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Promoting Democracy in the Americas

Promoting Democracy in the Americas edited by Thomas Legler, Sharon F. Lean, and Dexter S. Boniface. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007, 360 pp.

In this timely and enlightening work, the editors provide a valuable contribution to the continuing scholarly and policy debates about how best to engender effective democracy in regions and states that have experienced authoritarian traditions of rule. Editors Thomas Legler, Sharon Lean, and Dexter Boniface—along with their contributors—have ably supplemented our existing theoretical insights about the process of democracy in developing countries while deriving well-substantiated policy recommendations. In short, Promoting Democracy in the Americas delivers a well-reasoned assessment about the success, and failure, of democratic progress in the region to date, with an integrated consideration of the contributions of key states, international governmental organizations (IGOs), and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in furthering, or hindering, that progress.

Readers familiar with the pioneering 1996 volume, Beyond Sovereignty: Collectively Defending Democracy in the Western Hemisphere (ed. Tom J. Farer), will doubtless welcome this work as a worthy successor and excellent model for emulation, demonstrating how scholars can build upon one another’s work. (In fact, Farer wrote the foreword to Promoting Democracy.) However, as opposed to Beyond Sovereignty’s focus on states and IGOs, this work demonstrates the growing influence of the transnational relations approach, where at least one actor is a nonstate actor. Incorporating this diversity allows for much richer, nuanced analysis of concepts and case studies while more accurately reflecting reality.

The title of the introductory chapter, “The International and Transnational Dimensions of Democracy in the Americas,” is a bit misleading as the work actually aims at “a trichotomy with overlapping categories: domestic, international, and transnational” (4). This makes sense to the scholars involved, as they generally take a constructivist, or norms-based, interpretation of democratic processes in the region. Viewed in that light, it is easy to understand why the editors explicitly avoid a single definition of democracy in the volume, as they view the term itself as being “socially constructed and disputed [in] nature” (11). In spite of that flexibility, they provide an effective conceptual ordering scheme to the book by asking the contributors to consider three core questions centered on the effectiveness of democracy promotion, the type of democracy being promoted, and the scope of transnational democracy processes at work in the Americas (10–11). It is noteworthy that the 13 additional chapters actually address these questions in a coherent and useful fashion—something not always found in an edited work.

Promoting Democracy is organized into four parts, with the first being the most conventional, dealing with “The Role of the OAS and Regional Powers.” Hawkins and Shaw provide a well-argued, foundational analysis on how the “legalization” of the democracy norm occurred in the region by pointing to the initial, crucial acceptance of the norm by state actors, who then institutionalized its acceptance within the OAS system. But as Boniface’s chapter points out, the OAS has actually had a mixed record in promoting democracy, concluding that “it is a relatively weak organization doing an imperfect job of promoting a rather limited notion of representative democracy” (43). The OAS chapters are supplemented by analysis of three major state actors in the hemisphere—the United States, Canada, and Brazil. In tandem with many other scholars, Shaw finds the United States to have played an uneven and inconsistent role in promoting democracy, especially where that norm is seen to contradict other important national security or economic interests. The more revealing chapters deal with Canada and Brazil, regional actors usually overshadowed by the United States. Major finds Canada to not always be “a principled actor” in promoting democracy in the region as national interests are important in determining Canada’s course of action (104). Similarly, Burges and Daudelin assess Brazil’s foreign policy as realist in nature, noting that “when the principled defense of democracy clashes with broader political and economic objectives, it is the latter that win the day” (109).

The second section, “Election Monitoring,” contains two chapters dealing with this procedural area, which is considered central to the effective exercise of representative democracy. Santa-Cruz assesses how the development of the “Western Hemisphere Idea” and the concomitant value of representative government enabled international election monitoring to emerge first in the Americas, while Lean traces the growth of external (international) validation of elections as an accepted practice in Latin America to generate accountability. Both authors trace the growing involvement of international governmental and nongovernmental groups, with Lean usefully including the role of domestic groups. Lean concludes: “More than forty years since the first experience of election observation in the Americas, election monitoring is a transnationalized practice with the potential to provide important external validation” (171).

The third part of the book, “Crisis Cases” on Haiti, Venezuela, and Ecuador, provides wide-ranging, detailed studies. Goldberg supplements existing scholarship on Haiti with a valuable analysis of the subregional group CARICOM’s moderately successful efforts to promote democracy there. By contrast, Levitt’s work on Ecuador emphasizes how predominant state actors and their national interests remain in defending, or advancing, democracy within the hemisphere. With regard to Venezuela, Legler effectively demonstrates that the OAS “soft” intervention in Venezuela produced somewhat contradictory results, as its “efforts to support [Hugo] Chavez as an elected leader inadvertently helped strengthen a leader intent on challenging both representative democracy and the defense-of-democracy regime in the Americas” to promote “an alternative vision of participatory democracy and social justice” (218).

The last section is most appropriately labeled “Critical Reflections.” The two chapters here thoughtfully examine additional relevant factors, with Shamsie’s persuasive analysis illustrating the limitations of the “fragile” democracies of Haiti and Guatemala, in large part due to “the constraining nature of international economic agreements” which continue to privilege existing elites and do not address the needs of the vast majority of poor citizens. McCoy’s concluding chapter on “Transnational Responses to Democratic Crisis in the Americas, 1990–2005” is especially commendable for its outstanding reflection upon, and integration of, key concepts and factors addressed throughout the book. Unlike other often perfunctory concluding chapters to edited works, this effort consciously asks, and answers, the question “what have we learned?” about international and transnational responses to democratic crises (279). While McCoy identifies some positive factors, such as a “well-developed set of regional democracy norms,” she notes that there is no accepted list of what constitutes a violation or unacceptable alteration of democracy in a particular state (281). She is also concerned about the fact that “international actors favor reaction to crisis, rather than preventative action” (284). Finally, her concluding chapter reflects a major strength of this valuable book, which is its conscious effort to provide integration between the fields of comparative politics and international relations (17). If there is to be a deeper understanding about how best to promote democracy in Latin America—or indeed any region of the world—that will only come with a truly interdisciplinary understanding of the complex factors that make for success or lead to failure.

Kathleen A. Mahoney-Norris, PhD

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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