Politik und Gesellschaft Online
International Politics and Society 4/2001

About this issue

The two key focuses of this issue of IPG are Designing policies for development and Threats and war scenarios. Further to this, Jürgen Kahl analyses the significance of China joining the WTO and Carlos Santiso looks at the problems and prospects of international promotion of democracy.

There is no doubt that the essay by Carlos Santiso is particularly significant for a journal published by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. Santiso debates the project which lies at the heart of the international activities of the German political foundations: promoting democracy in developing countries and countries in transition. It is true that Santiso only touches on the German foundations, and that only in the singular, concealing the limits to his knowledge behind the remark that the work of the foundations has been insufficiently analyzed. However, Santiso's analysis and criticism of the official support policies does shed light indirectly on the work of the foundations, which he implicitly supports.

As Santiso criticizes, the official policies adhere to a template. Democracy is established in a three-pronged process: elections plus the formation of democratic institutions plus support for civil society. However, the use of "democracy templates" cannot meet the needs of the diverse and unpredictable realities in the developing countries and countries in transition; this standardized approach cannot overcome the current stagnation in democratization to be seen from Belarus to Para­guay. However, the "template" does have one implicit advantage, and Santiso's essay itself bears witness to this: it can be criticized, differentiated and further developed strategically.

The work of the German foundations is anything but template-based. This can be seen simply from the fact that six political foundations operate with different priorities. The international work of the foundations also tends to be more path-based than strategic. It is not based on a master plan. It is true that the foundations would interpret the totality of their international activities as direct or indirect contributions towards democratization, but they would scarcely subsume them under the general heading "promoting democracy", since they pursue parallel objectives (representation of social interests, economic development, adult education, promotion of women in society, etc.) to an equal extent. And their concept of democracy is more broadly based, i.e. it is not restricted to the political institutions in the narrower sense (plus civil society). The work is more varied, and so the foundations are more capable of responding flexibly to different and fluctuating conditions. These advantages go hand in hand with a disadvantage, the opposite one from that of the official model: despite (or because of) their flexibility, they find it more difficult to cope with systematically organized learning processes.

The experience underpinning the article by Carlos Santiso is the US promotion of democracy, which differs from the approach of the German foundations in several ways. A first difference refers to the relationship between political parties and civil society. The promotion of organizations of civil society plays an important role in both US and German practice. But the great importance attached to civil society in the American case derives from a fundamental pessimism about the state. The necessary distrust of the executive, particularly in countries which have just opted for democracy, is turned into a sort of general liberal suspicion of the state. This pessimism about the state can become a danger if, as in many developing countries and countries in transition, the problem lies not in excessive state power, but in inadequate state development. The only alternative to state failure is the state itself, as Santiso aptly quotes. If it promotes an apparently autonomous subpolitics or antipolitics of “society”, the promotion of democracy threatens to undermine the legitimacy of democratically elected governments. The foundations, in contrast, draw a fuzzier distinction between civil society and the state. The political parties, which are placed at the interface between civil society and the state, are not separated off from civil society and categorized within the narrowly defined sphere of politics, but are viewed as organizations open to civil society. At the same time, the limits of organizations of civil society are respected. These lie not only in a lack of democratic legitimacy on the input side, but also in their structural incompetence on the output side: before movements in civil society are transformed into legitimate state action, they need to pass through a whole range of barriers, with the political parties providing the reservoir of professional gatekeepers.

A second difference to which Santiso refers is the concept of pluralism, which underpins the promotion of democracy. The US organizations and the German foundations will certainly agree that democracy forms the political framework for a pluralistic competition of values and interests. However, in the American concept, the installation of this framework stands ahead of and above this competition, and this leads to the restraint on promoting political parties which Santiso observes. The German foundations, in contrast, are already "party-based" due to the way they are organized, i.e. they are inclined towards specific political orientations. They are not merely convinced of the idea of democratic pluralism: they represent it. To simplify: the US approach is concentrated on the design of the forms in which democratic decision-making processes can take place, without wishing to influence the outcome of this process; the approach taken by the foundations, in contrast, is focused on the content – on material policy options and their sponsors.

Thirdly, in this context, there is a difference in the understanding of society's interests. The US approach basically sees only two really relevant interest groups: the advocates and opponents of democracy. The central line of conflict is between a society viewed as genuinely democratic and a state which always tends to be exposed to the temptations of autocracy. Opposing economic and social interests are blocked out. However, it is precisely these which are at the heart of the work of the foundations. The promotion of democracy is also understood to mean the empowerment of individuals and social groups to represent their interests publicly, effectively and non-violently. Democracy does not overcome opposing social interests, but makes it possible to manage the conflict in a "political process" in a form in which the political framework is not repeatedly questioned.

Obviously, these differences should not be exaggerated. They should be viewed as different emphases which mutually complement each other. In practice, the promotion of democracy is a joint project of US and German organizations which is often managed in co-operation. However, a more precise mutual and self-observation could make it easier for each side to reflect on the assumptions underlying its own work. For the American approach to promoting democracy, the varied approaches and experiences of German foundations could act as a stimulus to make the US activities more flexible; for the German foundations, the US approach of systematic self-reflection – and the contribution by Carlos San­tiso stands for an entire branch of literature here – could help them to subject their own activities to a more intensive self-reflection.

Michael Ehrke

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | net edition malte.michel | 9/2001