Civil society plays a central role in securing and upholding democratic governance worldwide. However, from Egypt to Russia, authoritarian governments are reverse engineering civil society’s tactics, threatening to undermine the campaign for liberal rule. As civil society fights for space in which to dissent, rally for reform, and express itself freely, illiberal states are squeezing that space. My colleague Mark P. Lagon, adjunct senior fellow for human rights at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor at Georgetown University, calls this the "new space race" in his just-released CFR Expert Brief, “Fighting for Civil Society’s Space.” He recommends an approach to global diplomacy to ensure open space for reformers. Here’s an excerpt.
There is an emerging geopolitical contest between forces of repression and expression. A battle for civil society space, a space race of sorts, is becoming increasingly intense in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, Bahrain, Iran, and Thailand. Focusing on indigenous, nonviolent movements as the most effective engine of durable change, the United States must forge a new diplomacy engaging these groups.
Civil society typically includes political activists and human rights defenders, but it also comprises representatives from the legal community, business, academia, and independent media. The vast majority of civil society groups seek change through nonviolent action—through public awareness, press, petitioning, and protest efforts. There is hard evidence that nonviolent groups can be potent forces to liberalizing their governments.
In their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan collected data on all known violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006. Defining success as achieving its own "stated goals (regime change, anti-occupation, or secession)" within a year of a campaign’s peak and being recognized by regional neighbors, the study found nonviolent campaigns proved more than twice as effective as violent ones, a trend that increased over time in both success and frequency. All the nonviolent campaigns that mobilized more than 3.5 percent of the population as participants succeeded. When facing violent state repression, nonviolent resistance was more effective than violent resistance, and it resulted in higher rates of democratic consolidation five years after the campaigns ended. The same skills necessary for building a large-scale nonviolent campaign are needed for durable democratic governance.
Most civic movements need outside help to succeed. The Global South’s major democratic powers—such as Brazil, India, and South Africa—are loathe to become involved in other developing nations’ internal affairs, despite the great legitimacy their help would offer. Despite modest support from the United Nations Democracy Fund and UN resolutions, the UN will not be a major source of help; it is stymied by authoritarian member states and these same Global South democratic governments. U.S. leadership remains crucial.
There has been high-level support for such invigorated public diplomacy, as evidenced by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s discourse on "transformational diplomacy", former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s habit of meeting with civil society actors in all her travels, and President Obama’s call for backing civil society at the UN General Assembly.
However, U.S. support for civil society has not been implemented systematically. Such a shift in diplomacy would entail three basic elements:
First, the United States should stop inflexibly backing autocracies. It has repeatedly made this mistake in Egypt.
Second, the U.S. government must proactively help to fill the information voids where authoritarian states are suffocating expression and purveying biased news, and where private-sector media are insufficient. Some wrongly consider U.S.-funded broadcasting efforts a Cold War relic. Massive Russian state-run satellite TV broadcasting to Ukraine during Vladimir Putin’s brazen manipulation in Crimea and Donetsk dwarfed U.S.-funded radio broadcasting.
The third pillar to supporting civil society abroad is to cultivate capable democratic leaders willing to work for reform in their own countries. Independent grantees with deep expertise, like the National Endowment for Democracy’s entities and Freedom House, are far wiser conduits for funding and training these potential leaders, instead of contractors who offer cookie-cutter programs and who tend to micromanage.
U.S. assistance to nonviolent civil society reformers is far wiser than inaction, aid to violent groups less inclined toward consensual politics once in power, or invasion and occupation. This focus offers the very centerpiece of a continued U.S. leadership role, one in which the U.S. neither serves as the world’s policeman nor pulls back from the world, the false choice offered in today’s foreign policy debate.
If it fails to follow through, the United States is walking off the playing field and leaving the governments in Moscow, Beijing, Caracas, Riyadh, and elsewhere to muzzle civil society, and claim that their models are the wave of the future.