US and EU Democracy Promotion: Two sides of the same coin?

Marcell Lehoczky is a second year History and International Relations student. He is mostly interested in security and international law.

Democracy promotion has been an ever-present feature of the international system, however, the two main Western forces of democracy promotion, the US and the EU, have had different approaches to democracy promotion while attempting to reach the same goal. While the US and EU share many similarities in their policies of democracy promotion, there are key differences due to their respective histories and experiences of democracy promotion; their ideology and idea of democracy, and the institutions that make up the democracy promotion apparatus. 

One of the key reasons for the difference between US and EU democracy promotion is their divergent histories as democracy promoting powers. The US has been a long-term promoter of democracy, starting in the 19th century and incorporated democracy promotion into its official foreign policy under Woodrow Wilson. On the contrary, the EU is a relative newcomer on the international stage, gaining its current form after the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and expanding greatly during the 2000s. While the US has mostly continued its methods of bottom-up, civil society focused democracy promotion that it has advocated since the Second World War, the EU developed a different approach that had its most significant historical origin in the fall of Communism in the late 1980s and focus on a top-down method through the rule of law and cooperation with the state.

Moreover, the EU and the US have two distinct concepts of democracy and have vastly different ideological bases, which results in further deviation between EU and US democracy promotion. While the US has a more market-oriented concept of democracy, focusing on economic freedom and the integrity of neoliberal ideology to democracy, the European Union has a much vaguer concept of democracy that covers a broader base, leaving conditions regarding economics much more lenient than their American counterparts. While American efforts of democracy promotion suffer in authoritarian states and are limited by a rigid structure of conditions the US uses to assess aid allocation, seen in the decrease of aid to Ethiopia from yearly 9.2 million USD in 2006 to 0.2 million after disagreements with the Ethiopian government, European democracy promotion can reach a wider variety of states due to its vague definition. This is further shown by the decrease in US aid to Belarus after the election of President Lukashenko, from $134 million in 1993 to $17 million in 2008. 

Furthermore, while the US’s concept of democracy begins with strong civil society actors, the European Union is more focused on state apparatus such as the rule of law and human rights. Here the symbiosis between history and ideology shines clear, since the EU’s past experience of working with states to liberalise and democratise Eastern Europe in the 1990s has strongly influenced current European efforts. On the other hand, the unique American historic experience greatly influences its ideology and therefore its approach to democracy promotion. American exceptionalism has always shown American style democracy as the perfect form of government and their success in the Cold War was seen to reinforce the superiority of the American model, best exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” ethos in the 1990s. 

The third reason for the significant difference between European and American approaches to democracy promotion is the chasm between their institutional structures. While the EU is a supranational organisation and made up of 27 individual states, the USA is a unitary actor. This leads to key differences and is one of the significant reasons for the EU’s vague definition of democracy, since creating a consensus on what democracy is between 27 states is incredibly difficult, especially with the current crisis of democracy in EU states such as Poland and Hungary. This leads to a broad approach to democracy promotion since a strict definition would require complete consensus and support, something which is increasingly rare in the modern EU. On the other hand, the United States is a unitary actor with a centralised agency for policy. This enables the US to follow a strict and narrow definition of democracy without needing to allow for the interest of multiple actors to be represented. 

While the US has experienced political polarisation in recent years, the bipartisan system still prevails, with multiple overarching values being shared by both parties, such as the definition of democracy, while the EU has struggled with a parliamentary system that encompasses a vast array of ideologies and interests. Furthermore, the US’s democracy promotion aid is primarily directed through USAID, which has come under the direction of the State Department and foreign policy-makers and thus has less room for individual movement and is often conditional to US self-interest. On the other hand, the EU’s chief democracy promoting agency, the EDF, was managed by the European Commission where Commissioners are selected from all member states and aim to pursue the overall good of the EU rather than specific state interests. This disconnects the EDF from state control, and specifically state self-interest, while USAID strongly follows US interest. 

However, some similarities remain between US and EU democracy promotion, since they both aim to promote “Dahlian”, liberal style democracy. While this has some merit to it, it overlooks the significant implications of even a small variation in definition which leads to the US, following a strictly neoliberal definition, to follow a bottom-up, civil society focused democracy promotion that sees democracy as a product, compared to an EU approach that focuses on the state, rule of law and, due to the vague definition of democracy, has more flexibility that allows it to implement a larger range of policies in a larger range of regimes. While one may argue that in countries such as Tunisia or Belarus, the US and the EU followed convergent policies of democracy promotion through the political approach since both implemented sanctions and visa bans, this overlooks the flexibility of EU policy. The convergence towards the political approach against the Lukashenko regime in Belarus or Tunisia in the 2010s was still met with diverging EU policies, which often used a more developmental approach, while undoubtedly still using a more political approach than in Ethiopia

Yet, this shows that there are differences in approach since this was the result of the EU’s vague definition that allows it greater policy options, which explains the political approach in Belarus, while the US’s rigid definition has meant that it has very few cases of implementing developmental programmes. Therefore, while US and EU democracy promotion share similarities, they have key differentiating factors.

Image credit: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/the_eu_more_democratic_than_the_us/

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