Remember What They Died for on the Maidan

Yes, the fight for democratic values is hard -- especially now. But that's no reason to give up.


Recently there has been growing and justified skepticism about the idea of democracy promotion, particularly in light of the unfulfilled hopes of the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the re-election of Turkish leader Erdogan despite widespread protests. Without trying to calculate the gains of democracy in places like Tunisia or the growing authoritarianism in places like Egypt, this a good moment to look at the role of democracy promotion in this new, shaky world landscape. To date, the West does not have a very good record when it comes to intervening in the democratization efforts of countries around the world. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are the skeletons in the closets of countries like the United States, which, despite their best efforts, have actually pushed these nations onto a backwards trajectory, away from freedom and the rule of law. This is not for a lack of good intentions or resources; the West has a stake in a free and stable world, and has committed more than enough money and manpower toward this goal. Nonetheless, these resources have been misdirected, hampered by an outdated understanding of what it takes to bring about real democracy. This is the result of five key gaps in the Western understanding of democracy promotion.

First, decision-makers in the United States need to give up the idea that bombs can bring democracy. If you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Military spending in the United States is higher than in the next 10 highest-spending nations combined, so there is a natural inclination to want to use this might in struggles for democracy.

Unfortunately, we have repeatedly seen that firepower does not help establish democracy or lead to freer or more stable nations. This was definitively proven by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, who looked at every civil conflict since 1900 to show that nonviolent resistance works. Nonviolence has a 53 percent success rate, compared to only 26 percent for violent attempts at regime change. Even when military means are successful in removing a dictator, only 4 percent of countries that achieve major social change through violent struggle are democratic five years later — as opposed to 42 percent after nonviolent struggles, which tend to end in stable democracies. Military intervention should be a tool of last resort, and even then, leaders should realize that while it may counter one threat, it is also likely to bring about new ones. Support for an indigenous, grassroots, nonviolent movement is always the best path for pursuing democratic social change.

Second, newborn democracies are like newborn babies — they need a lot of support. You can’t expect a newborn to walk, talk, or write constructive legislation right off the bat. Too many promising nonviolent struggles have collapsed because there was no transitional support after the removal of a dictator. Democratic change is a continuous process, not a one-time event, requiring continuous support and investment in order for it to succeed.

Newborn democracies need assistance in building democratic institutions, which at the moment of “revolution” are often very weak or missing altogether after decades of authoritarianism. Do not forget: A full 11 years elapsed between independence and the signing of the U.S. Constitution. How can we expect countries emerging from dictatorship to build their democratic institutions in the span of 11 months? In Egypt, the key moment for investment in democracy came just after the masses deposed Mubarak in 2011, when Egyptians could have used some guidance and resources to assist in the formation of political parties, the writing of the constitution, and the monitoring and transparency of the entire process.

Third, democracy can’t be taught — but the skills to get there can be. It is through knowledge that democracy promotion can become self-replicating. With modern technology, educators can share their know-how in a myriad of ways, including online educational platforms, which are tremendously more cost-effective than traditional training methods. In addition, these online tools decrease risk to presenters and recipients, meaning that this knowledge can reach those most at risk, and therefore most in need. For example, many top universities, such as Harvard, have begun offering their courses online to the public, which is a great opportunity to include more short courses and modules in the knowledge and skills that activists need. As mentioned above, since transitional periods are so crucial, educational materials need to provide concrete knowledge to manage the tricky time between an old power’s collapse and the establishment of a just, democratic society.

Fourth, practice what you preach. These days, the U.S. secretary of state somehow always finds that the agenda is too busy when meeting with allies to discuss some of their more flagrant civil rights violations, such as with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, where women cannot even drive. Yet in order to maintain credibility while promoting democracy abroad, a country must also nourish its own democracy at home. In the United States, the upcoming midterm elections seem to be falling into the pattern of recent years, with plummeting voter engagement, particularly among young people. Similarly, this year saw perhaps the lowest turnout ever in the last EU parliament elections. The number of people participating was around 40 percent, and the vote gave more seats to Euroskeptics like Marine Le Pen, bringing into question the future of the institution. Notably, this disinterest in democracy is not due to a lack of serious issues facing these Western societies, but is reflective of citizens’ skepticism that the leaders they choose will be able to do anything about them.

Fifth, fight back against the propaganda of autocrats. Democracy promoters have to help to spread the truth. In recent months and years, struggles for democracy have suffered from a lack of media support from the Western media. At the same time, the Syrian, Venezuelan, and Russian regimes and their like have spent millions of dollars spreading their own narratives. One narrative (which is popular these days in embattled undemocratic regimes in Arab world, and is decades old in China) is that democracy equals anarchy while stability matters the most. Other narratives include that homegrown pro-democracy movements are led by “fascists” (in the case of Ukraine), or “foreign mercenaries” — a common mantra of “bad guys.” Western elites somehow expect that the truth will defend itself.

Democracy promotion means promoting the truth about democracy and its core values — electability, rule of law, accountability, and transparency — while at the same time fighting well-fueled propaganda machines. Western governments have failed to reinforce the message that though democracy may not be a perfect system, it is still better and fairer than any other system civilization has ever discovered. Do not forget that it was the Ukrainians, not Germans, French, or Brits, who put their lives on the line and died by the hundreds this spring on the Maidan under the banners of the European Union. They gave their lives for these values. Are we going to let their sacrifice be in vain? (The photo above shows smoke rising around a monument to independence on Kiev’s Maidan.)

Current efforts to promote global democracy haven’t met with great success, but that is no reason to give up the effort or to conclude that other parts of the world just are not ready. People everywhere want to be free and to live in a society where they can decide their own future. More practically, a democratic, just world is a stable, secure one. By filling the crucial gaps in understanding mentioned here, the West will be more prepared to encourage the genuine democratic pursuits of people who want to live with dignity. The West will be able to support these countries all the way through their rocky transitions to become societies that are fair, equal, and free. This is a learning process; these five mistakes simply give Western governments a reason to work harder. Democracy is in demand and is worth fighting for now more than ever.

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