Democracy and Human Rights Promotion in Times of Shrinking Civic Spaces

International democracy and human rights promotion—a foreign policy endeavor that governments on both sides of the Atlantic have espoused for decades—has been faced with severe challenges in the past years. What in hindsight appears to have been a 1990s “liberal honeymoon” period has given way to large-scale disenchantment in the form of a “backlash” of democracy (promotion) on many fronts. Global authoritarian resurgence and shrinking civic spaces (not only) in autocracies, as well as resurgent nationalist and populist waves that endanger (not only) democracies are currently gnawing on democracy promoters’ capacity, willingness, and credibility.

What in hindsight appears to have been a 1990s “liberal honeymoon” period has given way to large-scale disenchantment in the form of a “backlash” of democracy (promotion) on many fronts.

In light of these challenges, we can presently observe a lessening in terms of democracy and human rights commitment in the German government, and large parts of the Trump administration are mostly unconcerned and, sometimes, outright hostile to these questions as well. Governments on both sides are in a similar situation: although they tend to prefer to see democracy developed and strengthened in as many parts of the world as possible, they find their policies constrained by other considerations, such as other interests that they (sometimes) perceive to run counter to democratization (e.g., stability and security concerns). The United States and Germany share this dilemma, which is not new at all but has come into sharper relief since the early 2000s. Since the goals as well as the diagnosis of problems still appear to be the same, the challenge is to identify ways forward with more promising engagement strategies. A joint refocusing on these issues would also likely strengthen and benefit the transatlantic partnership, at whose core arguably lies a mutual engagement and concern for the liberal world order in which democracy and human rights are the global norm.

What could an increased (re-)engagement in terms of democracy and human rights promotion look like? For the U.S. and German government, under current conditions, focusing on the promotion of democratic core ingredients seems to be the most realistic and promising option. This implies refocusing goals and strategies to promoting key ingredients of democratic governance, such as strengthening basic political and civil rights, the rule of law, statehood, etc. Contrary to the current trend, government representatives should vocally strengthen their country’s commitment to “democratic fundamentals.” At the same time, they should abstain from formulating the often overstated goals of pro-democracy rhetoric in the past. At the very minimum, the U.S. and German governments should re-examine their foreign policies in terms of “doing no harm” as concerns democratic progress in other countries; both governments have, for example, been acquiescent to and even supportive of severe civil society restraints in other countries when it served other interests. In Egypt, where Germany and the EU have focused on the stop of migration movement and where the U.S. is most concerned with anti-terrorism, they have basically condoned Al-Sisi’s further crackdown on civil society.

U.S. and German government agencies should create an institutionalized space for exchange and coordination on these matters—among government agencies and within international organizations, but also with CSO representatives.

Here, governments can learn much from civil society organizations (CSOs). In many ways, CSOs have advanced further in their response to democracy promotion constraints such as shrinking civic spaces, since they are not as much inhibited by other policy interests and since they can sometimes work well under the radar. Especially the large international CSOs are leading in efforts to craft creative responses to shrinking civic spaces, while the governments lack behind on this issue. There is, however, no official venue for exchange and learning from each other’s best practices in this regard. In order to cooperate better and benefit from lessons already learned, U.S. and German government agencies should create an institutionalized space for exchange and coordination on these matters—among government agencies and within international organizations, but also with CSO representatives. Creating these spaces would go a long way in strengthening much scattered efforts of countering shrinking civic spaces and would thereby address one of the current key challenges to international democracy and human rights promotion.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Annika Poppe

Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

Annika Elena Poppe is project director and senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF). Her research focuses on international democracy promotion, U.S. foreign policy, and the global phenomenon of closing civic spaces. She is coordinator of the German research network “External Democracy Promotion,” member of the International Consortium on Closing Civic Spaces (iCon) hosted by CSIS, and has worked as a consultant for the German Development Agency (GIZ) in 2016-2017. Dr. Poppe has been trained in Political Science, American Studies (Goethe University Frankfurt/scholarship by the German National Academic Foundation), and U.S. History (American University, Washington DC/Fulbright scholarship) and she holds a PhD in Political Science (Goethe University Frankfurt). She has been a guest researcher at Georgetown University (2011), at the German Development Institute Bonn (2016), and at the Leuphana University Lunenburg (2016), and she received the Rolf Kentner Dissertation Award 2017 by the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. Recent publications include “The contested spaces of civil society in a plural world: norm contestation in the debate about restrictions on international civil society support” (Contemporary Politics 2017, with J. Wolff), “Recalibrating the interest-values-nexus. US democracy promotion in the Middle East“ (Orient 2017), and “The Nuclear Taboo, Battlestar Galactica, and the Real World. Illustrations from a Science-Fiction Universe“ (Security Dialogue 2016, with M. Fey and C. Rauch).

She is a 2018-2019 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).