As revolution sweeps the Middle East, how long can international institutions resist the tide of democracy?
Reading the recent resolutions and statements pouring out of the United Nations and other key global institutions, one might conclude that these organizations stand shoulder-to-shoulder with democracy activists around the world. U.N. human rights officials have chastised Bahrain, Syria, and Libya for crackdowns on protesters. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has offered the U.N.’s assistance as Egypt builds a democracy. And when the Ivory Coast’s outgoing president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down after losing an election, the World Bank froze its loan program, and the Security Council demanded that Gbagbo honor the poll results.
Yet the apparent international consensus on the need for democracy is more a product of unique circumstances than deep institutional commitment. The rapidity and scale of the Arab protests — and the bloodshed of the crackdowns — has generated consensus that did not exist when these now deposed or teetering governments were quietly locking up dissidents and stifling opposition parties. In the Ivory Coast, the fact that Gbagbo is flouting U.N.-supervised elections and challenging U.N. peacekeepers may be as important as his flouting of the popular will. The World Bank’s willingness to freeze funding is an exception to the rule; usually the Bank keeps to its policy of not involving itself in political questions or passing judgment on countries’ regimes.
In fact, it is far more usual for leading international organizations to be silent when it comes to advocating democracy in their member states. Recent rhetoric aside, global institutions have long maintained the polite fiction that ambassadors from authoritarian states have just as much right to speak for their people as do ambassadors of democratic countries. Over the decades, international institutions have provided plenty of support, political and economic, to nondemocratic states. For many years, authoritarian China and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt were among the leading recipients of World Bank loans.
In large part, this agnosticism about democracy is the inevitable result of pursuing universality in membership. Statesmen designing international institutions in the waning days of World War II wanted to avoid the mistakes of the League of Nations, which among other things, failed because of its inconstant membership. Countries came and went, and some major powers never joined. In an attempt to keep states inside their walls, major international institutions have necessarily blinded themselves to the anti-democratic behavior of certain members. Stalin’s Soviet Union, let’s not forget, was a founding member of the United Nations.
After the Cold War, the tone changed somewhat. There was more focus on "good governance," if not quite democracy, at the World Bank. The Security Council occasionally chided states for particularly egregious violations of democratic norms and endorsed democratic processes in a number of countries. Still, the large number and significant sway of nondemocratic states always imposed limits on how far the institutions could move in this direction.
The current democratization wave in the Middle East raises the question of whether bodies like the U.N. General Assembly hall and the World Bank executive board room might soon become less accommodating places for nondemocratic governments. Traditionally, the Arab bloc, often working through the broader non-aligned movement, has helped shield despotic governments from scrutiny. A shift in its worldview might have an outsized impact on dynamics in key institutions.
If having a functioning democracy does become an essential element of international respectability, the levers of global governance could help accelerate — and perhaps even enforce — democratic transitions. This would not be a question of formally excluding nondemocratic members. But it might mean that the goodies international organizations can offer would be conditioned on having decent, accountable government and an open political system. You would like an IMF precautionary loan to reassure the markets? Please free your political prisoners. Need a World Bank loan to build roads? First remove roadblocks for political opponents. Want to be elected to a rotating seat on the Security Council? Only democratic states need apply.
Skeptics will quickly point out that democracies often don’t have much in common and may not join forces. As Bruce Jones reminds us, democratic behemoths Brazil and India are often animated by anti-colonial instincts in their voting behavior rather than by solidarity with Western democracies. The new Egypt’s global profile might not change, and it could remain as unwilling to criticize other Arab states as ever. But within the bloc of rising power countries, that tendency may already be fading. Just in the last few weeks, Brazil retreated from its past practice by voting with the democratic West on a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution appointing an investigator to examine Iran’s human rights record. Indeed, the level of democracy may have been the best predictor of how states voted on that resolution. Among other states, all EU members on the Council, the United States, Brazil, Japan, and South Korea backed it. Russia, China, Cuba and Pakistan were among the opponents.
The deeper and ultimately more troubling democracy dilemma for global institutions is the one that Europe now confronts. Even if the U.N. or the World Bank were comprised overwhelmingly of democratic states, could these bodies themselves claim democratic legitimacy? The European example suggests that they will face considerable obstacles. Despite the growing influence of the directly elected European Parliament, many Europeans still view EU activity as opaque and undemocratic. If the U.N., the WTO, and the IMF do expand their power in an effort to confront global challenges, the perception that the people have little say in their workings will likely grow as well.
At the moment, fears that international organizations are unaccountable and undemocratic are strongest in the antiglobalization movement and on the political right, but the perception that there is too much distance between ordinary citizens and decisions made in stratospheric global bodies is likely headed to the political mainstream. In the last week, for example, President Barack Obama has come under fire for bypassing Congress and relying instead on international authority for action in Libya. That dynamic could well be a preview of debates to come.
David Bosco is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy and the author of Five to Rule Them All: the UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World, a history of the world’s most elite club. He is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service and was a senior editor at FP from 2004-2006.