Another and better way of promoting democracy

James Van Zorge
James Van Zorge, is a Business consultant in Indonesia that has worked for the Harvard Institute for International Development, Food and Agriculture Organization, McKinsey & Co., and A.T.Kearney’s Global Business Policy Institute. He completed his BA in International Relations, summacum laude, at the State University of New York at Albany, and he holds a Masters of Public Policy, International Economics, from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Hence the challenge that Washington faces when trying to build stronger and larger alliances against the likes of China and Russia. The Biden administration understands this constraint, which also explains why Washington is rolling out pro-democracy initiatives in regions such as Africa where, for example, American policymakers are promoting democratic governance through what they are saying is “a targeted mix of positive inducements and punitive measures such as sanctions.” 

Unfortunately a carrot and stick approach in attempts to forge more open societies is not likely to be effective and sometimes could prove in the end to be counterproductive. Illiberal leaders, authoritarians and military juntas don›t want to be told how to run their countries and will not take it lightly if America tries to induce them into enacting democratic reforms—by doing so, Washington faces the risk of alienating leaders and pushing them even closer to Moscow and Beijing. 

Read: Taiwan rejects unification with China under “one country, two systems” principle

A better and more nuanced approach in promoting democracy would not be preaching or punishing politicians but rather directly engaging with pro-democracy leaders and activists. Often Washington forgets that where countries are governed by nondemocratic politicians there are bound to be civil society leaders and opposition figures fighting for change–these are America›s best assets on the ground, and if the Biden administration were serious about promoting democracy then it should invite them for high-level meetings in Washington. Invariably a handshake here and a hug there coming from Biden officials would send clear and strong signals of support that would also resonate back in the home countries of prodemocracy leaders. In essence it would be saying to wayward leaders that while Washington may still do business with them, it does not mean that it totally supports their being in power.