Opinion: Support for emerging democracies – we’ll do it our way

Speaking at the recent Munich Security Conference, US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton said “Americans and Europeans must send a clear and common message to despots that they must respect the rights of their people….America and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder.”

However, the UK role in encouraging emerging democracies must be determined through a process of working closer with the EU and by identifying limited areas in which tangible gains can be made through shared resources. That is to say that we do what we can with our European partners to achieve the best results within our areas of influence. Continually taking our lead from a gung ho US secretary of state, who wants to keep ‘all options’ on the table when settling international disputes, is certainly not the way that we should be encouraging democracy.

Within our own back yard, any influence in encouraging democratic reforms in Russian is limited. On March 4th, Putin won the election to return as President of Russia. Although Putin and United Russia were able to defy electoral gravity with comparative ease, the need for reform is apparent to the emerging middle class and parts of the self serving elite. We are faced with the uncomfortable position of a financially chastened Europe encouraging reform from a prickly and weakened regime that epitomises the status quo. Progress will not be easy.

In Afghanistan ambitions for what we can achieve have dwindled to denying terrorists a safe haven and making as dignified an exit as possible. Afghanistan was never going to become a secure and prosperous liberal democracy, and much of what has gone on has been a waste of resources that might have been more productive elsewhere.

I don’t argue against engagement with challenging situations such as Russia and Afghanistan, but rather that there a number of other countries where more attention and support could make a tangible difference. Securing democratic principles in the ‘low hanging fruit’ of emerging or partial democracies is not just good for them and us, it will also change the international community, slowly, to make authoritarianism more difficult to sustain. Since the Arab spring there is wonderful opportunity to encourage democracy in a region where dictatorships have been the norm. Europe has a good track record in doing exactly this in southern and eastern Europe, and the recent acceptance of Serbia as an EU candidate hopefully indicates similar progress is happening in the Balkans.

Our case for democratic reforms has not been helped by a tarnished reputation caused by our involvement in unpopular and damaging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a result of shady arms deals like Al-Yamamah and particularly due to our support for a roving US foreign policy. Even if we do eventually begin to get the point that military adventures are not the best way to foster democracy, we cannot wait passively for the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy – it might never come.

As America’s focus is shifting to the Asia Pacific region (America’s Pacific Century), Europe is going to have to get better at working together anyway. This provides us with an opportunity to distance ourselves from a historical subservience to US foreign policy, work closer with our European partners, and become more credible and better at educating and winning over the hearts and minds within emerging democracies across the world, not just of ordinary people, but also of political elites.

* Issan Ghazni is Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and former National Diversity Adviser for the Liberal Democrats. Issan blogs here

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