Discussion, dialogue and negotiation are important aspects of democracy promotion | Photo: EU Non-Proliferation Consortium

Why study democracy promotion negotiation?

Democracy promotion is a fundamentally interactive practice: it involves a complex interplay of external and local actors. In perceiving their goals, democracy promoters interact with various kinds of “local actors” and must increasingly confront the fact that local interests not only have to be taken seriously and integrated, but that a successful democratization process requires more than template models imposed from the outside. It requires discussion, dialogue and negotiation – and here comes the problem: Although most scholars acknowledge the interactive nature of democracy promotion, the interaction process itself is largely treated as a “black box” and negotiation dynamics have been somewhat unexplored. This is about to change.

Disclaimer: This article sums up the core ideas of the article “Introduction: negotiating the promotion of democracy” by Annika E. Poppe, Julia Leininger and Jonas Wolff of the EDP special issue “The negotiation of democracy promotion: Issues, parameters and consequences”.

Democracy promotion can be understood as a complex interactive exchange of expectations, ideas and compromises between external and local actors that can hardly be grasped by the notion of a trade-like import-export relationship. During this process, democracy promoters frequently become part of the domestic politics of the countries they work in – promoting democracy from within, rather than from without. The interaction processes are certainly shaped by perceived interests (in power, wealth, security, etc.) that motivate external and local actors alike. More and more democracy promoters must confront the fact that democracy is a deeply contested concept and that democracy promotion negotiation should be perceived as a multidirectional process, leaving behind the idea of a unidirectional process, where an actor (the recipient) is essentially left with the choice of either accepting or resisting the offer of support of the donor. In reality, interaction encompasses meaningful agency on both sides, with local actors having ample room to demand, use or divert external aid activities for their own purposes and to “localize” or “appropriate”, and thereby transform, the very ideas, norms and institutions that democracy promoters seek to advance.

The concept of negotiation and three basic assumptions

The concept of negotiation grasps the very process of interaction outlined above: As long as democracy promoters do not choose entirely non-cooperative means, and as long as local actors do not entirely and without any objection accept a given set of democracy promotion activities in every single regard, there is necessarily some kind of disagreement between the (at least) two parties that is likely to be articulated and dealt with through direct and/or indirect communication. If successful, this process of communication will lead to an official or tacit agreement that, more or less successfully, reconciles the (conflicting) positions of the parties. The following three basic assumptions link the concept of negotiation with democracy promotion:

  1. Democracy promotion is an international practice that is necessarily accompanied by processes of negotiation.
  2. Negotiations will have an impact on the practice and the outcome of democracy promotion.
  3. Genuine negotiations are needed in order to enable democracy promotion to become mutually owned and effective.

What is the value of (studying) negotiation in democracy promotion?

Just as democracy promotion research has not yet made use of existing approaches to negotiation, neither the overall literature on international negotiation nor research on negotiation in aid relationships has addressed the specific issue of democracy promotion. The three basic assumptions outlined above clearly suggest that bringing these strands of literature – research on democracy promotion, on the one hand, and negotiation studies in international relations and development studies, on the other – together promises new empirical and theoretical insights that will also be of immediate policy relevance.

So far, research on aid negotiations has shown that even weak, aid-dependent countries are at times able to achieve significant concessions when negotiating with donor governments. As regarding recent political developments, democracy promotion, since the turn of the century, has been confronted with “a cascade of negative developments” that include a “global stagnation of democracy” and an open “backlash” against democracy promotion. In this context, many recipients of democracy promotion are not only defending their interests more assertively, they are also increasingly challenging fundamental normative assumptions of democracy promotion. As a consequence, there is certainly no lack of policy disagreements between democracy promoters and “recipients”. And, given the increasing scepticism and resistance against democracy in some parts of the world, negotiations are arguably crucial for enabling the continuity of democracy promotion in the face of broadly acknowledged limits of coercive democratization. Yet, again, we know almost nothing about such negotiations and how democracy promotion has (or has not) been adapted in turn.

Keeping the open backlashes against democracy promotion in mind, external democracy promotion should be genuinely negotiated – with “genuinely” meaning that negotiations have to be more than superficial and involve a substantial exchange on diverging values and interests. Normatively, the practice of democracy promotion should be designed as to at least limit the gap between the principles of democracy that are to be promoted and the logic of external interference that is inherently in tension with these very principles. It is through negotiations that “local” actors assume agency and can shape external policies intended to support democratization in their own country. In this sense, negotiations are one way to enable local participation in democracy promotion that, in turn, is generally regarded as essential for creating ownership.

The genuine inclusion of “local” actors into the planning and the implementation of democracy promotion is crucial also from a functionalist perspective, that is, in order to make democracy promotion work. This is not to assume that all conflicts can be solved if the parties only genuinely talked to each other but rather to emphasize that the underappreciation and – in the case of practitioners – limited implementation of this important dimension by both academics and politicians has contributed to the widespread problems and challenges that democracy promotion is confronted with today.

While existing scholarship suggests that the recipient side is regularly not taken seriously, it is not clear at all to what extent negotiations in democracy promotion actually take place, how genuine or substantial they are, and to what extent they produce results such as improving ownership and/or effectiveness. Furthermore, the relationship between the output (mutual ownership) and the outcome (effective democratization) is not necessarily linear. In negotiations between donor and recipient governments, for instance, the two sides may well agree to prioritize rather technical governance support or institutional strengthening with little direct relation to democratic principles. Depending on the context, such approaches can actually undermine democratic principles, and the result of negotiations might, thus, be a mutually owned practice of democracy promotion that is not at all promising in terms of actually fostering democracy. However, in order to be able to achieve the full potential of democracy promotion negotiations and their possibly positive outcomes, negotiation processes must first become the object of research. The following section illustrates the research insights that can be gained from studying democracy promotion negotiation.

Key findings of the negotiation process analysis

In a series of case studies, political elites in recipient countries questioned and contested democratic conceptions of external promoters, especially in political dialogues. The interaction between external and local actors led either to a gradual adaptation of democracy promoters’ agendas to the respective country context or individual issues were dropped off the agenda. In no case, however, did the respective external actor accept a fundamental change of its conception of democracy.

Although basic norms and fundamental issues concerning the relationship between internal and external actors were frequently addressed in most cases, the quality of negotiations was quite limited. Contestation of basic norms did not lead to an in-depth exchange of arguments or attempts by external actors to persuade local actors and none of the studies could actually identify traces of a process of arguing. Obviously, formalized political dialogues, diplomatic protocols and standardized implementation procedures leave very limited space to deeply engage in normative debates about such fundamental issues.

Besides formal impediments, the number of issues on the negotiation table also limit the possibility for in-depth negotiations of democratic norms. Usually, democracy is not the only issue on the agenda when negotiating democracy promotion given that democracy promotion is part of broader development and foreign-policy agendas of international donors. But there is an additional twist to the observation of relatively superficial exchanges on normative issues: the case studies suggest that it is particularly the democracy promoters who refrain from engaging in meaningful debates, whereas the supposedly normatively weaker party – the recipient or target of democracy promotion – not seldom is quite strong in normative terms, even sometimes has the edge. The reason for that might lie in the normative structure of interstate relations: structurally, in intergovernmental negotiations, the party that aims at interfering in the internal affairs of the other – in what is presented as a partnership type relationship of mutual cooperation – tends to be on the defensive.

It should neither be forgotten nor underestimated that the supposedly weaker party can be an equal negotiating partner in the democracy promotion negotiation process. In order to better understand these complex communication processes, future research should further concentrate on ways in which the negotiation process can take place on equal terms, because if democracy is to be promoted, the discussion about the terms should at least take place in the most democratic way possible.

Nora Berger-Kern

Nora Berger-Kern

Nora Berger-Kern studiert seit 2017 Internationale Studien / Friedens- und Konfliktforschung an der Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main und an der TU Darmstadt. Sie arbeitet seit Januar 2017 für das EDP-Netzwerk als studentische Hilfskraft an der HSFK. Ihr Forschungsinteresse gilt den Menschenrechten, dem humanitären Völkerrecht und humanitären Interventionen.

Nora Berger-Kern

Nora Berger-Kern studiert seit 2017 Internationale Studien / Friedens- und Konfliktforschung an der Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main und an der TU Darmstadt. Sie arbeitet seit Januar 2017 für das EDP-Netzwerk als studentische Hilfskraft an der HSFK. Ihr Forschungsinteresse gilt den Menschenrechten, dem humanitären Völkerrecht und humanitären Interventionen.

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