting Democracy and the Rule of Law. American and European Strategies (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009). For the role of democracy promotion in US foreign policy, see Cavell, Colin S., Exporting ‘Made-in-America’ Democracy, The National Endowment for Democracy and US Foreign Policy (Lanham: University Press of America, 2002); Smith, Tony, A Pact With the Devil: Washington's Bid for World Supremacy and the Betrayal of the American Promise (New York: Routledge, 2007); Smith, Tony, America's Mission. The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Cox et al., American Democracy Promotion; Carothers, Thomas, Aiding Democracy Abroad. The Learning Curve (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999); Carothers, Thomas, In the Name of Democracy: US Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan Years (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Donnelly, Jack, ‘Democracy and US Foreign Policy: Concepts and Complexities’, in Forsythe, David P. (ed.), The United States and Human Rights: Looking Inwards and Outwards (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 2000), pp. 199226; Robinson, William I., Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, United States Intervention and Hegemony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Robinson, William I., A Faustian Bargain: US Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992); and its comparison with other states Magen, Promoting Democracy; Schraeder, Peter J., Exporting Democracy: Rhetoric vs. Reality (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2002); Youngs, Richard, The European Union and the Promotion of Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). The impact of democracy promotion is discussed in Finkel et al., Effects; Scott, James M., and Steele, Carie A., ‘Assisting Democrats or Resisting Dictators? The Nature and Impact of Democracy Support by the United States National Endowment for Democracy, 1990–99’, Democratization, 12:4 (2005), pp. 439–60; Knack, Stephen, ‘Does Foreign Aid Promote Democracy?’ International Studies Quarterly, 48:1 (2004), pp. 251–66. A discussion of its ideological basis and normative goals can be found in Smith, A Pact With the Devil; McFaul, Democracy Promotion; Guilhot, Nicolas, The Democracy Makers. Human Rights and International Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). Exceptions to this general trend are Peceny, Mark, Democracy at the Point of Bayonets (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999); Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy; Jahn, ‘Tragedy’ I and II.

11 Rose, ‘Democracy Promotion’, p. 209.

12 Huntington, Samuel P., ‘Democracy's Third Wave’, Journal of Democracy, 2:2 (1991), pp. 1234.

13 Rose, ‘Democracy Promotion’, pp. 192–3.

14 Carothers, Critical Mission, p. 5; Rose, ‘Democracy Promotion’, p. 202.

15 Diamond, Larry, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), p. 57; Carothers, Aiding Democracy, p. 341.

16 Rose, ‘Democracy Promotion’, p. 201.

17 Ibid., p. 203.

18 Carothers, Critical Mission, p. 2.

19 Plattner, Marc F., Democracy Without Borders? Global Challenges to Liberal Democracy (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), p. 48; Sartori, Giovanni, ‘How Far Can Free Government Travel?’ Journal of Democracy, 6:3 (1995), pp. 101–11.

20 Plattner, Democracy, pp. 10–1; Georg Sørensen, ‘The Impasse of Third World Democratization: Africa Revisited’, in Cox et al., American Democracy Promotion, p. 290; Barry Gills, ‘American Power, Neo-Liberal Economic Globalization and “Low Intensity Democracy”: An Unstable Trinity’, in Cox et al., American Democracy Promotion, pp. 326–44.

21 Zakaria, Fareed, ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracy’, Foreign Affairs, 76 (1997), pp. 2243.

22 Schmitter, Philippe, ‘Transitology: The Science or the Art of Democratization?’, in Tulchin, Joseph S. (ed), The Consolidation of Democracy in Latin America (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1995), p. 15.

23 Jahn, ‘Tragedy’.

24 Diamond, Larry, ‘Is the Third Wave Over?’, Journal of Democracy, 7:3 (1996), p. 35; Paris, Roland, ‘Peacebuilding and the Limits of Liberal Internationalism’, International Security, 22:2 (1997), p. 57; Jahn, ‘Tragedy’ II.

25 Whitehead, Laurence, ‘Losing “the Force”? The “Dark Side” of Democratization After Iraq’, Democratization, 16:2 (2009), pp. 217–19.

26 Sartori, ‘Free Government’, p. 104.

27 Plattner, Democracy, p. 67.

28 Ibid., p. 66.

29 Ibid., p. 62.

30 Sartori, ‘Free Government’, pp. 101–2.

31 Vanberg, Viktor J., ‘On the Complementarity of Liberalism and Democracy – A Reading of F.A. Hayek and J. M. Buchanan’, Journal of Institutional Economics, 4:2 (2008), p. 143.

32 Ibid., pp. 146–7.

33 Plattner, Democracy, p. 60.

34 Sartori, ‘Free Government’.

35 Bova, Russell, ‘Democracy and Liberty: The Cultural Connection’, Journal of Democracy, 8:1 (1997), p. 116; Fukuyama, Francis, ‘Capitalism and Democracy: The Missing Link’, Journal of Democracy, 3:3 (1992a), p. 108.

36 Fukuyama, ‘Capitalism and Democracy’, p. 108.

37 Sartori, ‘Free Government’, p. 105.

38 Ibid., p. 106; Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man (London: Penguin, 1992b).

39 Bova, ‘Democracy and Liberty’, p. 116; Fukuyama, ‘Capitalism and Democracy’, p. 108.

40 Plattner, Democracy, p. 60.

41 Carothers, Critical Mission, p. 5; Plattner, Democracy, p. 53.

42 Carothers, Critical Mission, p. 5.

43 Ibid.; Berman, Sheri, ‘Re-Integrating the Study of Civil Society and the State’, in Barany, Zoltan and Moser, Robert G. (eds), Is Democracy Exportable? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 3756; De Zeeuw, Jeroen and Kumar, Krishna (eds), Promoting Democracy in Postconflict Societies (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2006).

44 Carothers, Thomas, ‘The End of the Transition Paradigm’, Journal of Democracy, 13:1 (2002), p. 18.

45 Plattner, Democracy, p. 67.

46 Ibid., pp. 64–5.

47 Cited in Przeworski, Adam, ‘The Neoliberal Fallacy’, Journal of Democracy, 3:3 (1992), p. 53; Plattner, Democracy, p. 65.

48 Plattner, Democracy, p. 68; Huntington, Samuel P., ‘Democracy's Third Wave’, Journal of Democracy, 2:2 (1991), p. 33.

49 This constitutive relationship as well as the potential incompatibility of liberalism and democracy underpins contemporary debates concerning the benefits of authoritarian regimes in pushing through initially painful economic reforms necessary to trigger economic development (see Zakaria, ‘Illiberal Democracy’; Geddes, Barbara, ‘Challenging the Conventional Wisdom’, Journal of Democracy, 5:4 (1994), pp. 104–18) as well as debates over shock-therapy in the context of communist transitions (Przeworski, ‘The Neoliberal Fallacy’, p. 56).

50 Huntington, Democracy's Third Wave, p. 30; Przeworski, Adam, Alvarez, Michael E., Cheibub, Jose Antonio, and Limongi, Fernando, Democracy and Development. Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950–1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 273.

51 Huntington, ‘Democracy's Third Wave’, p. 31.

52 Przeworski et al., Democracy and Development, p. 277.

53 Berger, Peter L., ‘The Uncertain Triumph of Democratic Capitalism’, Journal of Democracy, 3:3 (1992), p. 11; Schmitter, Philippe, ‘Dangers and Dilemmas of Democracy’, Journal of Democracy, 5:2 (1994), p. 66; Bhagwati, Jagdish, ‘Democracy and Development’, Journal of Democracy, 3:3 (1992), p. 40; Diamond, Larry, ‘Three Paradoxes of Democracy’, Journal of Democracy, 1:3 (1990), pp. 50, 59.

54 Huntington, Samuel P., ‘Democracy for the Long Haul’, Journal of Democracy, 7:2 (1996), p. 4.

55 Diamond, ‘Third Wave’, p. 33.

56 Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A., Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

57 Boix, Carles and Stokes, Susan Carol, ‘Endogenous Democratization’, World Politics, 55:4 (2003), pp. 517–49.

58 Inglehart, Ronald and Welzel, Christian, Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, ‘How Development Leads to Democracy’, Foreign Affairs (March/April 2009).

59 Przeworski, ‘The Neoliberal Fallacy’, p. 55; Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins, pp. 347–8.

60 Przeworski, ‘The Neoliberal Fallacy’, p. 55.

61 Ibid.

62 Gray, John, Liberalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 11.

63 Plattner, Democracy; Sartori, ‘Free Government’, pp. 101–2; Ake, Claude, ‘Devaluing Democracy’, Journal of Democracy, 3:3 (1992), pp. 33–4.

64 Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, Peter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 269.

65 Ibid., p. 271.

66 Ibid., pp. 287–8.

67 Ibid., p. 289.

68 Ibid., pp. 289, 294.

69 Inayatullah, Naeem and Blaney, David L., International Relations and the Problem of Difference (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 3543; Jahn, Beate, The Cultural Construction of International Relations: The Invention of the State of Nature (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000).

70 Locke, Two Treatises, p. 336.

71 Ibid., p. 351.

72 Locke developed a philosophy of history explaining such counterevidence. In a nutshell, he argued that while states had originally been established on the basis of consent, over time rulers exploited their position and justified authoritarian government with reference to illiberal custom and tradition that gradually shaped the political imagination of the people; Locke, Two Treatises, pp. 329, 343.

73 Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2 Vols., collated and annotated by Fraser, Alexander Campbell (New York: Dover, 1959), p. 446.

74 Locke, Two Treatises, p. 384. This does not mean that the emancipatory potential of Locke's thought is strictly limited to property owners. Locke simply aims to exclude those deemed unable or unwilling to uphold this principle as foundational for society from political rights. Once based on this principle, society could curtail individual property rights for purposes of international competition and defence and in order to allow every individual to fulfil its rights and obligations to God – that is, to work for its upkeep. See Arneil, Barbara, John Locke and America. The Defence of English Colonialism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), p. 159; Tully, James, A Discourse on Property. John Locke and his Adversaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 63; Dunn, John, The Political Thought of John Locke. A Historical Account of the Arguments of the Two Treatise of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 246; Laslett, Peter, ‘Introduction’, in Locke, John, Two Treatise of Government, ed. Laslett, Peter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 105. Similarly, political rights could be extended to non-property owners well socialised into the principles and practices of such a society.

75 Dunn, John Locke, p. 217.

76 Locke, Two Treatises, pp. 296–8.

77 Ibid., p. 291.

78 Ibid., p. 299.

79 Lebovics, Herman, ‘The Uses of America in Locke's Second Treatise of Government’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 47:4 (1986), p. 577.

80 Locke's work allows for a more progressive interpretation based on his argument that the transformation of common into private property was justified only ‘where there is enough, and as good left in common for others’ (Two Treatises, p. 288). This limitation on the practice of transforming common into private property can be, and has been, used to justify a liberal ‘welfare state’ with quite considerable limitations on private property (for example, Tully, James, A Discourse on Property. John Locke and his Adversaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)). The early development of liberal democracy in Europe and America was nevertheless largely based on the ‘conservative’ interpretation set out here.

81 Perelman, Michael, The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 175; Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins, p. 350.

82 Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins, pp. 349–50.

83 McNally, David, Political Economy and the Rise of Capitalism: A Reinterpretation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 62, 89; Perelman, Invention of Capitalism, p. 175. McNally reports that in 1710 the first private enclosure act was presented in Parliament, followed by 100 between 1720–50, 139 between 1750–60, 900 between 1760–79, and 2000 between 1793–1815 (p. 11).

84 Tully, James, An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 140–1; Tuck, Richard, The Rights of War and Peace: Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 167. On Locke's support for colonialism, see also Arneil, John Locke and America; Armitage, David, ‘John Locke, Carolina, and the “Two Treatise of Government”’, Political Theory, 32:5 (2004), pp. 602–27; Boucher, David, ‘Property and Propriety in International Relations: The Case of John Locke’, in Jahn, Beate (ed.), Classical Theory in International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 156–77.

85 Arneil, John Locke and America, p. 169.

86 Ivison, Duncan, ‘Locke, Liberalism and Empire’, in Anstey, Peter R. (ed.), The Philosophy of John Locke: New Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 93.

87 Tilly, Charles, Contention and Democracy in Europe, 1650–2000 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Kim, Kyong-won, ‘Marx, Schumpeter, and the East Asian Experience’, Journal of Democracy, 3:3 (1992), p. 24.

88 Bova, ‘Democracy and Liberty’, p. 116; Ake, ‘Devaluing Democracy’, pp. 33–4.

89 Przeworski et al., Democracy and Development; Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins, p. 58.

90 Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins, p. 82; Chirot, Daniel, ‘Does Democracy Work in Deeply Divided Societies?’, in Barany, Zoltan and Moser, Robert G. (eds), Is Democracy Exportable? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 107.

91 Plattner, Democracy, p. 68.

92 May, Christopher, A Global Political Economy of Intellectual Property Rights (London: Routledge, 2000).

93 Inayatullah and Blaney, International Relations, p. 35.

94 Locke, John, A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Tully, James H. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), p. 48.

95 Locke, A Letter, p. 57.

96 Adam B. Seligman, ‘Democracy, Civil Society, and the Problem of Toleration’, in Barany and Moser, Is Democracy Exportable?, p. 125.

97 Talavera, Arturo Fontaine, ‘The Future of an Illusion’, Journal of Democracy, 3:3 (1992), p. 113.

98 Sartori, ‘Free Government’, p. 105.

99 Plattner, Democracy, p. 62.

100 Tilly, Contention and Democracy; Ake, ‘Devaluing Democracy’, pp. 33–4.

101 Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins, p. 29; Kim, ‘Marx’, p. 24.

102 Bova, ‘Democracy and Liberty’, p. 116.

103 Marks, Robert B., The Origins of the Modern World. Fate and Fortune in the Rise of the West (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007); Washbrook, David, ‘From Comparative Sociology to Global History: Britain and India in the Pre-History of Modernity’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 40:4 (1997), pp. 410–3.

104 Fukuyama, ‘Capitalism and Democracy’, p. 107.

105 Chirot, ‘Does Democracy Work’, p. 101.

106 Carothers, Critical Mission; Berman, ‘Civil Society and the State’; De Zeeuw and Kumar, Promoting Democracy.

107 Huntington, ‘Democracy's Third Wave’, p. 33.

108 Przeworski, ‘The Neoliberal Fallacy’, p. 55.

109 Rose, ‘Democracy Promotion’, p. 201.

110 Przeworski, ‘The Neoliberal Fallacy’; Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins, p. 348.

111 Nancy Bermeo, ‘Conclusion: Is Democracy Exportable?’, in Barany and Moser, Is Democracy Exportable?, p. 259.

112 Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins, pp. 350, 357.

113 Rose, ‘Democracy Promotion’, p. 189.

* I would like to thank Milja Kurki and Christopher Hobson for the invitation to participate in the EU funded project on the Political Economies of Democracy Promotion which provided the original motivation for my reflections on this topic. I have presented earlier versions of this article at the project workshop in Aberystwyth and at the ECPR conference in Münster. Thanks are due to all the workshop participants for their constructive engagement and good ideas. The comments of the anonymous reviewers helped a lot to clarify the argument and I am grateful to Justin Rosenberg for getting the penny to drop at the end. The Lockean material in this article has also proven fruitful for my reflections on the relationship between ‘Liberalism and Democracy Promotion’ in Milja Kurki and Christopher Hobson (eds), Political Economies of Democracy Promotion (forthcoming).

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