Browsing articles from "April, 2012"
Apr 29, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Let’s All Feign Surprise Over Democracy Promotion

If you stick around you’ll see that it’s going to be Friedman-palooza here on D&S today, a concept which would normally nauseate me. But the NYT’s mustachioed bloviator-in-chief did touch on some excellent topics this week, namely the elephant in the room among foreign democracy promoters concerning Egypt.

“When the U.S. decides to just give away the military aid to Egypt without considering the consequences on us,” Okail told me, “it sends a message that the West and the U.S. don’t care about democracy and human rights. They just care about strategic stability. We, the defendants, felt betrayed. The battle we fight standing in that cage, hearing calls for our execution, is not a battle for our freedom but a battle for liberating Egyptian civil society.”

Okail referred to here is Dr. Nancy Okail, director of Freedom House’s Egypt office. Okail, an Egyptian citizen, is imprisoned by the SCAF and facing trial long after the military council freed the Americans it charged with stirring unrest. Suffering the inexplicable ramifications of an objectively good deed–building civil society, strengthening the party system, and just giving Egypt a hand transitioning into a well-functioning and fair democracy–Okail and her compatriots are rightly shaken.

But pay attention to the seeming betrayal that Okail is feeling now. Why is this, partially for someone working directly with a group like Freedom House but especially for an American like Friedman who observes them, such a hard and abrupt landing? It has long been painfully obvious that the U.S. only does promote democracy in locales and contexts where it strengthens, as she puts it, American “strategic stability.”

Consider Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report. By critically evaluating each country’s political freedoms and civil liberties, it makes a extremely unbiased judgement of both U.S. allies and nemesis. In the 2011 report, Saudi Arabia received a much-deserved 6.5 “Freedom Rating” (out of 7–I’ll let you guess which way the scale points) as well as rebukes on the country’s widespread corruption, government control of academia and press, unlawful detentions, treatment of women, and torture. Freedom House takes out all the stops, using words that U.S. government figureheads would never say in any Middle East speech.

But where does Freedom House operate? Not Saudi Arabia. Take a look at their office locations, all in relatively tame but strategic places around the world. Cameroon, for instance, a sought-after AFRICOM center in the natural resources hub of the Gulf of Guinea. Kyrgyzstan, home to U.S. air fleets and a peg in the complex Central Asian counterterror operation. Mexico, whose strategic stability as an American neighbor goes without saying.

We are much, much better off with groups like Freedom House than we are without them. Indeed, it is unreasonable to expect the U.S. to operate democracy promotion efforts everywhere, and Freedom House has excellently chosen locales where their programming has been effective and, until Egypt, more or less well-received. As a student of democracy promotion myself, I support this. I honestly do. But I always, even subconsciously, remember the inherent linkages between government-supported NGO activity and strategic interests. That’s just the way it is.

I suppose I get Friedman’s approach to encouraging Americans to keep a critical eye on U.S. foreign policy. He causes cognitive dissonance by setting up a simple example, like Okail in her prison cell, and compares it to our ideals, like the U.S. helping everyone get a fighting chance at democracy. And, sure, most  NYT readers probably aren’t international democracy buffs. But there is so much more to the story than, like he says, “stand[ing] up firmly for our own values.” And it’s a shame that although he says the mouthpiece to say it, he doesn’t.

Apr 25, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Europe x the BRICs


Christine Lagarde, french, managing director of the IMF

Not even the threat of an impending Euro-mageddon is enough to tame Europe’s cling to traditional positions of power. The current dispute at the IMF is witness to that. Europeans want the Third World to participate in building collective firewalls (in the form of new funds for bilateral loans) that are obviously meant to keep their own countries afloat; but when reminded of promises to reform the decision making structure at the institution, they tend to change the subject.

 Europe’s collective whining at this year’s IMF and World Bank Spring Meetings, which ended this past weekend in DC, won them US$ 430 billion in extra funds for the firewall. The money is to be made available by the IMF officially for whoever needs it. “It is basically to tell the markets: calm down, we have resources”, an IMF spokesperson told me. Europeans themselves contributed with the largest amount, about US$ 200 billion –which sounds right, if not insufficient. They have the money (well, some of them do) and this is obviously for their own sake. Japan gave US$ 60 billion; the UK, Korea and Saudi Arabia, US$ 15 billion each. BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), meanwhile, are being pressured to give at least as much as Sweden and Switzerland (US$ 10 billion), and billions more than Australia, Norway or Denmark. The US did not give a cent.

Not so fast, they said.  Before opening their wallets, they wanted the big ones to move on with the implementation of the reform of the voting quotas at the IMF, which was agreed to in 2010 but remains just a promise. Not only that, they want to discuss more reforms. The BRICs thus decided to act as if they were a united group (they keep trying…) and declared they will join the firewall efforts, but before announcing the size of their contribution, Europe must commit to the reform of the quotas.

 It is not an unreasonable demand. But, unfortunately, it does not seem to get them very far.

First of all, the message came out clumsy and it only conveyed once again the confusion that is characteristic of the group. First Russia stated that it would contribute with between US$ 10 billion and US$ 20 billion, then the Russian Finance minister took it back and said no minimum amount was on the table just yet. Brazil, as usual, complained to everybody about the unfairness of the international system and from the start refused to talk numbers. India gave an interview saying that there was no conditionality whatsoever to the collaboration; it was not about the reform, it was just that they needed to discuss the matter with their domestic audiences first. And China didn’t say much.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, was clearly displeased. She made ironic comments during press conferences and rolled her eyes when asked about the BRICs. I was covering the Spring Meetings this past weekend and asked her what did the Brics tell the IMF after all, since they each said a different thing to the public. She just smiled and replied to me: “Of course. It is in their interest to create as much confusion as possible. What they told me is clearly something that they do not want the press to know.” Lagarde is teasing, implying that Brazil, Russia, India and China did talk numbers with the institution, but want to pretend they are the tough guys now. Will it work?

Germany’s response to a question about the quota reform shows the Bric’s blackmailing attempt will be difficult. Berlin will keep its end of the bargain, they said. The agreements of 2010 will hold. But as for going further, like the BRICs want… the best answer the Germans could give was to say they “acknowledge” the desire. And then, they changed the subject.

Apr 19, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Enter the 2012 D&S T-Shirt Slogan Contest!

You’re a DG wonk and proud of it. But how many articles of clothing do you own that really put it out there? That’s why Democracy & Society, in conjunction Georgetown’s Democracy and Governance Studies program, is excited to announce its first-ever t-shirt slogan contest.

On Friday, April 20th, from 10:00am until midnight EST, our Twitter and email hotlines are open to hear your best DG-centric slogans. Got any one-liners that really stick it to the man about the awesomeness of the DG field? Any catchphrases that make you snort milk out of your nose when you hear them? Any slogans that would get you high-fives when jogging outside the Ronald Reagan Building?

We’ll pick our favorite entry to be printed on t-shirts. And, yes, the winner will have this snappy new wardrobe item hand-delivered (within the DC area) or mailed directly to them.

How do I enter?
1. On Twitter, tweet entries to @GeorgetownDG or with the hashtag #DGslogans anytime on Friday, April 20th.
2. Via email, send entries to with the subject “Slogan Contest.”

The contest is open to anyone, not just DG professionals or Georgetown students. Good luck! And may the odds be ever in your favor.

Apr 17, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

The Guardian’s Battle for the Internet

Discussions on the nature of technology’s role in governance and technologies and the internet are recognized as contributing to the development are many and varied, yet increasingly mobile development of both economies and societies. At least in part this contribution is rooted in the decentralized nature of communication and the spread of information via these technologies.  Yet, just as these tools become cheaper and the possibility of a reasonably priced and broadly accessible smart phone grows nearer, governments around the world appear increasingly uncertain about what role if any they’d like the internet to play in their societies.  A current series from the Guardian titled “Battle for the Internet” should be of interest not only to those interested in technology and internet freedom, but also those interested in the relationships between governments and the governed.

Continue reading »

Apr 16, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Iran, the Arab Spring and the military option

Josh Linden, my classmate at Georgetown’s Democracy and Society MA Program, was kind enough to share with this blog his thoughts on using the military option against Iran. Here they are:

“After months of bellicose rhetoric and dispiriting reports on Iran’s nuclear program — all but confirming the private resignation among American and Israeli officials to the inevitability of military strikes — six world powers met with Iran last Friday for the first nuclear talks in over a year. The bar was set low, by all accounts, with the primary purpose to test Iran’s willingness to negotiate seriously, and in good faith. Having satisfied that basic condition, all parties agreed to continue the dialogue on May 23 in Baghdad.

Yet, there is a parallel thread in this ongoing saga that may ultimately prove decisive as world powers weigh their options: to what extent will Arab states support, passively or actively, coercive diplomacy or even aggressive military action?

 Nadim N. Rouhana addresses this question in a piece for Foreign Policy, using the Arab Spring and public polling data to challenge the conventional wisdom that Arab states view the Iranian nuclear program as a security threat. Rather than analyze Arab state behavior within the old framework of unaccountable rulers and elite interests, she writes that “the transformation in the relationship between Arab governments and their constituencies ought to be strongly factored into any discussion of a military approach to the Iranian nuclear question.” The implication is that the Arab Spring has fundamentally altered citizen-state relations to the point where Arab state policy will now better reflect the preferences and concerns of Arab citizens. Or put another way, regional governments may begin to reconsider their membership in the coalition to push back against the Iranian nuclear program.

It’s a tough sell, and the logic is less than convincing. There are two distinct, yet interacting arguments. First, drawing upon apoll by the Doha Institute, Rouhana points out that the Arab public, by and large, feels considerably less threatened by Iran than Israel and the United States. Further, a majority of those surveyed did not believe that Iran posed a threat to the “security of the Arab homeland.” The second — and more significant — argument, is that the Arab Spring has reoriented state incentives and directional lines of accountability. “Adapting to the sweeping changes of the Arab Spring requires a new paradigm about the Middle East, one that is cognizant and respectful of the democratic will of Arab public opinion,” she writes.

 Most observers, myself included, share Rouhana’s desire for an era of responsive, representative, and democratic governance in the Middle East. However, wishing for, and realizing, a democratic consolidation are two very different things. Though three regional states are undergoing historic transitions, it is wildly premature to presume that democracy is inevitable for any of them, much less that public opinion will be enough to dramatically reshape political incentives in countries whose previous institutions will not easily be washed away. And in the context of international security concerns — surrounding the particularly destabilizing issue of nuclear proliferation — democratic responsiveness is even less likely.

But there’s a more fundamental point: the translation of citizen preferences into public policy requires institutional mechanisms to capture public opinion, organize it into coherent coalitions, place those coalitions into positions of power, and negotiate according to incentives of those aforementioned political actors and alliances. None of the Arab states have shown the ability or willingness to follow this process, at least not on any sort of consistent basis. Even in countries that have regular elections contested by large political parties, accountability and incentives for those parties trend upward — toward the regime, in hopes of political and economic kickbacks — rather than downward toward citizen constituencies. The Arab Spring is a positive sign, but we should not mistake optimism and protest with a revolutionized political culture that will affect an issue as important as the Iranian nuclear program.

Still, going along with the assumption that Arab governments, having been shaken and destabilized by the Arab Spring, will now respond more consistently to the desires of their people, Rouhana’s main argument falls victim to one of the most common mistakes of political analysis: conflating opinion with priority. In other words, the Doha Institute poll that reveals Arab public opinion about Iran says nothing about how much those populations care about the issue, nor where they rank the Iranian nuclear program on their personal list of grievances or demands. And from what we’ve seen throughout the region, with protests organized primarily around issues of economic opportunity and political representation, I think it’s fair to say that the Iranian nuclear program is not the driving force behind Arab activism. Western leaders are wise to consider Arab government support before implementing any policy option toward Iran, and in the end, the outer limit of that support might indeed stop short of military action. But those calculations will likely still be made in isolation of democratic forces or processes, and instead serve the interests of the very people that Rouhana dismisses as the old guard: ruling families, regimes, and the client networks they have cultivated for decades.”

I agree with Josh that Rouhana might be going to far down the “wishful thinking” path. And I still can’t see a military strike against Iran being coordinated amongst any nations for the same reasons as always: none of them can afford the potentially explosive consequences of such an action. The Arab Spring may have in fact increased the risks of destabilizing the region, since many nations are going to be in a very fragile state for a while.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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