We usually portray the United States (U.S.) and the European Union (E.U.) as the good guys in democracy promotion, with mostly benign motivations of spreading democracy and human rights all over the world. At the same time, we tend to view illiberal regimes such as Putin’s Russia, as increasingly promoting autocracy, if not on a global scale, then at least in their respective spheres of influence.

A special issue of the journal Democratization challenges the conventional wisdom. As to the “good guys,” democratic powers such as the U.S. or the E.U. usually prefer stability over human rights and democracy. If democratic movements threaten stability in a region, neither the U.S. nor the E.U. supports them. As to illiberal powers, they are generally not that different from their democratic counterparts. They also prefer stability over turmoil. Neither Russia nor China nor Saudi Arabia explicitly promote autocracy. Instead, they seek to suppress democratic movements in their periphery the minute these groups threaten their security interests or are perceived to endanger their regime survival. This is what Putin, the Saudi king and the Chinese Communist Party leadership have in common.

The special issue starts from the following observations: There is still an ongoing mobilization for democratization on a global scale – from Tunisia to Ukraine and Burma. This is not going away, and both democratic and autocratic regimes have to reckon with it. However, to the extent that Western powers do promote human rights and democracy, they are often faced with illiberal challengers. If we want to understand the outcomes of democracy promotion, we need to simultaneously look at

  • Western efforts (or lack of it) at democracy promotion,
  • autocratic challengers, which see their regimes threatened by democracy promotion,
  • and, most importantly, the balance of forces on the ground.

The special issue examines in detail the challenges by three illiberal regional powers — China, Russia and Saudi Arabia — to Western (U.S. and E.U.) efforts at democracy promotion (most of the articles are publicly available without subscription either temporarily or permanently). The various contributions specifically analyze their actions in Ethiopia and Angola in the case of China, Georgia and Ukraine in the case of Russia, and Tunisia in the case of Saudi Arabia.

We advance four interrelated arguments:

First, illiberal regional powers are only likely to respond to Western efforts in third countries if they perceive democracy promotion as a challenge to their geostrategic interests in the region or to the survival of their regime. Ukraine is a case in point. Furthermore, non-democratic regional powers are unlikely to intentionally promote autocracy even though the strengthening of autocracies might be the consequence of their behavior. In some cases, illiberal regimes even promote democracy if it suits their geostrategic interests.

Second, Western democracy promoters will only react to countervailing policies by illiberal regimes if their stability and security objectives are aligned with democracy and human rights goals. This is currently the case in Ukraine and Tunisia.

Third, among the three illiberal regimes we investigated, the starkest autocracy promoter is actually a Western ally, namely Saudi Arabia. It was the House of Saud that felt most threatened by the “Arab spring” and acted accordingly. Saudi fears for the regime survival of authoritarian kingdoms in the Middle East aligned with Western stability concerns about the rise of Islamist forces. In contrast, for all the hype about the “rise of China” as a threat to Western interests, of least concern to the Chinese leadership is democracy or autocracy in Africa. Similarly, as the case of Myanmar shows, China continues pursuing economic and security interests as long as its regime survival is not under threat. China offers economic cooperation to countries without the burden of democratic conditionality, which may render international democracy promotion ineffective, because African leaders might go “aid-shopping.” Our analysis demonstrates, however, that Chinese aid was largely irrelevant for democracy outcomes in Angola and Ethiopia.

Finally, the effects on the ground of both democracy promotion and counteraction ultimately depend on the domestic configuration of political, social and economic forces. Western democracy promoters are likely to empower liberal groups in the target countries, while counteracting efforts by illiberal regional powers to strengthen autocratic ancient regimes. This differential empowerment of domestic forces depends in turn on the “balance of leverage” in terms of credibility of commitment, legitimacy, and resources between the E.U. and the U.S., on the one hand, and that of illiberal regional powers on the other. As a result, Western democracy promotion and counteracting efforts by illiberal powers may sometimes have counter-intuitive results: The U.S. and the EU might actually foster illiberal outcomes, the reactions to the “Arab spring” being a case in point. At the same time, autocratic regimes might unintentionally promote democracy. At the moment, the strongest “democracy promoter” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova is Vladimir Putin.

So, what does all this mean for U.S. and E.U. policies? First, credibility is key: In the long run, there is no democracy-stability dilemma, since the only stable peace is the “democratic peace.” Constantly prioritizing stability over human rights and democracy for short-term geostrategic interests does not do Western security concerns any good. In the short run, however, the dilemma may exist and it makes no sense to deny it. Not recognizing the dilemma only leads to false hopes and then to accusations of double standards.

Second, the West should concentrate their human rights and democracy promotion tool-kits on countries with a sufficient chance of success, i.e., with strong pro-democracy coalitions. While Tunisia is a tiny country and probably not on many peoples’ radar screens, it’s the best hope for human rights and democracy in the Arab world. Here, the U.S. and the E.U. can make a difference – hoping for “spill-over” effect to other countries. The same holds true for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, where substantial parts of the society support democratic reforms. The EU in particular has a tool kit for democracy promotion, which needs to be implemented in a timely fashion so as not to spoil the hopes of millions of Ukrainians, Georgians and Moldovans. Closer economic relations alone are unlikely to do the trick, though. The main concern of Russia’s neighbours is security. NATO membership might be not in the cards for them. Offering some credible security guarantees, however, would provide the U.S. and the E.U. with much greater leverage to induce democratic reforms than association agreements, whose benefits are at best long term.

Thomas Risse is a professor of international politics, and Nelli Babayan (@nellibabayan) is a senior researcher at Freie Universität Berlin.