The New Global Marketplace of Political Change
The New Global Marketplace of Political Change (Photo: tennsoccerdr)


by Thomas Carothers and Oren Samet-Marram

Has the West lost its role as the prime instigator of political change around the world? Thomas Carothers and Oren Samet-Marram believe so. As they see it, a new global marketplace now exists where non-Western democracies and authoritarian governments are performing this task.

Western democratic powers are no longer the dominant external shapers of political transitions around the world. A new global marketplace of political change now exists, in which varied arrays of states, including numerous nondemocracies and non-Western democracies, are influencing transitional trajectories. Western policymakers and aid practitioners have been slow to come to grips with the realities and implications of this new situation. New Marketplace Realities

A transformed transitional era. Despite overall global democratic stagnation since 2000, the era of widespread national-level political flux that marked the 1980s and 1990s has not ended; its character has simply evolved. It no longer has any overarching directionality, with countries moving as often away from democracy as toward it or into civil war as out of it.

A widespread phenomenon. The marketplace is not limited to high-profile hot spots like Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. Competition for influence among diverse external actors impacts all countries experiencing fundamental political change.

A new normal. The marketplace is not a temporary condition. It is a fundamental feature of the changed international political order that is emerging as a result of the global diffusion of power away from the West to “the rest.”

How States Operate in the Marketplace

Motivations are complex and often nonideological. Framing the marketplace as a contest between democracy promotion and autocracy promotion would be erroneous. The motivations of governments seeking to shape political change in other countries are highly diverse and hard to neatly categorize.

Methods of influence are increasingly forceful. The marketplace is characterized by the widening use of intrusive methods, especially military force and political cash on the part of nondemocracies. Non-Western democracies usually hew to softer methods and often try to act through multilateral institutions.

Marketplace power is asymmetrical. Fueled by a perception of urgent national interest and taking advantage of local ties and knowledge, relatively weak countries are sometimes able to exert significant influence on transitions near them, rivaling or even outweighing that of major Western powers.

Pushback is a by-product. As competition for influence widens and intensifies, a growing number of countries are pushing back, not only against Western powers, but against all states attempting to exert cross-border political influence.

Rules are scarce. The new global marketplace is a rule-less domain in practice. The many different states reaching across borders to influence the political life of other countries do not conform to any shared set of norms, principles, or standards regulating the permissible forms of action.


In the 1980s and 1990s, fundamental political change, or at least the apparent start of it, hit over 100 countries in Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Soviet Union, primarily in the form of the collapse of authoritarian regimes. The United States and other established Western democracies dominated the international dimension of what many Western observers described as a global wave of democracy. Employing diplomatic levers, economic carrots and sticks, military power, democracy-related assistance, and other tools, established Western democracies sought to support democratic outcomes in the many politically transitional countries.

Of course, Western governments had many other foreign policy preoccupations besides democracy support and were often inconsistent in their commitment to democratic principles. Moreover, they were not necessarily successful in many of their efforts to help foster and consolidate democracy. But unquestionably they were deeply involved in trying to shape the direction of the political change unfolding throughout the developing and post-Communist worlds.

Some other countries, especially regional powers such as China and Saudi Arabia, also attempted during those years to exert influence in at least some of these transitional contexts. China, for example, supported the African National Congress in its struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Saudi Arabia sought to have a hand in Yemen’s long-simmering civil conflict. But these and other non-Western powers were absorbed with domestic political and economic challenges of their own and had only limited capacities to be influential beyond their borders.

Given the still-tremendous concentration of global power in the hands of the United States and its close allies during the immediate post–Cold War years, Western powers were usually the most significant international actors weighing in. What for decades throughout the Cold War had been a dualistic contest for political influence across borders between the United States and its allies on one side, and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other, became something much closer to a one-sided global framework.

That situation no longer prevails. Fundamental political change—that is, change in the basic character of a political system, not simply alternation of power between contending political groups that both accept the same political rules of the game—continues to occur in many countries. Sometimes it takes place as a result of the collapse of a regime due to protests, military force, or other forms of disruption, such as in Ukraine and Thailand in 2014. Other times it occurs through elections, when a victorious party or politician emerges that seeks to make a fundamental, that is to say, systemic, break from old ways, such as in Sri Lanka in early 2015.

Where fundamental change is occurring, much more varied arrays of states are thrusting themselves into the process than has been the case previously. Many of the states now in the fray are acting with striking determination, considerable resources, and sometimes notable skill to shape events. Some are nondemocratic, like China, Iran, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Venezuela; for these states, influence over processes of political change around them is a crucial part of larger strategic efforts to mold new regional security orders to fit their interests. Others are democracies, such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Turkey, that are evolving beyond their traditional attachment to noninterventionism and seeking to be more politically influential regional powers. Although established Western democracies are still actively engaged in seeking to affect the course of political change in countries around the world, their efforts are now much less dominant than they once were, and in some cases, they are significantly challenged or outweighed by the efforts of others.

This intensified and diversified transnational involvement in national-level political change is glaringly evident in blood-drenched hot spots like Ukraine and Syria, which have become tragic theaters of militarized cross-border political interventionism. Less appreciated, however, is how pervasive such involvement has become, even when it is less openly conflictual. Egypt, for example, has seen not just the United States and various European countries laboring (largely in vain) to impact its political direction since the ouster of then president Hosni Mubarak in 2011—but a host of other countries forcefully weighing in as well, especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Similarly, ever since Burma’s ruling generals cracked open the long-closed political door of that country, a plethora of actors, including China, India, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have been trying to influence the direction of Burma’s new political path.

In short, a new global marketplace of political change now exists. This marketplace is not a limited or temporary condition, an isolated, short-term flare-up of internationalized tensions in a few unstable countries. It is a widespread feature of the changed international political order that is emerging as a result of the global diffusion of power away from the West to “the rest.” Of course, states seek to exert political influence across borders in all kinds of countries, not just ones experiencing political flux. A normal element of statecraft is the search for political influence in other countries to help maintain a useful friendship or alliance or to open doors for trade and investment. The focus here is on the exertion of political influence in countries experiencing fundamental political change with the goal of trying to affect the basic direction or outcome of that change. Such contexts are places where both the vulnerability to outside influence and the political stakes are unusually high.

Coming to grips with the full reach and complexity of the global marketplace of political influence is imperative, especially for the community of Western policy and aid actors engaged in supporting democracy in other countries. This paper seeks to help meet that need. It starts with a short analysis of the altered, multidirectional nature of political change that now defines the international landscape. It then examines the operation of the marketplace in five key regions—the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America—highlighting the different configurations of states active in trying to shape political directions and outcomes in each region. Various key features of the marketplace emerge from this analysis, including the complex mix of motivations at work and the inadequacy of any binary “democracy promotion versus autocracy promotion” framework; the strikingly frequent employment of military methods, especially by nondemocracies; how asymmetric power patterns often put less powerful states in a dominant role in contexts of change; and the multiplication of conflicts between governments trying to exert influence across borders and governments on the receiving ends of such efforts. The paper concludes with implications for Western policymakers, above all the need to reformulate the basic question that Western democracies face regarding their role in processes of political change around the world.

The Altered Landscape of Political Change

The global wave of national-level political change that marked the 1980s and 1990s had a dominant initial directionality. Most of the countries engulfed by this wave experienced the breakdown of long-standing authoritarian regimes, whether they were military juntas in Latin America, Communist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, or personalistic dictators in Africa and Asia. Political observers at the time too easily assumed that movement away from authoritarianism automatically meant democratization when, in fact, many countries that the enthusiastic observers proclaimed to be transitioning to democracy were actually transitioning into a political gray zone populated by hybrid systems that combined features of both democracy and authoritarianism. Other countries made brief forays away from authoritarianism but then lapsed quickly back into renewed dictatorial rule. Nevertheless, the many exits from authoritarianism combined often enough with at least some movement toward political pluralism and openness that the widely used label of “the Third Wave of democracy” was at least a plausible account of what was happening.

Yet then, rather abruptly, during the first decade of the new century, democracy stopped advancing in the world. A lively debate exists among democracy specialists as to whether democracy is now in recession globally or just stagnant, but the loss of forward momentum is clear—the overall number of democracies today (as measured by the various global political indices) is roughly the same as it was in 2000.1

This change does not, however, mean that the era of widespread, national-level political flux that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s has ended. It simply means that its overall character has evolved. It no longer has any clear overarching directionality. Authoritarian exit has occurred in some countries in the past decade and a half. In a few of these places, such as Tunisia, it appears to be leading to serious attempts at democratization. In other places, authoritarian demise has led almost directly to civil war, as in Libya, or to a period of instability followed by authoritarian reconstruction, as in Egypt.

In a much larger number of countries, political flux has taken the form not of authoritarian exit but of democratic exit. Larry Diamond has identified 25 cases of democratic breakdown that have occurred since 2000, with some states returning to democracy after their breakdowns and others not.2 Some of these countries, like Nepal and Pakistan, have experienced frequent political turmoil and change over the past several decades; they are seemingly trapped in transitions defined by no clear directionality at all.

Another component of the current landscape of political change is the many countries moving in or out of civil war. Part of the dominant directionality of the 1990s was movement away from civil war, as dozens of old Cold War–fueled conflicts, especially in Africa and Central America, ended.3 Since the 1990s, a few civil conflicts have ended, such as in Sri Lanka, or possibly entered their final phase, such as in Colombia. But a larger number of countries have fallen into civil conflict rather than moved out of it, including Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen.

In short, significant amounts of fundamental national-level political change continue to occur around the world, despite the democratic stagnation since 2000. But the ongoing era of global political change no longer has any clear overarching direction or shape. Countries are as frequently moving away from democracy as toward it, and more often moving into conflict than out of it. The global era of political change that commenced several decades ago is now about change that involves an almost bewilderingly diverse array of starting points, directions, halfway houses, side alleys, and endpoints.

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Thomas Carothers, Andrew S. Weiss, Marwan Muasher and Douglas H. Paal are Vice Presidents for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Oren Samet-Marram is a Junior Fellow in the Democracy and Middle East Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.




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