Time and time again, during times of conflict, we often see interventionist strategies employed by powerful democratic countries. These countries work under the guise of democratization, where they ‘benevolently‘ take actions to implement democracy into less powerful, formerly non-democratic (or struggling democratic) countries. The outcome differs from country to country, some still struggling against corruption years later while some are on the path to becoming a strong democracy themself. This begs the questions: Should these foreign countries intervene? Are they only exploiting the vulnerability and trying to gain more power? Does this practice even work?
Foreign Intervention Fails? A Brief History of Afghanistan
From the beginning of the 20th century, Afghanistan seems to have been constantly in a struggle to establish its own form of government. This began in 1919, when the country became officially independent from Great Britain. For the next 50 years, Afghanistan saw many types of governments and rulers: a monarchy, a Prime Minister, a constitutional monarchy, and a republic installed by a military coup. After this time period, foreign involvement in the governing of Afghanistan truly began.
For most of the 1980s, the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan and influenced its government. This is when the first United States involvement occurs, as they work to provide military aid to the mujahideen, who engage in guerilla warfare in attempts to retake the Afghan government. Other foreign countries, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and China, provide aid to the opposition as well. The Soviet invaders were driven out with the signing of the Geneva peace accords and Afghanistan is free to run its government how it chooses. For the moment, this intervention was a success!
Unfortunately, this soon turned into a classic case of conflict leaving behind a gaping power vacuum. In 1996, the Taliban rose to power, but did not rule democratically. Terrorist attacks were launched against the United States, which prompted retaliation and reignited the urge among foreign countries to instate democracy in Afghanistan. In this instance, foreign intervention was mainly concerned with preventing the spread of communism. Later, when democracy did not spontaneously appear, those same countries who intervened were forced to exert even more efforts to prevent further conflict.
Little to No Foreign Intervention, it Worked! (Kinda) In the Case of Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso is an example of a young democracy whose path was riddled with disagreements and coups, but not much major foreign intervention. After gaining independence in 1960, the country started off democratically with a President as the executive leader. This was followed by a military coup, a Prime Minister, a multi-party constitution, and, in the 1980s, an assortment of coups. A promising president is elected in 1990. This president goes on to engage in executive aggrandizement, manipulating the democratic institutions and allowing himself to remain in power until 2014 when citizens’ protests become ubiquitous. Although the leader manipulated the systems originally, the people were still able to express their discontent with the government and enact change. Despite the lack of intervention, Burkina Faso was mostly able to secure democracy on its own.
Intervention Does Lead to Democracy! Ghana’s Election Efficacy
Similar to Burkina Faso, Ghana gained independence from previous colonial rule during the mid-20th century, in 1957. In the years that followed, the government is handed back and forth amidst military coups and presidential elections. Finally, In 1996, “the United States, Canada, the European Union, and the Netherlands extended around $12 million… to enhance its capacity to facilitate free and fair elections.” These efforts helped to solidify belief in the legitimacy of the election among citizens. In this case, intervention helped to strengthen the civic culture in the democratizing country. What stands out in this example is that foreign aid was provided specifically to build and strengthen the democratic institutions, not to overthrow a non-democratic leader or wage a war.
Intervention is Good Within Reason
Obviously, among strong democratic countries, there will likely also be a strong belief that democracy is the best form of government and should be implemented everywhere. This does not mean that all countries should be democratic and that strong democracies should spread their influence. But, In some cases foreign intervention is necessary to get democracy started in a country. As seen in all of the above examples, the foreign country contributed financial or military aid in an effort to bolster democratization. However, the methods of intervention are critical. As we have seen, institutions don’t build themselves. Every country has a unique culture. Instead of solely launching military vendettas, it is essential that the democratic institutions are specialized and built to work for the specific country, and that a belief in the efficacy of the institutions be established. If this practice is not upheld, the democratizing country in question will be left with a shell of a democracy when the foreign support departs.