With countries like Indonesia on board, the push for democracy no longer looked like a stealth American plan for regime change around the world. And the emerging powers often wielded far more influence in their own regions than the United States or other Western democracies did. India is by far the dominant player in South Asian politics; South Africa, another democracy, is the biggest economy in Africa. And in Latin America, while the United States still looms large for many leaders, it is Brazil’s increasingly powerful economy, and left-leaning government, who now have greater immediate influence.
But 15 years into the effort to make democracy promotion a global goal shared by these and other emerging powers, the results are becoming clearer, and they aren’t encouraging. By studying the voting patterns of the major emerging democracies at the United Nations, Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution recently showed that most of these new giants adhere to strict principles of nonintervention and sovereignty—leaving their neighbors alone, or even building closer ties to them, despite nondemocratic, even violently repressive, regimes.
As an example, many human rights activists had enormously high hopes for South Africa’s ruling African National Congress after the end of apartheid. Under Nelson Mandela, the ANC passed one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, and vowed to become a force for human rights across the continent. Yet in recent years the South African government has used its influence very differently. At the UN and at African organizations, it has protected Robert Mugabe’s brutal regime in Zimbabwe, which is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of political opponents as well as economic devastation. South Africa also opposed the multinational effort to end the brutal regime of Libya’s Moammar Khadafy, and ignored international efforts to bring Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir to justice for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
Brazil, too, has taken a “see no evil” approach. While former Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, himself a longtime union activist who had fought years of military regimes in Brazil, spoke out against some egregious human rights abuses elsewhere in the world, and offered asylum to an Iranian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery, his government was openly supportive of Venezuela’s autocratic Hugo Chavez. On one occasion, Lula called Chavez—who jailed independent judges, crushed most of the press, and oversaw constitutional changes designed to tilt any election to him and his allies—“the best president of Venezuela in the last 100 years.” Questioned by Newsweek about why Venezuela was allowed to participate in a South American trade bloc that is supposed to be open only to full democracies that respect human rights, Lula responded, “Give me one example of how Venezuela is not democratic.”
Thailand, another emerging economy, also for years propped up the junta that ruled Myanmar with trade and economic incentives. And Turkey for years was reluctant to take a strong line toward authoritarian governments in neighboring nations like Iraq and Syria, for fear of losing its trade with them.
In light of local politics and economic ambitions, these individual policies make some sense: Many emerging powers are competing for influence and looking to make money, just as the United States does. India wants a larger chunk of Myanmar’s growing oil and gas industry, and doesn’t want China dominating relations with neighbors like Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Similarly, many Brazilian leaders believe that the country needs to take a soft line with Chavez in order to maintain strong economic ties and a healthy supply of Venezuelan oil.
But their hesitancy about more actively promoting democracy has deeper philosophical roots as well. Many of the emerging democratic powers, like India, Brazil, and Indonesia, had been leading members of the nonaligned, anti-imperialism movement during the Cold War, and felt uncomfortable joining any international coalition that smacked of American interventionism. And “sovereignty above all”—the right of nations to be left alone—is a powerful argument for countries like India or Turkey that have their own territorial issues to worry about.
Overall, it’s clear that leaders in many emerging powers don’t see their interests clearly coinciding with those of established democracies. Although it may feel justified to their leaders, these nations’ abdication of interest in international human rights or democracy is already causing harm. The autocracies over the border have been sources of serious instability: Until recently, as Myanmar began to open up politically, refugees of the Burmese regime have swarmed India and Thailand. Myanmar is also the second-largest heroin producer in the world, and the source of some of the most drug-resistant strains of HIV/AIDS. Similarly, Zimbabwe’s repression and economic problems have led hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans to flee, straining the entire region.Continued...