29th Nov 2021


Afghanistan: The end of liberal-democratic overstretch

The botched Western withdrawal from Afghanistan and the heartbreaking developments there are producing pictures that may look like the end of an era, which was marked by the exuberance of liberal democracy.

After the fall of communism in the 1990s it combined in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks with an overconfident US administration that thought it could not only invade Afghanistan and Iraq, but also build stable democratic states in both countries.

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  • After Iraq now the Afghanistan democratic illusion has been shattered.

The Iraq illusion was soon shattered. The story of Afghanistan was not a similarly obvious failure, but it is now clear to all that its fragile status quo only worked as long as it was underwritten by Western military involvement.

As in many countries, state and democracy-building in Afghanistan was marred by wide-spread corruption. In the last weeks, Afghan soldiers did not see what they should be fighting for. All their training and equipment could not make up for a lacking sense of mission.

For those arguing that democratic countries can help democracies and democrats elsewhere, these developments will not make life easier. Ever since the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, detractors of democracy-support have tried to dismiss such efforts as illusory at best, or hypocritical at worst.

Biden's democracy summit

Recently US president Joe Biden announced that he will hold the global democracy summit in December. He had promised that summit in his electoral platform.

The poor execution of the Afghanistan withdrawal will overshadow the summit, but is a good moment to shed the poisonous legacy of previous neoconservative administrations and to communicate support for democracy and human rights in a way that is more realistic, more humble, and more credible.

First, it is clear that the two invasions were a massive overstretch in ambition. Neither states nor democracy can be built by outside forces within a few decades.

But we should be equally clear that these were outliers of democracy-support. Most of that work takes place in semi-authoritarian contexts or fragile democracies, not in countries with widespread armed conflict.

That said, support to stabilise conflict countries will remain a feature of international relations - just think of Libya, Sudan, or Mali.

It is not perceivable that in such cases the UN or democratic states would invest in political stabilisation without insisting on some element of inclusion and civic participation in the process.

It would conflict with our values, and it would be unrealistic. Conflicts can only be overcome if people are included in a new deal.

Democracy starts at home

Second, as Biden rightly pointed out, democracy-support abroad always starts at home. The global attraction of democracy depends on the real-life performance of democracies.

The US has not been an attractive case in the last years and nor has the EU, allowing some member states to build authoritarian rule with little resistance from the other EU member states and EU bodies. These are reasons to be humble and to do more at home.

Third, supporting democracy should be delinked as much as possible from geopolitics. It is a value in its own right.

When geopolitical considerations get mixed up with democratic ones, hypocrisy ensues - pretending that some countries are more or less democratic than they are simply because they are allies or opponents.

Liberal bias

Fourth, we should promote democracy on the basis of international obligations that states have entered into.

Democratic elections, free media, and independent courts are part of obligations that almost all states have accepted in international treaties. These are specific and defined obligations.

There is no straitjacket - democracies come in many social shapes and institutional forms. But democracy it is not an anything-goes-form of government. It has its red lines.

At the same time, support to democracy and human rights abroad must avoid liberal bias. It is not a vehicle to promote specific progressive liberal policies.

Many authoritarian governments now successfully frame international democracy-support as an attack on a way of life or conservative values. It is not.

Liberals and conservatives, left and right, have a place in a democracy as long as they respect the fundamental rights of citizens.

The Taliban, which rejects the most basic notions of equality between men and women, has no place in a democracy. More moderate parties that have foundations in religion are legitimate parts in many democracies.

Lastly, democracy-support must be humble. We should approach the upcoming democracy summit with a realistic sense of what we can achieve.

The idea of democracy remains extremely powerful, we can be confident of that. But its power comes primarily from the people in each country.

From the outside, we can support democratic trends and forces. We can make success a bit more likely, but we cannot determine it.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International (DRI), a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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