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When Promoting Democracy, Less Is More

Biden’s Summit for Democracy requires a humbler approach to succeed.

By , an associate professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, and , a professor of political science and the Walker family professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The full moon rises behind the Statue of Liberty in New York City on May 18, 2019.
The full moon rises behind the Statue of Liberty in New York City on May 18, 2019. Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

This week, U.S. President Joe Biden will hold a virtual Summit for Democracy to amplify U.S. commitments to defend democracy. But beyond grand statements, what can the Biden administration realistically hope to achieve from the summit? After all, prior U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad have largely failed.

A key reason is that U.S. democracy brokers seek to recreate the world in United States’ image. They focus on electoral democracy, rely on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out technical democracy-building projects, and neglect citizens’ multifaceted priorities as they target national political institutions. This approach stokes domestic polarization, fails to challenge dictators, and lacks credibility with citizens in the target countries—especially now that the United States’ own institutions have proven so fallible.

A humbler approach is needed in which the United States creates a platform for dialogue about how to shift power to citizens rather than prescribing democracy templates. Toward that end, we recommend three primary reforms.

This week, U.S. President Joe Biden will hold a virtual Summit for Democracy to amplify U.S. commitments to defend democracy. But beyond grand statements, what can the Biden administration realistically hope to achieve from the summit? After all, prior U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad have largely failed.

A key reason is that U.S. democracy brokers seek to recreate the world in United States’ image. They focus on electoral democracy, rely on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out technical democracy-building projects, and neglect citizens’ multifaceted priorities as they target national political institutions. This approach stokes domestic polarization, fails to challenge dictators, and lacks credibility with citizens in the target countries—especially now that the United States’ own institutions have proven so fallible.

A humbler approach is needed in which the United States creates a platform for dialogue about how to shift power to citizens rather than prescribing democracy templates. Toward that end, we recommend three primary reforms.

First, the Biden administration should reframe its narrative from efforts to promote democracy to efforts to promote pluralism. In many target countries, both local citizens and national governments associate the term “democracy” with Western hegemony. While citizens around the world aspire to the values inherent in democracy, the term itself is in many contexts both dangerous and exclusionary. Because democracy assistance is tagged as carrying Western agendas, communities frequently distrust local organizations that accept it. Even the most democratically inclined organizations cannot be effective without buy-in from local constituents.

Furthermore, democracy assistance endangers recipient organizations by drawing the attention of government officials. When regimes repress civil society organizations, they often start with NGOs that receive grants for democracy and good governance, which directly challenge the regime. A high-profile 2016 campaign against democracy-promotion NGOs in Egypt offers a case in point.

But reframing democracy promotion as pluralism promotion does more than protect against harm. It also celebrates the inclusion of a variety of voices in governance processes. In its purest form, democracy is a system in which all people, especially marginalized groups, can meaningfully express their opinions and mobilize with the objective of influencing policy. The concept of pluralism is rooted in a celebration of diversity and is particularly timely in an era of rapidly changing demographics and power relations.

Second, the United States should create a platform for dialogue, debate, and collective problem-solving rather than funding NGOs to produce rubrics and implement theories of change. The democracy-promotion enterprise has for decades been a technical project. Democracy grants are distributed to an elite milieu of managerial NGOs that develop complex theories of democratization and carry out projects that result in measurable outputs ostensibly designed to indicate progress toward stated goals.

The entire process has created a lucrative nonprofit industrial complex in which highly trained professionals respond to the incentives and priorities of Western donors. Consequently, their products or deliverables neither resonate with local citizens nor support the types of transformations necessary to bring about meaningful grassroots involvement in governance.

Refreshingly, the Biden administration seems to understand that this top-down approach to foreign assistance doesn’t work. Afghanistan is a telling example of why democracy cannot be purchased by donor funds or recreated in the United States’ image. Respecting calls for international donors to #ShiftThePower to local citizens, Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has pledged to send 25 percent of USAID funding to local partners in the next four years. (Although only one quarter of the agency’s budget, this is a significant improvement from the current 6 percent.)

This respect for local civic actors, and the recognition that locally generated solutions are typically more culturally resonant and politically feasible than U.S. programs, should guide the Biden administration’s approach to democracy promotion. By facilitating discussion, debate, and collective problem solving by everyday citizens, the United States can effectively ensure that local people oversee their own democracies and cultivate democratic habits of civic participation in the process. Of course, if local partners are simply seen as purveyors of U.S.-designed projects, the purpose of this shift will be lost. This should be an important issue for future discussion.

Third, the United States needs to respect institutional heterogeneity. Democracy promotion has relied on creating specific types of political institutions such as an electoral commission, independent judiciary, representative legislature, and so on. Unfortunately, democracy brokers tend to have a common template they want adopted across the world without recognizing that political institutions reflect domestic bargains and domestic struggles. Moreover, existing institutions might not be resilient in light of emerging problems such as economic inequality, migration, and climate change. Countries will need to decide themselves how to address these challenges.

The bottom line is that societies must take ownership of how they design their political institutions, and the United States should not deprive them of the lessons that emerge from institutional failure and rebirth. Getting institutions right on the first try is difficult: Even U.S. democracy itself remains a work in progress

Taken together, these proposed reforms represent a much more passive—but still committed—approach to supporting global citizens’ desires for freedom, justice, and equality. Such an approach plays to U.S. strengths as it focuses on democratic values that have historically been associated with the American project and for which citizens around the world are taking to the streets. It allows the United States to step back and contribute with greater humility as new voices come to the table to mold the democracies of the future.

In doing so, it increases the United States’ potential for adaptive leadership in an era of transformational change.

Catherine E. Herrold is an associate professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Her book, Delta Democracy: Pathways to Incremental Civic Revolution in Egypt and Beyond, was awarded the 2021 Virginia A. Hodgkinson Research Book Prize. In 2020-21, Herrold served as a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow at USAID. Twitter: @ceherrold

Aseem Prakash is a professor of political science and the Walker family professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. His recent awards include the International Studies Association’s 2019 International Political Economy Distinguished Scholar Award as well the 2018 James N. Rosenau Award for “scholar who has made the most important contributions to globalization studies.”

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