Can the Middle East get peace, order and good government?

Will Canada Answer the Call for International Democracy Assistance?

We feel its true meaning deep inside us even when we cannot expess it. However good it may be for social and political progress it can only be kept strong and healthy by honest and intelligent individual judgment and action. That is not easy today in the confusion of voices which press on us from the world in which we live, a confusion which is itself often mistaken for democracy. But easy or not, democracy must be kept strong – with a strength that is not only military and economic, but also intellectual and moral.

– Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson
Ottawa, May 7, 1955


Nobel laureate Lester B. Pearson understood that the dignity of peoples was closely linked to their freedom, that achieving social and economic status is fleeting when compared to unleashing the open democratic expression of free peoples worldwide, and that democracy properly understood was more than a process – it remains an enduring, transcending value. Pearson was a famous ally in the cause of freedom in the Cold War, and he understood something which members of a worldwide movement in democratic assistance have grasped today. Democracy, distilled down, is comprised of peace loving values, of intellectual and moral courage, and of the triumph of liberty. The defense of democracy was once a Canadian calling in times of crisis. In the course ahead, democratic assistance must remain at the heart of what brave Canadians are fighting for in Afghanistan, and on new frontiers where democracy hangs precariously in the balance.

Democracy today is imperiled by new autocrats: gangsters who occupy the apparatus of states, terrorists who seize and pervert peaceful faiths, and militias who collaborate with traffickers to corrode democracy’s noble institutions. Much is revealed by the economic and military instruments by which democracy is promoted or defended. For the uninitiated, free and fair elections are seen as the only necessary ingredient for a democratic society. If Canadian foreign policy makers have demonstrated the courage to commit the lives of Canadian soldiers in places like Afghanistan to defend the values of democracy, then it is evermore important that the tools by which democratic expression is realized in between elections are shared as well. It must go beyond merely sharing the technical skills of organizing polls and counting ballots. As a set of values, democracy continues to manifest itself in distinct forms, expressed through different cultures, customs and traditions. Democracy worldwide is an historic, delicate tapestry of popular sovereignty – it is about the great worth of the liberty of individuals, of the reconciliation between collectivist and individualist expression, and of human dignity earned by eternal vigilance and heart wrenching sacrifice. It is the enduring force of history that shapes the order of generations past, present and future. And those who are engaged in this work already – the guardians of the democratic flame – are waiting for Canadians to stand up, roll up their sleeves and take their place next to those who struggle intensely each and every day to be free.

Canada has a chance to join a global movement that is assisting people in emerging democracies to master the skills and habits of democratic life. A growing number of Canadians already participate in this effort, and yet the Government of Canada lags behind its counterparts in Europe, the United States, and Australia in getting involved. There is so much demand for this assistance that Canadian help would be welcome. By making democracy training and assistance part of its foreign policy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government could underscore historic, hard-fought and hard-won Canadian values in its relations with governments around the world – and in the process make important new friends for Canada in the developing world.

What is democracy assistance?

Democracy assistance is rooted in peer-to-peer training in the core aspects of democratic practice. It includes education in areas such as political party formation, internal party governance, campaign management, candidate selection and training, public opinion polling, voter outreach and constituent communications. For parties that are victorious, their next crucible is in delivering on their promises as governments – equally essential to the success of fostering democracy beyond the competition of ideas, and support in between elections. Training is generally sought by aspiring politicians and political leaders, but also by civil society activists, public service professionals, and others who hope to navigate free elections, manage accountable institutions and meaningfully contribute to the public policy process. At its core, democracy assistance is the necessary pressure of persistent reform to extend rather than limit democratic participation in the policies that shape the lives of individuals.

Much of the demand for this kind of training in developed democracies has been met by political parties through their own party institutes. In the 1950s, parties in West Germany began to establish institutes to train their own members and then gradually offered training to other parties outside Germany. For example, the Society for Christian Democratic Educational Work was established in 1955, and renamed the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in the 1960s. It made sense for West Germans, having regained democratic government after the defeat of the Nazis, not only to train a new generation of German democrats, but also to reach out to others in need. The aim of early democratic assistance was thus promoting democracy as an ideal – rather than simply more effectively advancing a partisan agenda.

The Cold War was raging when Lane Kirkland, the head of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the AFL-CIO) returned to Washington following a visit to Poland. Kirkland met with President Ronald Reagan to tell him about the work that a handful of AFL-CIO organizers were doing to help the embattled Solidarity movement in Poland to get organized and to resist the imposition of martial law by the communist government.

Reagan was impressed by Kirkland’s account of how much Solidarity gained from the experienced labour organizers from the United States. Shortly afterward, in 1983, Reagan worked with a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the Congress to establish a National Endowment for Democracy in the United States with four core institutes that would provide training: the American Council for International Labor Solidarity to work with unions and workers’ rights groups; the Center for International Private Enterprise, to work with local business and professional associations to combat corruption and promote transparency; and two party institutes, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute.

The success of the German and American institutes in the 1980s helped to inspire the British government to create the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in 1992, which incorporates party training and good governance training. In 2000, the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy was established and quickly began to contribute excellent training in new democracies. Today, more than 30 democracy assistance organizations operate to meet the needs of emerging democracies, including the Center for Democratic Institutions (Australia), the Fondation Robert Schumann and the Fondation Jean Jaurès (France), the Norwegian Human Rights Fund (Norway), the Fundacion para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales (Spain), the Korea Democracy Foundation (South Korea), International IDEA (Sweden), and the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (Taiwan).

In addition to democracy training provided by these non-governmental organizations (NGOs), multilateral organizations have increased their investments in training for citizens, leaders, and civil servants in new and emerging democracies. The Organization of American States boasts not only a Democratic Charter, but also a permanent Unit for the Promotion of Democracy that is funded in part, and staffed in larger part, by Canadians. The World Bank has developed a Governance and Anti-Corruption program that Canadian tax dollars help support. And in 2005, the United Nations established a new U.N. Democracy Fund to award grants for NGOs to provide training and allow people in developing democracies to obtain such training.

Why Canada?

The growth of the international democracy assistance movement has been fostered by two insights that are now widely-appreciated, and are also quintessentially Canadian. The first is that non-violent democratic debate should be encouraged in order to displace violent conflicts – Canada’s historic dilemma over Quebec’s status in the federation has been a model of non-violent dispute resolution (with the notable exception of the October Crisis). The second is that participatory democratic governance is essential to sustainable economic growth and development – an idea that tracks with Canadian experience, particularly in managing the vast resources in the great Canadian West, supporting NAFTA or developing a harmonized sales tax in Atlantic Canada. The emergence of working democratic institutions is the prerequisite to fostering local ownership of development and peace processes, but such institutions cannot be imposed by the international community and take root unless local people are able to arrive at a consensus on the fundamentals of their system of government. In other words, it is that democratic process, and not the structural or policy outcomes of that process that is the goal.

Perhaps as a result of this natural affinity between Canadian values and democracy assistance, many Canadians have embraced careers in democracy assistance, working in international organizations or, in particular, as volunteers and staff at U.S. democracy assistance NGOs. Canada’s own democracy NGO, Rights and Democracy Canada, has focused almost exclusively on human rights work, leaving a gap in Canadian democracy training. The Parliamentary Centre recently established the Group of Parliamentarians Against Corruption to provide peer support to legislators battling corruption in developing countries. The Ottawa-based Forum of Federations has augmented a research program by adding training in issues related to the practice of modern federations. Academic and think tank centres, such as the Centre for Democratic Governance at Queen’s University in Kingston and the Manning Centre for Building Democracy in Calgary, have the intent to expand their training efforts internationally. However, these early efforts are diffuse and largely uncoordinated. Canada has yet to develop and implement a comprehensive agenda for democratic assistance, despite being well placed to do so.

Pearson noted the intellectual and moral defense of democracy as part of a broader national interest, inclusive of military and economic aspects. The United States considers democracy promotion today as a primary objective within their national security strategy. Democracy is more than an ideal, it is also an exigent strategic imperative. Too often, globalization is characterized as cultural imperialism of the West, as the exploitation by multinational corporations of foreign resources. Free markets are synonymous with democratic governance: established with serious notions of private property rights, the supremacy of laws crafted by representative legislatures, and the protection of private job creating agents. In environments where democracy is most threatened, capitalists are often the least courageous, cowed by weak institutions, rampant corruption and public relations inhibitions. Democracy assistance accelerates the legitimacy where honest Canadian businesses can thrive, strengthens trade relationships, and allows for the requisite investment in collapsing economies that can provide for basic healthcare, education and security.

Military intervention is a recourse of last resort. Young Canadian men and women have volunteered to serve the national interest by preserving precarious order through peacekeeping missions worldwide, or by participating as allies in common cause in places like Afghanistan. No political leader, no public servant, no family is thrilled to send those with the most to lose to the frontlines of armed conflict: our young and our brave. While French and Italian soldiers are patrolling Kabul, Canadian armed forces are standing up to the Taliban in southeast Afghanistan – fulfilling a historic role in which Canadians have done in the past. Proud Canadians owe it to these heroes to do everything possible in every moment of our national life, to avoid and avert situations where military conflict is absolutely required. Beyond the extension of diplomatic and economic efforts in service of our national interest, the time has come to consider the extension of democratic efforts as an equally effective tool in the service of building a more peaceful, more prosperous and more free world.

Growing Demand

It is clear that there are Canadians prepared to offer training to new democratic leaders, but with other organizations and countries involved in this area, is there sufficient demand for Canada to get more involved? The answer is yes, in part because Canada is uniquely qualified by its recent experiences to make a contribution to developing democracies.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Canadians actively debated new constitutional provisions, and discussed various species of federalism designed to accommodate the desire of Quebec for greater autonomy and include the aspirations of a realigning Canadian federalism. Canadians have also grappled with the politics of natural resources and commodity prices, often a divisive issue in developing countries. Canadians alive today have first hand experience creating new political parties (e.g. the Reform Party, the Bloc Québécois, the Saskatchewan Party and the Action Democratique du Québéc), revitalizing parties (e.g. the Canadian Alliance), and managing party coalitions and mergers (e.g. between the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives). Canadians have institutional experiences balancing divergent political interests through periods of great political realignment and also have direct experience with nationalist separatist movements and political parties such as the Parti Québécois. And the Canadian experience with blending Westminster-style parliamentary institutions with a federal structure, and a constitutionally-enumerated Charter of Rights and Freedoms that may challenge Parliament itself is as complex as it has been (generally) successful. Canadians are comfortable today with having a serious, national discussion on democratic reforms, of electoral systems and of the ways in which the Canadian Senate – or House of the Provinces – can be reformed. These are experiences no American and few Europeans could claim, and they resonate with the challenges of managing many new and emerging democracies around the world today.

The demand is growing as more countries adopt democratic forms of government. Three centuries ago, there were no democracies at all. In the early 1970s, there were about 40 democracies in the world. By the middle of that decade, Portugal and Spain and Greece held free elections. Soon there were new democracies in Latin America, and free institutions were spreading in (South) Korea, in Taiwan, and in East Asia. In 1989, there were protests for democratic government in East Berlin and in Leipzig. Within another year, the South African government released Nelson Mandela and that country began its democratic opening. As the 20th century ended, there were around 120 democracies in the world, and today some 140 countries operate based on some form of democratic institutions and took part in the third Community of Democracies summit in Santiago, Chile.

However, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2006 Index of Democracy shows just how thin the democratic veil truly is today around the world. Only 28 states, accounting for just 13% of the world’s population, are considered to be “full democracies,” while the remaining states and territories, with 87% of people, are considered to be flawed, authoritarian or “hybrid” democracies. A watch list of 10 states and territories expected to experience significant shifts in 2007, for better or worse, are Russia, Taiwan and Nigeria. Merely two have optimistic outlooks: Hong Kong, and recent events suggest Bangladesh has not yet been lost. There is absolutely no question that Russia today is relapsing to autocratic order, threatening any progress made over decades of hard-work towards perestroika and glasnost, and galvanizing oligarchic tyranny over regional reformers.

There are countries in transition like Haiti and Iraq, which struggle today to make their democratic institutions work. There are also countries like Cuba and Zimbabwe with democratic traditions now obscured by dictatorship, but where change could come suddenly and even violently, and new democratic leaders will desperately need help.

A Uniquely Canadian Contribution

It is rare when international democratic life is touched by mass rallies, toppling regimes and orange revolutions. Those momentous occasions only come after great periods of patience, of diligent conservative work undertaken over years, sometimes generations. The challenges surrounding international democracy assistance have steadily increased in complexity and risk since the end of the Cold War. One of the most important and challenging of these new duties is strengthening the democratic infrastructure of states during times of armed conflict and occupation. The non-state framework governing these situations are complex, and important lessons may be learned from the extensive efforts presently being made in Iraq and Afghanistan to build enduring democratic institutions, political parties, and civil society. Like all lessons, examples of good and less than ideal practices abound.

Patience is an essential part of participating in the growing global democracy movement. Canadians have persevered through two world wars, a cold war, and a proxy war in Korea. They have contributed immensely to the global polity by playing a significant role in building institutions designed to shape a democratic order: NATO, the United Nations, settling the Suez Crisis and creating peacekeeping – a term today often misunderstood. The greatest contributions can be made yet by Canadian innovation on the frontiers of democracy assistance. They can be made by foreign policy makers who understand that an asymmetric order is emerging and reshaping the world since Westphalian raison d’etat, that the strength of nations is reflected in the moral and intellectual courage of universal values, that the battle for human dignity ought not be surrendered to tyrants cloaked as false prophets under spiritual or populist robes, and that the democratic flame can burn brightly even in the desert darkness when given oxygen and nurtured carefully.

Political parties striving to participate in developing democracies are even weaker than they are in the West, numbering in the hundreds, often ordered along ethnic, religious or personality-driven lines, and rarely supported with any of the vital infrastructure to support a wholly democratic system. Often foreign policy makers are tempted by the so-called tyranny of the short-term: support the fellow you find least objectionable, and ignore the rest. This not only is an affront to the ethical principles of democracy assistance, but is also out of sync with the long-term strategic interests of coaxing all perspectives towards democratic expression, rather than violent expression. To the party leaders backed by foreign money, the results are often disastrous – akin to handing an overweight child a candy bar before a sprint: the sugar rush is uncontrolled, the burnout that follows requires high maintenance, the child’s long-term health is placed in peril, and the race is lost. Democratic political parties are also vulnerable to usurpation by autocratic political interests – often from regional neighbours as by Syria in Lebanon, China in Asia, Russia in Eurasia and Eastern Europe, Iran in Iraq, Venezuela in Peru, and so on. Behind the religious, nationalist or populist cloaks are often purely autocratic political interests.

A challenge for Canadians is to navigate through these issues – a key question for Canadians is: What are the new forms of developing research, communications and education infrastructure from which generations can be prepared with the tools to give voice to their democratic values? Imagine a Canada reanimated in its foreign policy – aligned along the axis of democracy assistance.

Canadians could pioneer the balance through autocracy of the benevolent and autocracy of the Islamists in Pakistan, supporting reformers across party lines to rebuild democratic intuitions. In Zimbabwe, Canadians can reach through historic relationships established through the Commonwealth, in pursuit of a democratic dream that no longer occupies the international spotlight – but could if sufficiently nurtured. The Community of Democracies has articulated a vision for la Fracophonie in which democracy and human rights ought to occupy a greater priority in the agenda: what better place than to commence this important work than with Canadians helping establish a democratic discourse in troubled Haiti? Or strengthen the institutions of democracy in forgotten Cambodia and slowly emerging Vietnam? Preventing a deteriorating collapse of democracy in the Sudan, and in ensuring that its effects do not spill over into neighbouring countries, Canadians can stand up for the courageous, morally right thing to do – as Canada has done with South Africa – and engender a democratically driven national consensus. Bangladesh has recently made the difficult choices to establish the law over all Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans strive to settle their deepening divisions – what greater calling than for the Canadian government and NGOs to support the aspirations of honest, intelligent individual action to build societies of peaceful expression and democratic freedoms.

And in Iraq, where Canadians are reluctant to contribute boots on the ground, Canadian practitioners from all partisan backgrounds at home are already working towards abating a civil war, standing up democratic institutions currently at the crossroads and standing by Iraqis who yearn to be free. Iraq’s chain of sovereignty was broken by the intervention of 2003, and can only be restored by making the people themselves sovereign. Canadians, as a self-described energy superpower, home to the second largest oil reserve in the world, and widely known to have remained outside of the coalition would not be seen in Iraq as having economic or military interests. Nor does Canada carry the histories of legacy imperial powers or modern super powers. Canadians can play a significant role by encouraging a vibrant federation, popular sovereignty, and towards the reconciliation of divergent political interests. Canadians can build an honest relationship with a courageous people on the frontlines of daily terrorism.

Next Steps

Canada can and should be in a position to respond to the existing and anticipated calls for its help coming from new democracies. Canadian organizations and Canadian citizens operating in this field today are forced to undertake this work with foreign, or severely limited Canadian resources. This is not expensive work, when contrasted with other areas of development assistance or military expenditures. The United States, which spends more than any other country in the world on democracy assistance, devoted less than US$500 million in grants to a wide array of organizations for democracy assistance of all kinds, in countries around the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan. But as the global superpower, there is a natural suspicion of American motives, which can hinder its efforts in this area. Where Canada shares the U.S. goal of democracy and good governance in particular countries or regions, democracy assistance provided by Canadians may be able to achieve more, even with less money spent. Washington often hectors its allies about burden-sharing responsibilities; in this area, and as the menace of terrorism looms large in U.S. national security concerns in a post-9/11 world, bearing a portion of the burden of training aspiring democrats is a noble task that is likely to be greatly appreciated by Canada’s closest ally. And of course, Canada is unique in the world in its association with both the Commonwealth and la Francophonie; as Pearson noted, organizations whose cross-cultural strength lies with recognition by its members of the value to each despite complex and colonial histories, and of a common interest in the preservation of a system which includes us all.

The Liberal government led by Paul Martin and now the Conservative government of Stephen Harper promised that Canadian foreign policy would change to better reflect the values of Canadians and to promote Canada’s good name around the world. How better to achieve these goals than by increasing Canada’s support for democracy assistance – perhaps through a mandated Canadian centre focused towards democratic transitions. Doing so would not only benefit Canadian interests, but many of Canada’s natural allies around the world. It would also place Canada in good company among those established elder democracies and those vibrant emerging ones, prepared to share their experiences with others who long for “peace, order, and good government” for themselves and for their children.

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