Alternative “Spaces”: Democracy Promotion in Reverse

June 9, 2015 7:00 AM

One of the themes of the research Marc Noland and I have done on sanctions is the way that coordination problems affect their success. This is an old point, made repeatedly in the sanctions literature. But we have given it a dynamic twist, suggesting that sanctions even push countries to trade and financial relations with “forgiving” partners. In the North Korea case, those partners are clearly China and increasingly Russia with Iran and other Middle East partners play a role as well.

But the idea may pertain to a whole variety of other relationships as well, including what might be called “democratization in reverse.” While the advanced industrial states have all developed robust democracy and civil society promotion programs as part of their aid portfolios, authoritarian regimes are conducting political diplomacy as well.

Melissa Aten at the International Forum for Democratic Studies has informed me of a fascinating new project called Resurgent DictatorshipThe site’s goal is to serve as a focused resource on how authoritarian regimes are cooperating and learning from each other, manipulating media and attempting to reshape democratic norms. The project focuses on the “Big 5” authoritarian regimes involved in this sort of activity: Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, and Venezuela, as well as more thematic issues (authoritarian backlash on civil society, authoritarian control of the Internet, authoritarian international broadcasting, pseudo election monitoring, and the emergence of authoritarian counter norms).

The issue is starting to get academic attention as well. Early in what Samuel Huntington called “the Third Wave” of democratization (roughly, 1975 to the present), Lawrence Whitehead (Oxford) edited an important book summarizing international influences on democratization. Now he has a stimulating piece at the Taiwan Journal of Democracy entitled Anti-Democracy Promotion: Four Strategies in Search of a Framework. At the Berlin Journal, Robert Kaufman and I speculate on whether the Third Wave might in fact be coming to an end.

The China-North Korea connection to this issue is traced out in two dossiers from SinoNK on the Chinese reaction to the succession from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un; references and links are below. A meticulous review of documents by Adam Cathcart and Michael Madden (North Korea Leadership Watch) shows that despite Chinese reservations, official policy was completely over-the-top in endorsing the familial dictatorship and standing firmly against what the Global Times called “upheaval.” Despite expressions of pique, has that really changed? Given the direction China and Russia are going at the moment, we can probably expect less cooperation with respect to North Korean rather than more. And certainly not with respect to political change in the North.

Adam Cathcart, China and the North Korean Succession. SinoNK.com China-North Korea Dossier No. 1 (January 19, 2012) here.

Adam Cathcart and Michael Madden, eds. ‘A Completely Different Blueprint’: North Korea’s Relations with China at the End of the Kim Jong Il Era. SinoNK.com China-North Korea Dossier No. 3 (August 20, 2012) here.

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