Hitting Hard or Staying Soft: Democracy Promotion as a Norm

Promoting democracy is a main goal in the foreign policy of the EU and US. Studies show that democracy promotes both economic and social benefits and that it lowers the tendency to go to war. This is well agreed upon in the EU and US. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) even takes it into their definition of poverty, claiming “poverty is not just about a lack of food, water or a roof over your head. Being poor also implies suffering from a lack of power and choice.” But are the views on how to promote democracy generally agreed upon? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. While the US democracy promotion has shown more hard power, also called non-normative, characteristics, the EU prefers soft power, or normative, actions.

Promoting democracy also promotes peace, prosperity, and pluralism in a country. It is claimed that true democracies never go to war in between each other. These are powerful statements that make it worthwhile to push for a change in non-democratic states, and the rest of the world can enjoy the benefits, too. One good example of this is the US’ role in spreading and widening democracy in Europe after World War II—something that no doubt lead to the aforementioned traits of democracy.

While it has long been common practice to aid human rights and disaster relief work, promoting democracy is a newer idea. It was not until the 1990s that the first step was taken towards this approach, with the USAID Democracy Initiative. From this, the US has developed a sometimes criticized top-down approach to promote democracy. Some claim it is applied as a one size fits all program, and military intervention is not uncommon, even if it is stated to be a last resort. The US promotion strategies were even debated to get cut out of the international aid programs in the late 90s, due to their high costs and many drawbacks. However, the 9/11 attacks drastically changed this view, and democracy promotion became more in the spotlight than ever before.

In the EU, it is emphasized that promoting democracy also helps human rights issues, and funding for the two have become intertwined within the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). This makes it more compatible with other kinds of work that aim for a better future for the population. The EU also puts effort in achieving good knowledge about the region in question and in creating strong relationships between the country’s leaders and the governmental organization. This can, on the one side, be argued to be for the better, avoiding military conflict in an already vulnerable country, but there is also criticism towards the friendly approach in dealing with autocratic leaders. 

It is useful to examine the picture of US as the hard power actor and EU as the soft power actor on a case-to-case basis. For instance,  Yemen—a country of weak democracy, poor domestic security, and a haunting Al-Qaida presence—has become an issue for both the US and the EU to solve, and such a weakened country serves as a good platform for studying the differences between the two great democracy promoters. To date, neither of the actors has chosen to use sanctions against Yemen, arguing that this might damage important relations and harm a nation in need of help. However, when it comes to political dialogue, the EU uses a far more inclusive and interactive tone towards the Yemini government. The US chooses to push for a military-political discussion and has decided on a military presence in the country—in line with their War on Terror. The US also supports domestic Yemeni military through foreign aid, something that the EU is staying away from by spending money only on civil society projects.

Even if democracy promotion is seen as a fundamental part in Western countries’ strive towards a better and safer world, the meaning of the action is sometimes divided between the EU and the US. While sanctions and other monetary penalties are avoided in less developed countries, the US chooses to direct foreign aid towards both military and civil agendas. Arguably, this disrupts the promotion of real democracy and human rights issues are not adequately addressed, but it has proven to be efficient. The EU’s softer approach has also been criticized for making friends with corrupt leaders and for slowly trying to talk countries into a better future. Whichever method one argues for, it is at least certain that democracy will keep being promoted and that yet another democratic state is a victory for the rest of the world, as well.


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