Firefighting for democracy in Ukraine

Nicholas Bouchet

Recent US and EU demonstrations of support for democracy in Ukraine are eloquent proof of how political short-term goals keep overriding the need for long-term strategic thinking.

Nicolas Bouchet
28 February 2014

The crisis in Ukraine has shown that the US and EU have not been very successful in their stated goal of supporting democratisation there since independence in 1991. Whatever happens next, democracy will have to be at the centre of their engagement with the country. If, however, they fail to learn the key lesson from the disappointing experience of the last 20 years, they will be likely to repeat their mistakes and end up dealing with a similar crisis down the line. Or worse.

Washington and Brussels have failed to contribute as much as might have been hoped towards strengthening democracy in Ukraine

Some of the American and European efforts, such as supporting independent civil society or helping to ensure the overturning of the stolen election in 2004, have been useful. But the deep and enduring flaws in Ukraine’s political environment, which led to the crisis, are evidence that overall Washington and Brussels have failed to contribute as much as might have been hoped towards strengthening democracy in the country.

The weakness of the US and EU, individually and collectively, in supporting democracy in Ukraine has been above all a strategic one – as it has been in most other countries where they have made this a goal. It is not so much that their strategies have failed, as that their approach has not been truly strategic.

Supporting democracy strategically means more than a longer-term commitment or smarter ‘technocratic’ solutions to specific problems. Crucially, it requires a more integrated policy towards both the country in question and the wider international environment. So far, this has not really been the case. The lack of strategy in Ukraine-focused democracy policy, and, indeed, of a clear vision how this might fit in with policy towards Russia and the wider post-Soviet space echoes developments in other countries and regions where Washington and Brussels have shown an interest in supporting democracy, not least the Middle East in recent years.

At the same time, Western policy-makers reacted too slowly to the mounting evidence that for at least a decade the international environment for democracy support has been growing tougher. Authoritarian regimes have gone from resisting democracy promotion at home to increasingly pushing their own values abroad, with Russia as a trendsetter. In doing this, they often have recourse to tools used in the support of democracy, such as diplomacy, aid and soft power. Aptly enough, this accelerated after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 – a traumatic watershed for the Russian regime. Moscow has integrated this political goal more clearly within its overall foreign policy – though not as effectively as it thought, as has been seen in Ukraine.

It has been apparent for some time that the US and EU approach to the promotion of democracy is inconsistent, short-term and reactive. These policy shortcomings are slowly being addressed, but it is still the case that attention in Washington and Brussels too often flits from crisis to crisis, with serious consideration of democracy mostly kicking in at the firefighting stage. There are good reasons for this, such as competing goals, financial constraints and bureaucratic obstacles in policy-making. But it should not hide the fact that both sides could do better, at least in thinking more strategically.

Attention in Washington and Brussels too often flits from crisis to crisis, with serious consideration of democracy mostly kicking in at the firefighting stage

A recent Chatham House paper argues that if the US wants to build on the impact it has had so far in promoting democracy, it needs to factor in more comprehensively the new reality of competition with such countries as Russia. The same is true for the EU.

This has to be put in the larger context of a world where the West is less able to get its way. If the US and EU want to promote democracy, especially in countries like Ukraine which have a greater significance for their foreign policy, then doing so strategically will also require a more joined-up common approach than is the case today. Regardless of the language their diplomats may use about each other in private, this is necessary for tilting the balance back in their favour in the face of greater competition.

This is not to suggest that there could ever – or should – be a monolithic transatlantic strategy for promoting democracy. It is difficult enough for either side to formulate its own fully coherent foreign policy. How much more so, then, to coordinate the formulation of a democracy policy, or reconciling it with their different interests in different countries. But there is a real need for more than the current efforts at harmonising diplomatic moves, the division of labour in aid programmes, the pooling of resources and the coordination of leverage. A joint assessment of priorities would also help.

The policy-makers and experts dealing with these issues on a daily basis are aware of this and there has been some discussion about moves toward enhanced transatlantic cooperation. But while these efforts mention the issue of strategy, they too often tend to drift back to narrower questions of how to implement particular programmes and initiatives better, or come up with new ones, rather than dealing with bigger issues of international politics and foreign policy.

This is because most of these debates are still being held among practitioners, NGOs and mid-level policy-makers who have limited influence on overall US and EU policy. Exchanges at this level are useful but there is a limitation to how much they can move the agenda forward.

The real solution to the lack of strategy in democracy promotion can only come from above. Most senior figures in Washington and Brussels talk of the importance of democracy for their foreign policy and wider objectives in the world.  This is usually more than just lip service. It is only they who can drive the move towards a real transatlantic strategy if these goals are to be achieved, preferably without having to wait for the next crisis.

This article is published in editorial partnership with Chatham House

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