With the Middle East in rubble, Africa in turmoil, Russia making trouble, and China on the march, now seems like a faintly ridiculous time to put fresh faith in democracy promotion. But perhaps in an era when everything from brands to movie franchises can be redeemed with a "reboot," we just need to think vaguely anew to successfully promote democratic governance abroad without totally ruining much of the world.
That's effectively the proposal out from just the sort of people you'd expect to issue it — quantitatively trained PhDs who care a lot about global governance. Rather than promoting the democracy we have, the wonks say, we need to promote the democracy we don't. To do that, they argue, we need to think less about representation and more about what they call "wellbeing."
If you suspect there's a can of worms being opened here, you're right.
Not long ago, amid the ruins of the war in Iraq, a lot of people seemed willing to give up the Western project to expand democracy around the world. Some hoped at least to shelve it indefinitely, sensing that the yearning, in some form or another, might always be there.
Sure enough, it came back. It always does. The Arab Spring and the "color revolutions" (remember those?) nursed sore hopes that democracy promotion wouldn't end in tears. Of course, those bids for greater freedom mostly led to darker places.
But the dream of democracy promotion didn't die, for three key reasons.
First, democracy promotion is in America's bones. We got it so right where so many others have struggled so hard. That's not just an invitation to messianic jingoism, although sometimes it's that. It's cause for us to accurately reflect that international peace and security will repeatedly be threatened by democratic revolutions — of precisely the kind we didn't have to experience.
We know how to do democracy because we learned more peacefully than almost everyone else. So if we sit on our hands as democracy breaks out, we can hurt ourselves and others. If we help guide democracy's novices through the buffeting changes we mostly avoided, we can make the world a better, safer, more prosperous place.
Second, democracy promotion is an inescapable objective for Europe. Europe as a whole is continually terrified by democratic regression at home, destabilization by nearby undemocratic regimes, and a loss of its own sense of purpose. What is Europe for, if not proving Immanuel Kant right about the possibility of perpetual peace? And what is democracy for, if not doing the same?
That points toward the third, most interesting, and most pregnant reason democracy promotion hasn't died. Promoting democracy isn't just the mission of militant Americans and squishy Europeans. It's also long been the raison d'être of nerdy elites, who honestly can't think of anything else legitimate for people interested in a truly human public policy to do. For these types, including academics, international bureaucrats, and decision makers in nongovernmental organizations, what Europe senses is actually true of humanity in general. Their endgame, conceptually, is "global governance," and democracy is the most legitimate available means to that end.
For over a decade, top international relations scholars have recognized that the problem with global governance is what's been termed its "democratic deficit." Too many elites do too much financial and economic jujitsu to inspire a sense of legitimacy and agency among the peoples of the world. But despite efforts that seem strenuous on paper, at least, neither the world's bureaucratic elite nor its scholarly elite have managed to surmount the worldwide problem of representation in countries that are supposedly "democratizing."
From that standpoint, it seems especially tempting to try rebooting democracy promotion by focusing scientifically on the promotion of something else — the aforementioned "wellbeing." That way, people won't be so frustrated when they discover that democratization doesn't bring as much political democracy as they hoped.
In fact, as Tocqueville predicted, as people become more equal in their conditions, habits, and mores, they'll actually subtly gravitate toward an intuitive preference for undemocratic governance — rule by distant career experts trusted to intimately deliver the goods. That happens, Tocqueville explained, because we do tend to care so much more about wellbeing in a democratic age. The hard work of participatory politics, with its awkward risks of dealing face to face with neighbors and strangers, seems to us so clumsy and perilous that it's an impediment to wellbeing, not a guarantor!
Still, it is possible to promote wellbeing through the kind of local democracy that Tocqueville believed could keep freedom alive. Unfortunately, it seems impossible to be optimistic about this process when it's scaled up to the global level. Global governance advocates may be right to think that nature and technology both give us a grasp on how networked institutions can spread ideas and practices "virally" throughout the world. But human wellbeing is not as natural an idea or technological a practice as we might hope. Visions of flourishing differ, often radically. Sometimes, people do not put our vision of flourishing at the top of the list of what's worth living and dying for.
That's why we must be skeptical of the view that wellbeing, especially in "democratic" guise, offers global governance a universal adapter for any culture and any civilization. And that's why, without taking great care, swapping out democracy promotion for wellbeing promotion is likely to deliver the same types of brutal, protracted conflicts we're confronting today.