Promoting Democracy Abroad

Is it the right time for Canada to take on this file?

A subtle but important shift is taking place in the language used to describe the mission of the United States in the contemporary world. Two years ago, the mantra driving the Bush administration, and U.S. foreign policy more generally, was the “freedom agenda.” Autocrats were put on notice: the U.S. would no longer blindly support them in the interest of strategic stability. Condoleezza Rice, speaking at the American University in Cairo in June 2005, epitomized this elevation of values and ideals over power politics: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East—and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

The strategy of the neo-conservatives during George W. Bush’s first term in office (particularly in Iraq) was one of creative destruction: by dismantling the infrastructure of autocratic states, democracy would have an opportunity to flourish. In today’s environment, however, the purpose of U.S. foreign policy is more about fostering stability. Bush’s plea to the United Nations in September 2007 to push for democratic change around the world can be seen as the last gasp from a presidency whose ideals have confronted some pretty hard realities. The U.S. is no longer shaking up the snow globe and letting the flakes fall where they may; it is actively seeking out partners and institutions that serve the goal of order—not necessarily freedom. Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are trumpeting the “new realism” in international relations. In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, for instance, in place of Bush’s tributes to the march of freedom, Rudolph Giuliani described a vision of “a lasting, realistic peace” and “an ever-widening arc of security and stability across the globe.”

Enter into this more sombre foreign policy context an ambitious Canadian report on democracy promotion by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. Entitled Advancing Canada’s Role in International Support for Democratic Development, the report recommends a substantial upgrade in Canada’s political and financial commitment to democracy promotion. More specifically, SCFAID calls on the Canadian government to elevate democracy promotion to one of the key priorities of its foreign policy, and to establish a spanking new umbrella institution—what it calls the “Canada foundation”—to oversee and fund expanded democratic development initiatives.1

The committee’s recommendations also come at a time when the tempo around Canadian foreign policy has picked up considerably. Canadians are consumed by the war in Afghanistan and are debating it on the radio, on campuses and in coffee shops around the country. Institutions are being created to enhance the study of Canada and the world—including two new graduate schools of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and the University of Waterloo. The man who endowed the latter of these, Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie, has also led the fundraising for a new think tank dedicated to Canadian foreign policy—called the Canadian International Council—to be housed at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto.

This infusion of energy and resources into the foreign affairs arena naturally raises the question of whether more bricks and mortar—in this case, an institution dedicated to democratic development—is what we really need. More fundamentally, it forces us to consider what Canada’s foreign policy should be all about. Unfortunately, SCFAID does not provide an explicit rationale for its focus on democratic development, beyond arguing that current Canadian efforts in this field are “too modest, diffuse and fragmented” to make an impact internationally. There are, however, at least four ways that a case could be made for prioritizing the promotion of democracy in Canadian foreign policy (some of which are implicit in the committee’s report). Let me assess each of these in turn.

The first rationale emerges from the academic discipline of international relations. Statistical and historical analysis undertaken in the 1980s led to the articulation of the closest thing to a “law” that international relations has ever had: democracies do not go to war with each other. Drawing on older Kantian ideas about the pacific nature of republican states, this so-called democratic peace thesis became extremely influential in western policy-making circles following the end of the Cold War—especially in the administration of U.S. president Bill Clinton. If democracies are not inclined to fight against one another, the policy implication is that the construction of “good” (liberal-democratic) polities is the best guarantee of international stability.

Following the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, the alleged link between democracy and security was given even greater prominence, as states that did not enjoy “good governance” came to be seen as likely hosts for international terrorist movements and bases for organizing attacks upon democratic societies. Such a view was clearly expressed in the 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States, which commits the U.S. “to walk alongside governments and their people” during the difficult transition to effective democracies: “We will not abandon them before the transition is secure,” the document states, “because immature democracies can be prone to conflict and vulnerable to exploitation by terrorists.” This logic makes the rationale for why Canada should promote democracy reasonably straightforward. “The answer is not simply that it corresponds to our highest ideals of government,” says Jeffrey Kopstein of the University of Toronto (an expert witness for SCFAID), “but also that it serves our national interests.”

While the equation between democracy and security appears to make a powerful case for elevating democracy promotion in Canada’s foreign policy, there are two caveats. First, the democratic peace thesis has generated a series of counter claims. One of the most significant is the research finding that while established democracies might not fight each other, states in the early phases of transition to democracy are highly prone to war. In short, democratization is an unpredictable and conflict-ridden process. Reviewing a series of cases from the past two centuries in Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, political scientists Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder argue that ill-prepared attempts to democratize weak states (such as Pakistan, Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia) can actually enhance the chances of conflict in the short run and even delay real progress to democracy in the long run.

Second, the reliance on security arguments to support democracy promotion can produce some unpleasant conclusions. If democracy is a means to a strategic end (in this case, national or international security), then it can just as easily be abandoned if another “quick and dirty” route to that end is found. A number of states (including the U.S. and Russia) have come to believe that the logic underpinning the “war on terror” does not require a commitment to install particular political values around the globe. Some would argue, in fact, that democratic regimes complicate the task of counter-terrorism, since open societies are more constrained in their use of tools of surveillance and control. If the imperative is to protect one’s own society from harm and deny terrorists a safe haven, it may be that the goal of foreign policy should be the creation of strong states—even if this means tolerating strong states—even if this means tolerating authoritarian impulses.

So, if the democratic peace thesis provides only a partial justification for prioritizing democracy promotion, where else might we find a compelling rationale? A second candidate is what I call the argument of “Canadian exceptionalism”: the idea that Canada somehow possesses special abilities and capacities that make it well suited to the export of democracy. Canada’s 2005 International Policy Statement captured this justification in its discussion of Canada’s assistance to so-called failed states:

“For those in countries where violence threatens to overtake political accommodation as the answer to competing interests, Canada’s long history of accommodation of linguistic, ethnic and cultural differences … offers a glimmer of hope. Our system of governance represents a laboratory full of intriguing experiments that can assist others engaged in the complex task of institution building.”

The members of SCFAID adopt this view and take it one step further, asserting that there is a unique Canadian approach to democracy promotion derived from our particular skills in police training, judicial reform, election monitoring, anti-corruption and parliamentary oversight. Moreover, their report suggests that Canada’s collaborative style of working with developing countries has earned the country a positive reputation in the democracy promotion “business.”

There are three features of this assumption about a Canadian comparative advantage that are worth scrutinizing more closely. First, Canada’s confidence about democracy promotion is based on very recent experience. Neither of our prominent prime ministers of the Cold War period—Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau—considered democratic governance to be an essential part of efforts at bringing about greater justice internationally. It was only in the mid 1980s, with the publication of two seminal reports on democracy and human rights and a new comprehensive strategy on foreign aid from the Canadian International Development Agency, that human rights and democracy received any sustained attention in international policy-making circles.2 Moreover, with the exception of Canada’s sanctions against South Africa and suspension of aid to Zaire, the aspiration to link trade, aid and democratic governance was not realized until Lloyd Axworthy assumed the position of minister of foreign affairs in the mid 1990s.

In sum, Canada has had roughly a decade of experience in integrating governance considerations into its development assistance programming, and even less time dealing with the challenge of failed states. Is this really enough to support bold claims about comparative advantage? It is one thing to be a (relatively successful) democracy; it is quite another to be an expert in assisting others to follow suit. Recent research conducted by Oxford’s Global Economic Governance Programme concluded that Canada’s early attempts to link foreign aid to better (and more democratic) governance have been fragmented and unsystematic, making them extremely difficult to evaluate in terms of outcomes. It is even hard to determine how much is actually being spent on democratic promotion.

A second problem with the “special abilities” argument is that it does not necessarily provide a coherent blueprint for how to promote democracy. Canada’s comparative advantage is alleged to derive from a wide variety of experiences—running successful elections, managing a dual common law/civil law code, integrating gender equality into policy making, participating in peace building and conflict prevention, etc. But it does not appear—as the committee itself notes—that we have sufficient knowledge which of these skills Canada is most adept in.

Finally, the impression given by the SCFAID report—that there are countless Canadian professionals just waiting for the chance to apply their skills in democratic governance to a developing country context—has a potential downside. It can feed all too easily into the broader tendency among western countries to use their relationships with developing countries to advance opportunities for their own consultants, private sector and civil society actors, and academic experts. The findings of the Global Economic Governance Programme suggest that while expertise can sometimes act as a guide for good policy—for example, Canada’s successful legal reform and judicial training projects in Vietnam—western countries must prioritize the cultivation of partner country expertise and ensure that they are not substituting for the capacity they are supposedly seeking to foster. The members of the standing committee insist that they are aware of this pitfall, and that all democratic development “should be done in ways that fully respect the need for democratization processes to be domestically led and not driven by outsiders.” Yet there is very little in the report on how to foster “local leadership” or how to ensure that Canadian democracy promoters truly listen and identify the needs of partner countries.

There is a third justification for prioritizing democracy promotion that lurks just below the surface of the committee’s recommendations: the desire for Canada to make more of a difference internationally. While this was an objective that exercised the brains surrounding former prime minister Paul Martin, it is even more prominent in the current government of Stephen Harper—a man committed to measuring the concrete results of policy and playing them back to the Canadian public. The members of SCFAID contend that a concerted new effort to make Canada “a major-league player” in democracy promotion will bring the country much-needed visibility in the international arena.

It is this impulse to be noticed that brings me back to one of the most controversial aspects of the SCFAID report: the recommendation to create a new Canadian foundation dedicated to democracy promotion. (It would appear that the Harper government is backing away from this bold move.) As an umbrella organization, it would fulfil three main functions: to give a coherent Canadian identity to the various governmental and non-governmental initiatives undertaken in partner countries, to support the generation of better knowledge and evaluation to assist the work of democracy promoters and to kick-start new areas of activity where Canada has been less prominent—most notably the creation of a new centre focused on supporting the development of political parties in democratizing countries.3 Drawing on the example of Canada’s own International Development Research Centre, the new foundation would be independent (“arm’s-length” from government), accountable (reporting annually to Parliament through the minister of foreign affairs), governed by a board of directors appointed by the government on the basis of all-party consultations and well funded (given resources “sufficient to put Canada among the world leaders in the field”). An exact number for the annual appropriation is not given, but reading between the lines I can see that a figure of at least $50 million is envisaged.

Committee members acknowledge the many individuals and institutions that are already engaged in democratic development, including the Montreal-based organization Rights and Democracy, the expanded activities of Elections Canada, CANADEM (the organization that matches talented Canadians with international organizations working to advance the principles of the United Nations Charter) and the multilateral organizations with extensive mandates for democracy promotion, such as the Commonwealth, la Francophonie, the Organization for American States, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In addition to these established channels, three new bodies dedicated to democracy promotion were created in Ottawa in the last two years: the Democracy Unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Office for Democratic Governance within CIDA and the Democracy Council (a forum for sharing information and best practices among government agencies and non-governmental organizations).4 Representatives from some of these groups warned SCFAID against setting up a new institution and instead recommended that the government improve their own effectiveness by providing adequate funding. Yet, after surveying their work, SCFAID concluded that “Canada is still punching below its weight in this field” and that “an incremental sprinkling of resources across an array of small organizations will [not] be good enough to make Canada a ‘serious player’.”

What is troubling about this rationale is the suggestion that when Canadians participate in democracy promotion through multilateral organizations or non-governmental organizations based in other countries (such as the United States or the United Kingdom), they are not furthering Canada’s own approach to democratic development. As one witness before the committee put it, “while it is admirable that Canada has exported so many individuals who thrive within international organizations, little or no credit accrues to Canada as a result of their activities.” In other words, the problem for SCFAID is not just that current Canadian efforts are disparate, but that they do not seem to be furthering our foreign policy objectives.

This assumption, however, is based on a traditional and in many ways outdated view of how a country represents itself, and has an impact, in global politics today. Simply put, it is all too territorial. Why do individual Canadians need to be attached to a particular organization, based on Canadian soil, in order to serve Canadian objectives? (And why is it a problem if Canadian interests coincide with those of other actors?) We should not really care who gets credit for the good work, only that the good work gets done. Many of our respected Canadians are global citizens, and that is how it should be.

The fourth argument in favour of prioritizing democracy promotion in our foreign policy—and the one I am most sympathetic to—emerges from Canadian values. Regardless of how well we practice it ourselves, democratic governance is a critical part of our country’s history and a continuing aspiration for its citizens. It also continues to inspire many around the globe who live under repressive governments, as the recent demonstrations by Burmese monks so vividly show. Democracy is neither an end nor a good in itself: as a form of governance that rests on consent, it allows people to pursue common goals and to improve their condition. Thus, as SCFAID puts it, democracy is not just a “luxury” that citizens in some states enjoy, but can also be a positive factor in economic growth and development. As such, it just makes sense for it to be a defining feature of Canada’s actions internationally.

This final rationale does not place democracy in the service of security. It does not claim that Canadians have been born with a special democracy gene. Nor does it pander to a self-centred concern to be noticed and thanked on the international stage. What it does do is assert a particular political value—one that is common to several members of contemporary international society—and claim that Canada should reflect and advance that value in its foreign relations. In voicing such a justification, Canada would be communicating that it, too, has something to say about liberal values and that the Bush administration does not have the monopoly on the strategies for extending the global reach of those values.

What makes all of this tricky, of course, is the highly politicized nature of assisting democratic development in today’s international climate. The backlash against democracy promotion was already apparent in the 1990s, when many countries that caught the “democratization wave” experienced stalled or failed transitions. But the skepticism has both broadened and intensified in recent years, largely as a result of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Segments of the Canadian public clearly share this squeamishness. Earlier this year, when the Harper government conducted focus groups on the mission in Afghanistan, in order to improve its communication on the purpose and nature of Canada’s involvement, it found that members of the public were distinctly uncomfortable about casting objectives in terms such as freedom and democracy; these notions seemed “too preachy” and “too American.” Instead, focus group participants preferred descriptions of the mission that emphasized concrete development objectives, such as rebuilding roads or setting up schools to educate Afghan women.

This small vignette raises two important issues. First, why do many Canadians (although not all) seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of promoting liberal political values? Democracy is certainly not the preserve of the United States; indeed, India is the world’s largest democracy. Moreover, as I suggested above, democracy plays a big part in Canada’s own national story. Is this reluctance a function of a deeper Canadian sensibility, to value pluralism? And second, if concrete development objectives appear more attractive to Canadians, how can these be translated into a value? Canadians are being naive if they think that reconstruction activities in Afghanistan are somehow neutral and apolitical. The projects supported by CIDA, DFAIT and the Department of National Defence are taking a particular view about all kinds of issues, including what best contributes to a stable government, how minorities should be protected and how women can participate in politics.

Mindful of the current backlash against democracy promotion, and the degree to which the very term democracy has become contested, SCFAID argues that Canada should adopt an approach that places democratic development under the banner of universal human rights. In short, the goal here is liberal democracy, which requires not only participation by the governed in decision making, but also a set of civil, political, social and economic rights that supports and protects the role of individuals in the democratic process. Such a broad conception of democracy, the committee believes, will alleviate Canadians’ concerns about the political nature of democracy promotion.

While I appreciate the political reasons for wanting to soften the edges of democracy promotion, and to appeal to Canadians’ attachment to human rights, the committee has complicated rather than advanced public policy. It has made democratic development about everything, without giving guidance on priorities. A shopping-list approach to democratization already characterizes policy making in Ottawa; a series of ingredients are listed but there is no understanding of the dynamic relationships among the items in the basket. What democracy promoters need now is a clear articulation of the link between the different components of political reform they are seeking to advance—popular participation, respect for human rights and the rule of law—and a more closely delineated division of labour. They also need a crisper way of evaluating their interventions. At the end of the day, if democracy is the goal, external support should be assessed on the basis of whether it actually helps citizens gain more influence over decision making.

Despite these caveats, I have a great deal of sympathy for the boldness underlying the report. As a G8 country, with an established track record of international engagement and a cosmopolitan population, Canada has invested far too little in thinking about its role in the 21st-century world and how individual citizens outside government might contribute to it. A properly funded institution, focused on the particular theme of democracy, has the potential to improve our game considerably—particularly if it is arm’s-length and does not have to address the myriad of interests and constituencies that government is responsible to. Those who say we already have the institutions, and merely need to widen their mandates and support them more vigorously, are right to warn against duplication. But there is also a strong argument for specialization and the maintenance of coherent organizational cultures—letting Rights and Democracy concentrate on what it does best (civic education and human rights work) and establishing a new area of expertise in helping partner countries develop effective multi-party systems.5

The real question is why we need an umbrella organization in addition to a new institute dedicated to supporting political parties. Will a centralized mechanism for democracy promotion, which gathers up all the disparate initiatives, really ensure greater effectiveness? Or will it become, in the words of one witness, a “bureaucratic monster”? Could better focus and coordination achieve just as much, if not more, than new bricks and mortar? We do not yet know the answer to these questions. In fact, we still know very little about what effectiveness in the area of democracy promotion really entails.

This is likely the reason why the Conservative government, in tabling its response to SCFAID, is sounding more cautious. It speaks of “democracy support” rather than “promotion.” And it has said “not yet” to new institutions, concentrating instead on giving Canadians a clearer picture of what the current slate of publicly funded programs is actually accomplishing.

By insisting that the government decide now on establishing a Canada foundation, the standing committee was putting the cart before the horse.


  1. In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that I appeared as a witness before the committee.  

  2. See “Independence and Internationalism,” the report of the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and of the House of Commons on Canada’s International Relations (Ottawa, 1986), and Gisèle Côté-Harper and John Courtney (1987), “International Cooperation for the Development of Human Rights and Democratic Institutions,” Rapporteurs’ Report (Ottawa). These two reports laid the groundwork for the creation of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (now Rights and Democracy).  

  3. The model for assisting party development is the Netherlands Institute of Multiparty Democracy, a body that draws on the skills of Dutch politicians across the ideological spectrum to deliver training in campaigns, electioneering, media relations and party financing.  

  4. The Office for Democratic Governance has taken over Canada Corps, the Liberal government’s 2004 initiative to facilitate the participation of qualified Canadians in promoting human rights and democracy abroad.  

  5. See Thomas S. Axworthy, Leslie Campbell and David Donovan (2005), “The Democracy Canada Institute: A Blueprint,” IRPP Working Paper 2005-2 (Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy).