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India today stands as the world’s largest democratic state, a nation of over a billion people that stitches together countless ethnic groups, castes, and languages. Indian officials long have boasted of their nation’s deep and founding commitment to democracy, a public emphasis that has only grown stronger as China and India increasingly become global competitors.
You might expect, then, that India would have been an important force behind the new openness in its neighbor Myanmar, with which India shares an 800-mile border, and which until very recently was one of the most closed and oppressive states in the world.
You’d be wrong. Over the past decade, while Myanmar, formerly called Burma, was under authoritarian leadership, India became one of its largest trading partners and economic supporters, with a “Look East” policy that even brought former Burmese Senior General Than Shwe on a state visit in the summer of 2010. India ignored international resolutions condemning the Burmese regime’s human rights abuses and sold arms to its government. And India has taken the same approach to many other authoritarian nations, maintaining friendly, even supportive relations with Sri Lanka during its violent suppression of Tamil rebels, developing close ties with Iran, and backing a series of undemocratic regimes in Nepal.
What holds true for India appears to be emerging as a far broader trend around the world—one that worries pro-democracy activists, and poses a serious problem for the United States and the liberal West. By the late 2000s and early 2010s, many rights activists, world leaders, and American officials—recognizing that the United States’ own power to persuade was declining—had begun to place their hopes in big emerging democracies like India, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa. As these grew, they were expected to—and often promised to—become regional and global champions of human rights and democracy.
Today, however, such hopes are looking naive. The big emerging democracies have not only failed to step up as global advocates of democratization but have, in many cases, moved in the other direction, propping up some of the world’s most authoritarian governments—helping preserve the same kind of repressive regimes they themselves often had escaped, reinforcing divides, and often siding with autocrats against Western democracies.
“Some of the most prominent rising powers are ringleaders of developing-country blocs...[but] impede multilateral cooperation by reinforcing obsolete ideological divisions between the North and the South,” says Stewart Patrick, an expert on international organizations and rising powers at the Council on Foreign Relations.
For anyone concerned about promoting more open societies around the world, these nations’ hesitancy suggests cause for pessimism: It’s becoming clear that there is no inherent momentum in the march toward democracy, and that the spread of political openness will require more of the West. For most people in the countries themselves, their governments’ reluctance is likely to have costs, just as the West’s support for friendly Cold War dictators did: Close relationships with authoritarian states can infect democracies from within, and create economic and political instability that can rebound for a generation.
Throughout the Cold War , the United States and its NATO allies served as figureheads for democracy in the rest of the world. But that role came at a price—not only a financial one, but also the perception that some open democratic societies were simply American puppets. Repressive regimes from Libya to North Korea claimed legitimacy in part from their resistance to American power.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, observers noted an encouraging trend: The Western powers weren’t the world’s only high-flying democracies. New powers like India were emerging with democratic governments and regional clout, and starting in the later part of the Clinton administration, the United States and other Western nations began aggressively trying to enlist them in global democracy promotion. The Clinton administration helped establish the Community of Democracies, a global meeting of nations held for the first time in Poland in 2000, which eventually expanded to create a democracies’ caucus at the United Nations. Other regional pro-democracy groups sprang up around the world, often with US help and support. At one such gathering, the World Movement for Democracy, held in Jakarta in the spring of 2010, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said: “I am convinced that ultimately the 21st century instinct is the democratic instinct....No political system can ignore this.”Continued...