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External attempts at “democracy promotion” are one of the defining features of global liberalism. A core principle guiding this Essential Reading is that the topic at hand needs to be unequivocally situated against the backdrop of a critical analysis of liberal thought. A main shortcoming of much of the mainstream literature on “democracy promotion” is the tendency to ignore related fundamental questions. Two such questions revolve around: the contested nature of democracy; and the ways in which external intervention and attempts at institutional engineering often perpetuate exactly those hierarchies that they initially set out to overcome. Mainstream literature therefore tends to reproduce rather than challenge the often sentimental, uncritical, and non-reflexive notions of enlightenment, moral progress, and their alleged intrinsic relationship to Western political formation that inform liberal thought.

As an alternative to such mainstream literature, we can identify a number of critical approaches. These focus on a combination of ideational and/or material factors, viewing “democracy promotion” as a process of domination that reinforces Western imperialism, by providing it with a moral purpose. In this vein, we can consider both the long history of moral justifications for Western intervention (e.g., “the White Man’s burden” and “civilizing mission”) as well as critical approaches to Western political thought and praxis. I therefore encourage all those interested in “democracy promotion” to also consult literature on the Enlightenment’s totalitarian tendencies (Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment), on moral values, moral authority and moral justifications (Chantal Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox, Stephen Hopgood’s Keepers of the Flame, and William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden), the disciplining of democracy (Rita Abrahamsen’s Disciplining Democracy), de-politicization (James Ferguson’s Anti-Politics Machine), and authoritarian upgrading (Steven Heydemann’s Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World).

My own interest in the often self-perpetuating and dangerously self-confirming dynamics of external intervention stems from a short and disillusioning involvement with United Nations Development Program’s Crisis Prevention and Recovery Unit in Lebanon. During my time at UNDP, I observed first-hand the often absurd and counter-productive effects of external intervention and institutional politics. These included “lessons-learned reports” that needed to be written in an apolitical manner as possible, “results frameworks” that vigorously wrapped deeply unequal power relations in technocratic jargon, and inequities in pay between international and Lebanese staff that often poisoned the work atmosphere. Toward the end of my work with UNDP I had abandoned my initial and idealistic views of external intervention in the name of “crisis prevention,” “poverty reduction,” and “democracy promotion,” and the like. Instead, I came to be interested in questions of political economy, in problematizing intervenors over those intervened-upon, and in exploring the actual practice of interventions rather than abstract idealist intentions.

The notion of “democracy promotion” first emerged during the US war in the Philippines (1899–1902) as a strategy on which both US imperialists and many US anti-imperialists could agree. It was however only institutionalized in US and European politics in the 1970s after authoritarian regimes supported by the United States and former European colonial powers came under increasing popular pressure. After the end of the Cold War, US and European policymakers expanded the idea of “democracy promotion” to a generic framework for Western foreign policies.

In the following list, I discuss, in no particular order, what I consider some of the essential critical readings on the topic, with a specific focus on the Middle East and North Africa. The selected books and articles place “democracy promotion” in the context of global power structures, provide insight into the social and institutional underpinnings of the “democracy promotion” establishment, discuss its conceptual assumptions, and explore the actual practice of “democracy promotion” interventions. Scholarship throughout the 1990s, including Tony Smith’s America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy (Princeton University Press 1994) and Thomas Carothers’ Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999) mark a starting point for mainstream literature on the topic that the present Essential Reading avoids. This body of literature closely intersects with the “democratization” literature, such as that by Philippe Schmitter, Larry Diamond and Peter Burnell. Men based in Western institutions dominate these overlapping sets of scholarship. While the emergence of a critical scholarship also dates to the 1990s—most notably Barry Gills, Joel Rocamora and Richard Wilson’s Low Intensity Democracy and others—a larger body of critical interventions emerged in the 2000s in the context of the George W. Bush presidency in the United States, its so-called “War on Terror” in general, and the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in particular.

William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

While it dates from 1996 and only includes case studies from Chile, Haiti, Nicaragua and the Philippines, this book remains a core text on the topic. Robinson forcefully positions himself against the larger body of normative and liberal approaches to the topic. He argues that “democracy promotion,” what he understands as the strengthening of polyarchy (i.e., the rule of a small minority), and neoliberalism need to be analyzed as a singular process. He situates the rise of “democracy promotion” within a gradual “replacement of coercive means of social control with consensual ones.” Privileging structural features of the capitalist world economy as key analytical categories, Robinson views the reorientation of US foreign policy from support for authoritarianism to the promotion of polyarchy as “a political exigency of macro-economic restructuring on a world scale.” While this book is an excellent starting point for anybody interested in the topic, its over-reliance on a structuralist approach tends to downplay the role of individual agency or dominant discourses in shaping “democracy promotion.” It therefore leaves little space for the possibility of overcoming the hegemony of polyarchy and/or procedural democracy.

Nicolas Guilhot, The Democracy Makers: Human Rights and the Politics of Global Order(Columbia University Press, 2005).

Similar to Robinson, Guilhot views “democracy promotion” as an imperial project of domination. However, he does so based on a constructivist exploration of the processes by which procedural and liberal notions of democracy became hegemonic in the “democracy promotion” establishment. The book discusses the conceptual and institutional backgrounds, the social history of networks of “democracy makers,” and the institutionalization of “democracy promotion.” Instead of exploring what “democracy promoters” actually do when promoting democracy, Guilhot provides important insight into these protagonists’ processes of subject formation. He presents a very compelling analysis of “democracy promotion’s” integration of emancipatory forces into imperial policies. However, his suggestion that “a hegemony built on the notion of democracy and human rights is […] highly preferable to a hegemonic system regulated only by national interests and geopolitical calculations” appears to backtrack, at least in parts, from his main argument. Guilhot therefore reproduces a rather problematic binary view of global politics, notwithstanding an otherwise excellent book.

Milja Kurki, “Democracy and Conceptual Contestability: Reconsidering Conceptions of Democracy in Democracy promotion,” International Studies Review 12(3) (2010): 362–86.

Kurki has published a wide range of articles and books on the topic, all of which are equally commendable. Among other things, she provides A Critical Introduction (co-authored with Jeff Bridoux) to the topic, discusses The Conceptual Politics of Democracy Promotion (co-edited with Christopher Hobson) and—in a more recent publication—its Contested Ethics. A key concern present throughout Kurki’s work is a critical discussion of “democracy promotion’s” conceptual assumptions, including the poorly thought-through links between capitalism and democracy. She demonstrates that many authors (and donors) only pay lip service to the essentially contested nature of democracy’s meaning and, by adopting narrow procedural conceptualizations as default positions, fundamentally contradict widespread popular demands for social justice. While Kurki does not discuss the empirical reality of “democracy promotion” interventions, readers of her work can learn a lot about the deeply problematic conceptual assumptions of “democracy promotion.”

Tariq Dana, “The Structural Transformation of Palestinian Civil Society: Key Paradigm Shifts,” Middle East Critique 24(2) (2015): 191–210.

Dana explores the role of externally funded efforts at “democracy promotion” and “good governance” in Palestine in structurally transforming pre-Oslo mass-based movements into discrete groups of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. Providing a powerful analysis of the contradictions between a rhetoric of “democracy promotion” and anti-democratic practices, he zones in on the replacement of mobilization by consumption and competition, the superseding of anti-colonial struggle by apolitical approaches based on the politics of ‘peacebuilding’, and the forcing of ‘civil society’ actors into relationships of competition and external financial dependence. Dana demonstrates very persuasively how organizational shifts and a systemic depoliticisation separated socio-economic matters from the context of persistent Israeli military occupation and colonization and gradually marginalized anti-colonial forms of knowledge production with the overall effect of reinforcing hegemony and colonial control.

Sheila Carapico, Political Aid and Arab Activism: Democracy Promotion, Justice, and Representation (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Discussing external interventions in the fields of law, elections, women’s rights and civil society in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine and Iraq, this book is probably—certainly in terms of regional scope—the most comprehensive on this list. Carapico pursues a practice-oriented approach and—unlike many other scholars—demonstrates great familiarity with the implementation level of “democracy promotion.” Illustrating the multiple effects of such projects throughout the Middle East, she argues that “democracy promotion” can be both a mode of empowerment and a modality of power. While Carapico provides a fascinating in-depth study of interventions in the name of democracy, she appears to limit her definition of “democracy promotion” to only those activities that US and European donors explicitly subsume under that category in their funding reports. Her work thus ignores the notions of political economy and security that underlie the “democracy promotion” project.

Benjamin Schuetze, Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism: US and European Policy in Jordan (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Against the backdrop of Jordan being one of the highest recipients of “democracy promotion” funding worldwide, my own book investigates what US and European “democracy promoters” actually do when they promote democracy. I argue that Jordanian authoritarianism is so stable, not despite but in part, because of external attempts at “democracy promotion.” I demonstrate the ubiquity of Orientalist attitudes among “democracy promoters” and highlight the undermining of democratic values as they become circumscribed by neoliberal economic models and security collaboration. Although US and European policies in Jordan come under the cloak of a universal morality that claims the surmounting of authoritarianism as its objective, I show that their effects are not that different to traditional modes of imperial support for authoritarian regimes.

Erin A. Snider, “US Democracy Aid and the Authoritarian State: Evidence from Egypt and Morocco,” International Studies Quarterly 62(4) (2018): 795–808.

Starting from the observation that a number of quantitative studies find external attempts at “democracy promotion” to be generally ‘working’, just not in the Middle East (Finkel et al. 2006: 86), Snider criticizes the lack of explanations for this supposed Middle Eastern immunity to interventions in the name of democracy. She highlights the widespread failure to pay adequate attention to the micropolitics of democracy aid and to the contexts in which the latter is executed. Snider argues that democracy programs are often negotiated deals and hence reflect the strategic interests shared by both donor and recipient state. Looking at the case studies of US democracy programming in Egypt and Morocco, she argues that in practice, democracy aid may actually enable authoritarian regimes and undermine democracy, rather than promote it.

Andrea Teti, Pamela Abbott, Valeria Talbot & Paolo Maggiolini, Democratisation against Democracy: How EU Foreign Policy Fails the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

In this comprehensive study of EU foreign policy in the Middle East since 2011, the authors combine discourse analysis of EU policy documents and evidence from opinion polls to explain the EU’s failure as a normative power. The book reveals the EU-centrism in European attempts at “democracy promotion”, the perverse effects on the politics and economies of the affected states, and the fundamental mismatch between the EU’s desired own identity and strongly opposing popular receptions of EU policy and practice in the Middle East. Overall, this book is a very important and sobering response to the large body of literature on the European Union as a supposedly “normative power”.

Catherine E. Herrold, Delta Democracy: Pathways to Incremental Civic Revolution in Egypt and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Discussing how Egyptian organizations worked to promote democracy during and after the Arab uprisings, Herrold provides an insightful analysis into the ways in which Egyptian civil society organizations maneuver under state repression in order to combat authoritarianism. Unlike most other literature on the topic, Herrold focuses on interventions that are not publicly presented as efforts at “democracy promotion”. One of the most interesting points in her book is her illustration of the ways in which Egyptian development NGOs integrate attempts at democracy building into existing socioeconomic programs. Relying on much more substantive understandings of democracy, the interventions discussed by Herrold stand in stark contrast to the typical US and/or European funded attempts at promoting procedural democracy. Presenting a rather optimistic assessment, she argues that civil society organizations in autocratic states may have a considerable capacity to promote democracy. While her development of ‘an alternative democracy promotion playbook’ based on the work of Egypt’s NGOs certainly is a welcome corrective to ‘Western’-centric approaches, I remain skeptical as to whether US and/or European “democracy promotion” can indeed be reformed and become the emancipatory project that it claims to be.

Oz Hassan, Constructing America’s Freedom Agenda for the Middle East: Democracy and Domination (Routledge, 2014).

Hassan analyzes the construction and institutionalization of America’s ‘Freedom Agenda’ by the Bush administration. The author spends great detail in demonstrating how this ideological discursive formation has institutionalized modernization theory and its highly functionalist view of capitalism as inherent source for economic growth and democratization in US foreign and security policy. While the book does not discuss the empirical manifestation of “democracy promotion”, it provides an excellent analysis of how this new form of imperial security governance has come about.

Jason Brownlee, Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Brownlee traces US-Egyptian relations from 1973 to 2011, thoroughly showing how public claims of “democracy promotion” barely mask an actual politics of “democracy prevention.” Focusing on the economic and security arrangements between the United States and Egypt, he argues that “US and Egyptian officials have promoted an autocratic security state that supports a US-led regional order built around Israeli security and the projection of US influence over the Persian Gulf.” While the book was written before Mohammad Morsi’s election, its illustration of the Egyptian military’s hold on power is highly valuable also in light of the events that have occurred since. Discussing Egypt as an example of “transnational authoritarianism,” Brownlee demonstrates the institutionalized nature of US support for authoritarian rule in the country.

Adam Hanieh, “‘Democracy Promotion’ and Neoliberalism in the Middle East,” State of Nature 3 (2006).

In this article, Hanieh offers a concise and powerful exploration of the connections between US efforts at “democracy promotion” in the Middle East and the spread of neoliberal policies throughout the region. Drawing on Robinson, he views neoliberal “democracy promotion” as preempting radical political change by limiting dominant understandings of democracy to questions of politics, while simultaneously exacerbating socio-economic inequalities via policies of privatization, marketization and liberalization. Discussing the role of different actors from within the US “democracy promotion” establishment in Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, he illustrates the ways in which policies of “democracy promotion” facilitate the penetration of foreign capital throughout the region and aim at achieving a complete separation of economic policy from popular control. Understanding “democracy promotion” as one component of neoliberal imperialism, Hanieh’s article is a powerful reminder that it is “impossible to have any real political democracy without economic democracy”.

William P. Alford, “Review: Exporting ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’,” Harvard Law Review 113(7) (2000): 1677–1715 (Review of Thomas Carothers, Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999).

How to do justice to the fact that Carothers is arguably one of the most well-known scholars of “democracy promotion”, but at the same time mostly fails to address questions beyond the technical policy level? In an attempt to not entirely ignore policy-oriented literature, but also not simply perpetuate its questionable centrality, I consider a recommendation of this review of Carothers’ Aiding Democracy Abroad as one helpful way to go. The review offers a good starting point for a navigation of the kind of literature, in which open advocacy for “democracy promotion” and the desire to improve it clearly overshadow any scientific value. The significance of Carothers’ writings lies much less in illustrating the reality of “democracy promotion” than in reiterating its foundational assumptions that ‘we’ indeed know what democracy is (i.e. liberal democracy, polyarchy or procedural democracy) and can/should hence also promote it. Adopting the practical commitment in favor of liberal democracy as theoretical point of departure and the universalization of it as desired end goal, Carothers (and his numerous co-authors) pursue(s) a deeply teleological and self-confirming line of argument. While less overtly policy oriented, Sarah Sunn Bush’s The Taming of Democracy Assistance, which convincingly suggests that many “democracy promotion” programs do not confront dictators, is also based on the rather problematic assumption that “democracy promoters” can indeed be “set free” and “succeed at their stated missions” if only the right technocratic adjustments are implemented.

While there are many more recommendable books and articles on the topic, I believe that the ones here listed cover the most important critical approaches, and by constituting a subset of the broader scholarship on foreign intervention (see for instance Robert Vitalis’ America’s Kingdom) provide an excellent overview, as well as helpful foundation to explore the often deeply antidemocratic power structures that attempts at “democracy promotion” reinforce.

I can imagine a number of different directions for future research on the topic: Whereas a growing body of literature is exploring the role of race and gender in the field of humanitarian aid, this remains underexplored in the context of “democracy promotion”. An investigation of the role of “democracy promotion”, understood as moral purpose for liberal democracy’s coercive core, within the rise of populist politics could offer another fruitful avenue for future research. In this context, it might be interesting to bring together the literature on “democracy promotion” with that on transregional authoritarian entanglements and non-state-centric understandings of authoritarian power. In addition, scholars could compare external and internal attempts at “democracy promotion”. Do the latter demonstrate a similar focus on the supposedly inadequate ‘culture’ of the target audience as featured by many US and/or European interventions in the name of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa? Finally, and in light of the populist pressures that “democracy promotion” policies and budgets increasingly face in both ‘home’ and ‘target’ countries, the professional pathways of individual “democracy promoters” present another potential subject for future research.