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Democracy and the Changing International Order

Democracy and the Changing International Order


Getachew Mequanent

Ottawa, Canada

December 27, 2017


The dismantling of the Communist Block and end of the Cold War in the late 20th century gave rise for the prominence of a liberal international order which for the most part manifested itself in the form of expansion of liberal democracy, free market economy, multilateral trade and new or renewed security alliances around the world. This international order has been vigorously promoted and defended by America, Britain, France, Germany and other Western liberal countries, and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. Today growing nationalism and populism in America and across Europe is undermining this order and already generating a debate on future of the current international system. Added to all this is the increasing economic wealth and influence of China, India and other emerging economies, which is working in favour of changing the unequal relationships of power between the North (West) and South (rest of the globe) that have ensured Western hegemony of the international system since the end of the Second World War.The question that one asks is then to what extent such trends, or the changing international order more broadly, may affect democracy as a preferred form of governance world wide? This piece briefly highlights some key aspect of the debate in this area and comments on the future of democracy.

By the 1990s, “democracy promotion”had become one of the principal objectives of American foreign policy and those of major Western donor nations. As such, liberal democracy was being promoted in developing countries at face value, with a strong emphasis on the formation of representative governments through competitive elections. Indeed, the number of countries organizing elections rose dramatically and this became a cause for more optimism to intensify efforts for promoting democracy worldwide. Then, some countries started to "backslide"to populism and authoritarianism, while in others competitive elections became messy events with the winners claiming victory and the losers crying foul, at times such situations escalating into violence. By 2010s, some scholars in the field had coined words like “democracy pushback”, “democracy recession” and “democracy reversal” to emphasize that democratization efforts in many countries were stalled.Despite such a concern, the facts suggest that elections and peaceful transitions of power are taking place in many countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Part of the uncertainty or pessimism about the progress towards democracy development in these countries can be attributed to higher expectations measured against the performance of advanced democracies which have a wealth of experience in practicing democracy.

The debate about the state of liberal democracy isby no means limited to developing countries only. It has become a hot issue in advanced democracies. In an opinion piece which appearedin Washington Post (June 15, 2017), the CNN host Fareed Zakaria wrote that American politics has become more about racial, ethnic, religious, genderand class identity. “The dangerous aspect of this new form of politics is that identity does not lend itself easily to compromise…becoming more like Middle Eastern politics, where there is no middle ground between being Sunni or Shiite”, he wrote.In the Journal of Democracy (July 2016), Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk wrote that citizens of Western democracies “have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives”. No wonder that the populist Donald Trump got elected as the 45th President of the United States by promising to destroy the Washington political establishment.

Under Donald Trump, America is abandoning its foreign policy tradition of advocating for human rights, democracy, multilateralism and leadership in major global initiatives in favour of inward looking policies that advance national interests including renegotiating trade agreements to protect domestic industries that are losing out for global competitions.During his trip to the Middle East earlier this year, the President did not say the word “human rights”in all of his engagements with heads of state and media. He rubbed shoulders with the Philippines President, who is accused by international human rights organizations of giving orders for security forces to execute suspected drug dealers on site. A referendum in Turkey earlier this year granted the populist President sweeping powers including allowing him to stay on until 2029;  American and Western reaction to this outcome was unusually muted. America has restored relation with Sudan, even though its leaders is still under arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court accused of crime against humanity. American financial contribution to the UN was just reduced by $285 million as a penalty for the UN assembly voting in opposition to Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel. Other multilateral organizations can expect the same response if they dare to oppose any American position on international affairs. The list of what President Trump is currently doing to change the international order can go on.Suffice it to say that America as leadership model and source of inspiration fordemocracy and multilateralism is diminishing.

Across Europe, populism and far-right political parties are gaining political grounds because of societies’ fear of lack of security, loss of religious and cultural identity and declining economic opportunities ensuing from continued mass migrations. The British exit from the European Union; the rise of far-right political parties to power in Austria and Germany; and the current political crisis in Spain, are already having a political impact across the continent. Although Europe remains the second largest economy in the world, its global market share has increasingly seen a downward trend as rapidly growing economies like China,India and others compete in the open market to sell goods and services at reduced prices.If the growth of European economies continue to stagnate, this would mean lack of economic opportunities, rising levels of poverty, widespread anger and frustration and increasing momentum for populist and far-right political parties to achieve full seizure of state power. This could instigate ethnic, racial and religious divisions and weaken European societies. As it stand, European countries have also become more interested in seeking trade opportunities with growing economies, while the promotion of liberal democracy around the world has taken a back seat.

After experimenting failed liberal democracy, Russians appears to have settled for a strong man, Vladimir Putin, who projects Russia’s power and prestige at international stage. Russia is also posturing its military power against NATO and employing both intimidation and persuasion to bring back the Balkans and countries that were part of the former Soviet Union into its orbit. In the Atlantic Daily (Dec. 16, 2017), Larry Diamond of Sanford University wrote that  Russia under Putin has embarked on a campaign of sabotaging liberal democracy including by supporting populist and far-right political parties across Europe. Diamond asserts that “the greatest danger [for liberal democracy]… is not what is happening in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. It is the alarming decay of liberal democracy in Europe and the United States, accelerated by escalating Russian efforts at subversion”. Russian alleged meddling in the 2016 American presidential election is public knowledge.

China, India and other emerging economies are getting richer and growing in their global influence and power. For instance, China is currently embarking on an ambitious $5 trillion OBOR (One Belt One Road) infrastructure project that spans across Asia, Middle East, Europe and Africa, with the aim of laying down transportation networks that will allow the flow of its manufactured goods to global markets. The growing trade protectionism in the West should be an important consideration in this plan, yet this mega projectis a clear evidence of China’sincreasing global power.

The creation of a development bank by the BRICS (a summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Asian Infrastructure Bank and financial resources made available by regional banks and private sector will eventually reduce developing countries’ dependency on World Bank and IMF to finance their national development programs. They would be able to choose their own course and pace of development. This also means an end to Western hegemony in global finance.

The “African rising” narrative could be contradictory in itself with accelerated economic growth in some countries and war and mass displacement in others. Yet, Africa is no longer the “hopeless continent”. It is seen as the last “market frontier” with abundant natural resources and immense opportunities for investment, trade and consumer markets of one billion people. Emerging economies like China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Gulf States and others are increasing their investment and trade footprints across the continent, stimulating economic growth and creating jobs. The African Union has increasingly taken the lead in the resolution of regional conflicts and setting the continent’s development agenda. Africa is best placed to benefit from the changing international order by maximizing opportunities from multiple sources of development finance, trade and investment, and more importantly, the opportunity to seek alternative models of governance that would be more suited to the continent’s diversity in demography, culture, political history and levels of economic development.


It is not possible to cover all the issues inherent in the changing international order in this short piece. The military tension in the Korean Peninsula, global jihadist movement, crisis in the Middle East, human migration, transnational crime, new or renewed security alliances, and other factors are creating more impetuses for countries around the world to collaborate in the protection of their national interests and maintenance of international peace and security. More importantly, such mutually beneficial collaborations have potential to give more power and influence for developing countries and regional powers in decision-making processes, while reducing unequal relationships between the North and South that have ensured Western hegemony for several decades. The “traditional” role of the North in dictating the South on democracy, human rights, economic growth and other public policy issues would be winding down. Given their capabilities, Western Powers will still continue to play leading roles in the resolution of major regional conflicts and humanitarian crises, but, in the future, they wouldlikely consider more advisory and supportive roles in the development of other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.This was evident in the sentiments expressed during the recent G20 forum.


As for the future of democracy, many would agree that it will continue to be the preferred choice of system of governance as it provides people with opportunities to decide on how they are governed and the policies and institutions which best serve their interests.The emerging international order may not diminish democracy’srelevance for modern societies. An increasing number of developing countries may be looking to China and other successful countries for economic growth models, but they will not totally abandon their struggle to develop democracy as a political system. Moreover, the new international orderwould decrease the euphoria of rapid conversion of the whole globe into liberal democracy. There would be more realistic expectations of democracy as a solution for the ills of society around the world and instead give rise for a renewed focus on exploring governance models that can be branded and rebranded to address societies’ needs. Instead of taking the Western version of liberal democracy at face value, each country could develop its own political and state models that better achieve a fit with its political history and socio-economic circumstances. Finally, the discourse of democracy can advocate the role of strong state in political and socio-economic development. The portrayal of a strong state as authoritarian state is misguided.


The preceding brief discussion has highlighted some key trends in the world that is rapidly changing.Ethiopia will be directly or indirectly, negatively or positively, affected by these changes, including easy access to external finances; growing trade and investment opportunities from emerging economies; changing geopolitical and security alliances; the crises in the Middle East; terrorism; and transnational human migration. The changing democracy narrative can influence the thinking of Ethiopians on their country’s political development. Even then, we cannot predict what Ethiopia should look like in decades or a generation. But we can be certain that democracy and federalism will continue to work, because both guarantee equal political and socio-economic rights for the diverse peoples of Ethiopia.It is regrettable that some critics have continued to attack the federation claiming that it is responsible for inciting tragiccommunal conflicts in some parts of the country. The federal system itself wasn’t the problem. Government authorities at different levels failed to act proactively to cool down rising tensions which for the most part were caused by competing claims over land resources. We understand that the leadership of EPRDF is currently conducting closed door meetings to address ongoing security crises across the country and other burning governance issues including corruption and public political discord.

Years of rapid economic growth is slowly erasing Ethiopia’s image of poverty, famine and civil war. This condition has attracted foreign investment that will help to propel the industrial transformation of the national economy. With strong and skillful diplomacy and national leadership, Ethiopia is well placed to maneuver through the rising new international order, making use of emerging opportunities in trade and development to transform itself into a middle income country.




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