More than a Cliché: Every Crisis is a New Opportunity

europeonthestrand |

By Pablo Calderon Martinez

The international community was, once again, caught by surprise and overwhelmed by the speed and intensity of the events unfolding in one of the most volatile regions of the world. The much-maligned Bush “doctrine” claimed that, after a short war, Iraq would become a functional Western-like democracy, whose prosperity, freedom and efficiency would sparkle a new democratic wave throughout the Arab world. Some (as Tony Blair did) shielded in the famous words by Zhou Enlai’s when asked to give his assessment of the French Revolution and claimed “it’s too early to say”; the idea was that we should have not passed judgement on the war in Iraq so quickly, that it was too early to judge it’s value, it could still spark a democratic wave in the region. Are recent events in North Africa and the rest of the Arab World a vindication of the Bush “doctrine”? Is it really too early to say?

If we look carefully at the transitions to democracy in the last 25 years of the 20th century, or what Huntington referred to as the Third Wave of democratisation, we can clearly see that what distinguishes this wave from the post-war democratisations is the relative peacefulness of most of the processes. This is not to say that violence, or at least the threat of violence was not an important element in the transitions to democracy of the third wave; but in the most successful cases internal violent confrontation was not the catalyst for democratic change (military defeats elsewhere were relevant in some cases). Transitions in Southern Europe in the 1970s, Latin America in the 1980s and Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s were (a few notable exceptions excluded) peaceful arrangements that led to healthy democracies in the cases of Southern Europe and encouraging cases elsewhere. None of the transitions in Latin America or Europe can compare to the violence and increasing cost (humanitarian and financial) of the Iraqi ‘transition’ to a feeble and fragile democracy; by some estimates the war in Iraq has caused over one million casualties and cost over one trillion dollars. Regardless of the outcome of the current wave of democratic revolutions, and even if we could identify a direct link between “democratisation” in Iraq and elsewhere, we can certainly say that, compared to most democratic transitions in the last 50 years, the transitions in the Arab World (at least in Iraq and Libya) are proving very costly in humanitarian and financial terms.

The fact is that after Iraq one lesson was learned: the cost of imposing democracy by military intervention in the Arab world was simply too high. This ended an era of relatively uncomfortable relationships between the West and some of its propped-up dictators in the region. The West briefly swiftly regressed to the era when good dictators are supported and encouraged, and bad dictators are contained and discredited. However, nobody anticipated that democratic forces from below were about to force yet another change of paradigm in the relationship between the West and the Arab World. It is in this crossroad that a new opportunity raises for Europe to emerge as an international leader, heal the divisions caused by the recent financial crisis, reach a consensus and, most importantly, define an independent policy on democracy promotion that puts Europe at the fore of the social struggle for freedom.

The proactive approach shown by the UK and France towards the crisis in Libya contrasts with the relative passivity of the US. In reality it should not matter to Europe whether the US’s reluctance to act steams from Obama’s indecision, a concrete change in foreign policy or simply the administration’s desire to see someone else take the lead; the EU should use this opportunity to re-emerge from its recent crisis in a stronger position. After the debacle in Kosovo and the lack of coordination shown by Europe to respond to that crisis, the divisions caused by the Iraq war, and the general confusion over what role should Europe play in democracy promotion this is a perfect opportunity for the EU to define some of its key foreign policy objectives. It has been clear for a long time that Europe’s democratic pull has been a big influence in the successful transitions to democracy in Southern and Post-communist Europe; the democratic conditionality and the positive example of the prosperous Western European democracies have helped consolidate the idea that democracy is the best way forward in countries that aspire to join the EU. However, Europe has struggled to match this influence in democracy building outside its borders. Northern Africa has long been regarded as a natural sphere of influence for the positive pull of the EU. This is a perfect opportunity for the EU to take a positive stance and help develop democracy from below, as it has been doing inside its own borders.

In past entries in this blog, some of the contributors (myself included) have talked about the supposed threat of the debt crisis to the very existence of the Union. We have also, however, claimed that the financial crisis will hardly mean the end of the common currency, let alone the project of integration as a whole. As I said in my last blog entry, the financial crisis in the EU should be regarded as an opportunity to further political integration in other fronts; the current international context presents a perfect opportunity for Europe to push forward integration (or at least coordination) in one of the most sensitive issues to the member states: the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

The Lisbon Treaty has consolidated the CFSP under the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy thus allowing the EU to act as a single block on certain pre-agreed issues of foreign and security policy. It is certainly hard to envisage the EU carrying out high-profile military interventions outside of the framework of NATO, not only because NATO is in charge of European territorial defence but also because it is hard to imagine a scenario where NATO would refuse to act but the EU would decide to do so. Therefore, I am not suggesting the EU should lead military humanitarian interventions, but rather that it should develop a clearer foreign policy when it comes down to democracy promotion. Although there are encouraging initiatives under the European External Action Service, which seeks to promote Human Rights (democracy included) abroad, the Office of Promotion of Parliamentary Democracy, which seeks to provide logistical support to new emerging democracies, and the EU Neighbourhood Policy, which offers “privileged relationships” upon a mutual commitment to common values (again democracy included) to neighbouring countries, there has not been a clear EU-wide foreign policy that seeks to promote democracy from below.

The EU now has an opportunity to redefine and consolidate its foreign policy objectives whilst reaching highest levels of cooperation in this area among member states. It is clear to me that it is in Europe’s best interest that democratic institutions spread around the whole Mediterranean region. Now that the people in the Arab World are taking matters into their very capable hands, it is time for the EU to come up with a viable, consistent and fair foreign policy that truly helps establishing democracy from below. Hopefully a more proactive policy of democracy promotion from below will prove more effective than a policy of “gunpoint democracy”.