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.