Spreading democracy to the furthest corners of the globe has always been a tough business. Western European democracies developed into their current form in fits and starts over many centuries, but inevitably attempts are made to speed the whole process up, dragging dictators, juntas, strongmen and politburos into the democratic world, often whether they like it or not. Unfortunately, the approaches that have been used have a very poor record of success, and a quick transition to democracy is still a very rare occurrance indeed.
Attempts to spread democracy usually take one of two forms. The first, multilateral “soft power”, is often channelled through the UN, and mainly involves sending in election monitors and publishing non-binding reports in very diplomatic language. Unsurprisingly, this is almost never effective, not least due to the senior UN posts held by oligarchies such as Russia and China. The second approach, the use of the “hard power” of military force to depose an autocrat, has just as poor a record, as the inability to set up stable democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan shows.
Amidst many failures in spreading democracy throughout the world, though, one region has bucked the trend, and democratised with astonishing speed. That region is Eastern Europe. Within little more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the former communist states had each independently managed to transform into fully functioning, stable and inclusive democracies, a transformation which has few historical precedents. Behind all these developments was a common aim; EU membership.
The EU is the only intergovernmental agency in the world with strict democratic requirements for entry. These don’t just include monitored elections, but also other important factors in the proper functioning of a democracy, such as independent judiciaries, a free press, protection of minorities and elimination of low-level corruption. Furthermore, the incentives to join the EU were considerable for these ex-Soviet states. Not only did access to the EU market offer significant economic benefits, but membership also conferred an important degree of legitimacy and credibility among the international community to these young states.
What’s perhaps most important to note in looking at how these democracies developed, is that the pressure for development of the democratic institutions came from within each country; it was a “bottom up” democratisation, unlike the attempted “top down” democratisations of Iraq or Afghanistan. In Poland, for example, the building blocks of democracy were put in place by the Solidarity movement, who had gained popularity and legitimacy from their years of opposition to the communist regime. Of course, in many cases international assistance was given in setting up these institutions, but this assistance was requested, not imposed. The fact that the driving forces for democracy were internal to the countries gave the democratic institutions a legitimacy that an internationally imposed system of governance could never hope to achieve.
Of course, we can’t bring democracy to Zimbabwe or Burma by offering them EU membership, but we do have the opportunity to set up an international institution that could use the same incentives, free trade and legitimacy, to promote bottom up development of democracies in far flung places. That opportunity presents itself in the gradual but inevitable failure of the WTO which, due to its unanimity requirement for negotiating trade deals, has been in almost perpetual stalemate since it was founded in 1995.
Suppose that, out of frustration with the ineffectiveness of the WTO, the world’s leading democracies decide to set up a new organisation, which we’ll call the Democratic Free Trade Association, or DFTA. This new institution would only allow membership to democracies, with the same sort of strict requirements as the EU, and would continually monitor the democratic credentials of member states, with the threat of expulsion for those whose standards drop after joining. Once a country joins the DFTA, it would then have significantly reduced tariffs and trade restrictions with other members, and could take part in a qualified majority voting system for further trade liberalisations.
The economic incentive for developing dountries to join would be clear. By providing preferential market access to the EU, US, Japan, India and Brazil, among others, and with a decision making system that would allow further liberalisation to be achieved much more effectively than in the WTO, countries would see very real economic benefits from joining. Furthermore, the rigid democratic requirements, and membership of almost every developed country, would confer a significant degree of legitimacy on any government which does bring its nation to membership. In this way the DFTA could use a kind of semi-soft power, eschewing coercion or force, but with solid incentives which would provide fertile ground for just the kind of bottom-up democratic development that occurred in Eastern Europe.
It’s also important to note that the DFTA wouldn’t need a remit that extends any further than monitoring democracy and eliminating barriers to trade. In particular, workplace or environmental standards could be left off the agenda, greatly simplifying negotiations. Certainly, one of the principal critiques of free trade agreements in the US and EU is that developing countries often have lax workplace standards and poor environmental records, allowing them to undercut local producers. This is undoubtedly true in some cases, but it simply isn’t feasible for any organisation to monitor and enforce these standards internationally. By far the most effective tool to combat exploitative work and environmental practices is a functioning democracy itself, backed up by a free press. Brazil is an excellent example of this; as its democracy has matured over the past two decades, public pressure has brought about significant improvements to its once abysmal environmental record.
Of course, we can’t expect any organisation to bring democracy to the whole world overnight, but the DFTA could provide the right incentives to bolster those who are trying to promote democracy from within, and in doing so make a modest but positive step towards a world where everyone has a say in how their nation is run.