Guide Strategic Adaptation: Toward a New U.S. Strategy in the Middle East

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The EU exerts some of its strongest pressure on governments that are at least partly democratic and with which it has especially comprehensive and broad engagement. Since , the union has on three occasions delayed tranches of macroeconomic aid to Ukraine in response to delays in anticorruption reforms. In Georgia in , EU ambassadors pushed hard to ensure that then president Mikheil Saakashvili accepted a transfer of power after his party lost the parliamentary election.

In the case of Iran, the EU priority has been to uphold the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which involves a dilution of European sanctions in return for Iran limiting its uranium enrichment activities. However, the EU has added targeted measures in response to its conviction that the Iranian regime is implicated in the killing of opposition members on European soil.

In January , the EU imposed sanctions on the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security and two Iranian nationals, based on indications that they were involved in the killing of two Dutch nationals of Iranian origin and in planned attacks in France and Denmark. In a potentially significant step forward in December , EU foreign ministers approved a Dutch proposal for an EU-wide sanctions regime to apply to individuals guilty of human rights abuses. The proposal also includes the use of majority voting to make sanctions easier to deploy.

In March , the European Parliament backed this proposal. Discussions are ongoing among the ambassadors of the EU member states in the Political and Security Committee, with a view to adopting a new sanctions instrument when the next foreign policy high representative takes office in November. These examples show that the EU has sometimes exerted pressure on democracy-related issues through punitive measures.

There are many more cases, however, of the EU pursuing enhanced cooperation in aid and trade with countries that are clearly authoritarian or becoming more authoritarian. While the EU has moved away somewhat from open-ended budget support that allowed recipient governments to spend aid money more or less how they wanted, nondemocratic regimes still receive large amounts of European aid without political strings attached. Indeed, 84 percent of EU development aid for — went to countries that are authoritarian or hybrid regimes see table 1.

There are some examples of the EU reducing funding to countries suffering from autocratization—like Burundi, South Africa, and Venezuela—but the numbers do not suggest a systematic or coherent policy in this regard. In the mids, European aid flows to Rwanda increased; in , only Belgium and the EU withheld funding in response to the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. While the EU has maintained its suspension of funding to the Burundian government following the political crisis, France has recently resumed financial cooperation with Burundi despite a lack of improvements on human rights and democracy.

Beyond the cases of Cambodia and Myanmar, the EU has declined to invoke the GSP conditionality that was tightened in , even in cases where human and labor rights are clearly worsening, like Pakistan. The EU often responds positively to elections it knows are not free. It also awarded the Ethiopian government additional aid after the regime took all the seats in the parliamentary election and clamped down more harshly on civil society. The EU has rewarded governments that are either not reforming in a democratic direction or becoming more repressive. The union signed a new Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement with Cuba in November , as human rights conditions have worsened on the island.

In Central Asia, although recent leadership changes have yet to result in meaningful political openings, the EU has signed a new-generation Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan and is negotiating such agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In Zimbabwe, the EU had diluted sanctions well before former president Robert Mugabe was forced from office in and began to seek new cooperation before the new government showed any discernible commitment to democratic reform.

Despite the EU code of conduct on arms sales, member states have increased the export of military equipment to authoritarian regimes. Exports have also increased of dual-use technology used by regimes for digital surveillance of activists. Indeed, Western companies supply most of the surveillance technology used by authoritarians around the world. European surveillance technology has helped authoritarian regimes in countries including Azerbaijan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. The Syrian regime has bought surveillance technology from French, German, Irish, and Italian companies.

As the EU and its member states generally recoil from critical measures, democracy-related aid projects tend to be the leading edge of EU democracy support policies. EU democracy and human rights aid allocations remain significant in absolute terms even if they are small compared with overall aid financing.

One challenge in assessing EU policy is that different documents and sources give contrasting figures for democracy support, and there is no common EU-wide definition for this category of aid. This is around 1. In the last decade, support for the media sector, political parties, and parliamentary support has lagged far behind backing for other sectors in terms of financial assistance. European support for media freedom has been given extra momentum by a large-scale Media4Democracy project that focuses on the growing threat to freedom of expression online and offline.

In July , the United Kingdom government hosted a high-profile event on this topic, while the European Center for Press and Media Freedom in Leipzig adds further support.


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Since , the EIDHR has additionally prioritized freedom of religion and belief, and an EU special envoy is now dedicated to this theme. EU delegations in countries agreed on civil-society road maps for —; fifty-six of these were renewed for — The directorate general of the European Commission responsible for enlargement and the EU neighborhood has increased its support to the European Endowment for Democracy EED , which can operate in environments that prove complex with classic aid cooperation methods.

The EU introduced a policy framework on transitional justice, under which it commits to a participatory approach to truth-seeking initiatives. The EU has begun an assessment of the human rights impact of trade and investment agreements—although it is not clear whether this will have any tangible impact on European commercial policies. The EU now deploys some eight to ten election observation missions EOMs a year—twenty-four in total since —and an increasing number of electoral follow-up missions EFMs.

The EU also supported local electoral observers in eight countries. The increased focus on the follow-up to recommendations of EOMs is an important step in ensuring that these missions are part of a wider democracy support tool kit rather than support to a stand-alone event. Over and above the EIDHR, the EU uses funds from geographic mainstream development budgets for some initiatives related to democracy—although it does not compile figures for this type of political aid.

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This support goes predominantly to state institutions such as judicial bodies or election commissions but also supports civil society. EU development cooperation has become more political in its stated aims, by focusing on societies in transition and frequently articulating political goals. Changes in to the conflict-related Instrument Contributing to Peace and Stability made this tool better able to support political reform in specific situations. This includes work on supporting the political party system in Colombia, financing to combat electoral violence in Kenya, and aiding constitutional reform in Sudan.

Through its multiple financial instruments, the EU has moved to increase democracy assistance where new opportunities have arisen in recent years. The EU has continued to fund some civil-society actors even in tough cases like Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, and Zimbabwe. When large-scale protests take place, the EU tends to maintain a prudent distance, offering rhetorical backing while refraining from any active involvement, and promising upgraded support if reforms succeed. This represents a 15 percent increase for democracy and human rights and a 6 percent rise for civil society. Diplomats insist that the single instrument should allow for quicker pro-democracy funding and for money to be shifted around.

The European Parliament has established its broadly favorable position on these proposals, and the Council of Ministers has almost done so after much negotiation—although some member states remain unconvinced of the case for merging the current array of instruments into the NDICI. Increasingly, EU democracy support has shifted toward pushing back against negative trends like the shrinking space for civil society, disinformation, and attacks on electoral integrity.

By early , Protectdefenders. In addition to European Commission funds, a handful of member states allocate significant amounts of their aid to democracy initiatives. Member states use slightly different language in describing democracy: some refer directly to democracy, others to governance, the rule of law, or human rights as priorities.

A small number of member states—the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands—have published democracy support strategy documents , while others—like Germany and the UK—fold democracy into mainstream development policy guidelines and the broader category of good governance support. Although there is significant variation in funding levels between European states, they remain some of the biggest funders of democracy around the world. A new Swedish strategy for — commits to more democracy support and to offering civic actors more core funding. Denmark is the other highest-level funder in proportional terms.

In , the four parties represented in the Dutch parliament reached a coalition agreement that pledged to increase the budget for the Netherlands Human Rights Fund. A new UK Department for International Development DfID strategy published in focuses on governance but stresses that this will include more focus on fostering democracy, protecting civic freedoms, and supporting moments of democratic breakthrough. The same year, France introduced a human rights strategy , but this did not mention democracy. Despite many policy improvements, in the round the evidence does not point to the EU taking a strong stand for democracy on any sort of consistent basis.

EU policymakers stress that much democracy support takes place behind the scenes, and claim that a lot is going on in terms of dialogues and missions even if the union normally does not allow all of this to affect the macrolevel of its diplomatic relations with partner countries. The EU now has forty-five human rights dialogues with partner countries and regional organizations. The EU supports many events or new action plans on rights-based sectoral issues in autocratic regimes with which it maintains cooperative geopolitical relations.

It might be suggested that the EU keenly funds a large number of extremely worthy, useful, and important rights-based projects with the reassurance that these do not undercut relations with regimes at a higher political level. The more charitable interpretation is that this micro-macro policy balance allows the union to work indirectly on opening possible avenues of political reforms in a way that would not otherwise be possible. While the positive justification for such gentle, cooperative approaches may sometimes be convincing, in many cases it is difficult to see how it generates any kind of reform traction.

The cooperative strategy of democracy aid does not always serve as an alternative to punitive measures. In many of the cases where the EU has decided not to invoke democracy-related sanctions, it has also held back from funding political aid projects. Much development aid labeled as democracy related is relatively technical, as it focuses on state institutions rather than other, pro-democracy actors.

Most EU political aid tends to focus on better technical governance standards, functional cooperation on EU laws, economic development, or a civil society better able to deliver services. Around two-thirds of EU development aid for good governance goes to governments and state institutions. By far the biggest recipients of EU governance aid are the membership candidate states of Turkey and countries in the Western Balkans, in which priorities revolve around pre-accession preparation rather than democracy as such.

While some believe technical governance cooperation can feed into broader political reforms, the EU has now been running these kinds of initiatives at a fairly large scale for two decades or more in countries whose records on democracy and human rights have become worse not better. Many authoritarian regimes have received hundreds of millions of euros for such EU projects while tightening control over technical spheres. Some assessments conclude that this aid actually helps regimes stave off democratic reforms. The recipients of significant EU aid have in general not made progress in wrestling with corruption—if anything, their levels of corruption have worsened.

This lack of correlation applies to total aid amounts and to governance aid more specifically. EU interventions tend to support anticorruption agencies or specific anticorruption initiatives, when progress on corruption is a matter of wider institutional culture and quality. In Ukraine, the EU has put its stress mainly on anticorruption bodies, when the broader institutional deficiencies in democracy mean these cannot work as intended.

In Moldova, corruption worsened most dramatically immediately afterthe country signed an association agreement with the union in June Moreover, companies from EU states figure disproportionately highly in bribery cases across the world. EU security aims are making this problem worse. For example, the Tunisian government introduced new restrictions on the civil-society organization CSO sector, in part because the EU pressed Tunis to tighten finance-reporting rules, ostensibly to foreclose the possibility of funds getting through to terrorist groups.

A much broader issue is that large-scale displacements caused by repression push the EU toward humanitarian rather than democracy support. The EU has in recent years provided emergency funding to people leaving their countries—the Rohingyas, Venezuelans, Syrians—far in excess of what it gives for promoting reform inside such states. The EU insists that upgrades to its counterterrorism work has spurred new local projects on countering extremism through better protection of human rights and through dozens of budget lines and funding initiatives that have increased funds available for rights work under a security label.

EU leaders routinely maintain that the priority focus on helping migrants return home with funding for reintegration programs is itself a service to human rights. Most independent observers reject this interpretation. It is questionable that the EU is justified in claiming that in this way it has advanced human rights and governance standards in the states where it has a heightened security presence. The analysis above points to a range of observations about the state of European support for democracy.

Most importantly, it is clear that EU approaches need a critical update. In many instances, there is a mismatch between words and deeds. The bigger picture shows that many European policies may be working counter to the democracy assistance provided by the union and its member states. This suggests that those who believe that democracy is vital for development, peace, and respect for human rights need to focus on improving the place of democracy among macrolevel policy priorities.

There is also a clear mismatch between the key changes to the global context, on the one hand, and the way that EU policies have evolved, on the other.

In a far less benign international environment, with a range of new conflicts and security challenges, the EU has not given up on democracy support. At a formal level, the main features of EU strategy have remained largely the same. In modest ways, some EU tactics have improved and begun to focus necessarily on protecting democratic activists from repression. European governments have started to inject a more geopolitical tenor into the way they approach democracy support. But overall, the undramatic, incremental unfolding of EU democracy policies and the overwhelming focus on assistance to state institutions have not come close to matching the major and qualitative shifts in global politics.

It is highly unlikely that any of the trends outlined at the start of this paper—the plateauing of democracy, increased authoritarian influence, U. In light of this, a number of action points can be identified that EU member governments might usefully address in council conclusions and a new EU action plan on human rights and democracy.

These are specific improvements that the union could contemplate. New council conclusions must focus on practical and operational action points rather than ending up as a document that simply repeats well-known tropes. These are undoubtedly true, but their infringement is not one of the main problems that beset EU democracy support. The following ten action points would help the union recalibrate its approach to supporting democracy. But given current international events and the challenges outlined above, the EU needs to fashion support for democracy more specifically as a tool for European security self-interest—and not simply allude to a foundational value for the union itself.

Both the EU institutions and EU member states should recognize this security logic in more specific and systematic terms. The EU tends to list large numbers of democracy and human rights projects without indicating how these relate to overarching EU foreign policy actions. The concept of resilience has arguably diverted attention from this imperative, but could be operationalized as a more clearly pro-democracy strategic concept in the future. The fact that this has not happened so far means that the EU Global Strategy acts to weaken rather than galvanize democracy support.

Diplomats admit that they see democracy support as a niche area of project funding, not as a pillar of EU security in any operationally meaningful sense. The creation of an overarching EU democracy support policy would be an important step forward in this regard. The EU should move from a narrative of principled pragmatism to one of democratic security. Several European donors recognize the need for a fundamental rethink in how civil-society organizations are supported and the need to encourage newer forms of activism.

Global civil society is not the same as it was ten years ago, as new civic movements come to supplement traditional NGOs.

Joseph Bahout

Despite recent policy changes, European democracy support is struggling to keep pace with the emergence of new types of pro-democracy actor and emerging models of democratic accountability. The EU has repeatedly reiterated the need to broaden the range of organizations it funds in third countries, but in many contexts does not follow through on this commitment. New policy mechanisms are needed to shift EU democracy support in this direction.

Mass protests have spread around the world in recent years. Democratic governments have lost much legitimacy, but authoritarian regimes are also on the back foot—this is an era of popular mobilization against all forms of regime.

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Toward a New EU Democracy Strategy

It is not a case of undisputed authoritarian success pitted against democratic failure, yet sometimes the EU seems to buy into this somewhat defeatist narrative. EU responses tend to be slow and underplay the potential of democratic breakthroughs. The union needs a dedicated initiative designed to influence mass protests. Citizens around the world today tend to protest more than join NGOs—but EU policy has yet to make this shift in the theory of political change to which it implicitly, if not explicitly, works.

The EU therefore needs new policy and funding mechanisms to update its democracy support in this direction. This applies to other spheres as well. The EU has done an impressive job in improving its ability to support smaller initiatives in recent years and should expand on this. Two areas merit further support.

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First, the current challenges to representative democracy around the world mean that the key institutions of representation, particularly party systems and legislatures, need support from the international community. Second, recent changes to the media sector and the increased use of social media mean that independent media, including investigative journalism, also need increased support from the international community. Where EU rules are restrictive, it might be necessary to channel more funds in the future through the EED, democracy-support organizations, or national donors that operate more flexible aid modalities.

A large proportion of EU democracy support goes to state bodies, with the aim of empowering reformers in ministries or regimes. A common trend is toward support for national anticorruption authorities. The EU and most member states tend to argue that cooperating with nondemocratic governments can offer a way of encouraging reforms without harsh confrontation.

In practice, it is difficult to assess with precision whether this type of quintessential EU aid makes democracy more likely, helps legitimize authoritarian regimes, or has little impact either way. The resulting strategy in this area is totally shaped by concerns about energy, counter-terrorism, and other security matters. To be sure, perspectives differ between and within U.

The United States appears to be shifting to a reliance on military tools , particularly in light of the U. As a result, the United States increasingly has only one tool in its toolbox for these regions: the military. Compounding the friction resulting from this militarized strategy is the deepening U. Two geographic differences among the three strategies will shape future regional competition and define potential crisis areas. On the positive side, these geostrategic seams may be stabilizing if India, China, and the United States counter-balance each other and none is able to build a long-lasting, strong coalition to seriously threaten each other or dominate the region.

However, more realistically, all three countries will find this constant triangular balancing frustrating. The region is likely to emerge as a one of shifting coalitions as New Delhi, Beijing, and Washington jockey among themselves, with smaller regional countries, and, to a lesser degree, with outside powers like Japan and Russia. India in particular may be able to exploit the differing perspectives to position itself between the United States and China to maximize its strategic autonomy.

New Delhi may seek to triangulate between the two competing hegemons, actively courting them to extract maximum benefit, and bolster its global influence in the process.


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  8. Indeed, in some ways this strategy is already being employed. For the United States, excluding Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, and the African littoral from the Indo-Pacific Strategy could become troublesome if India and China, who have more of a shared geographic view, start to resist U. For example, the U. China, for its part, will take advantage of U. Pakistan could also emerge as a particular challenge because of its exclusion from the U. China has historically been cautious about cooperating with Pakistan to confront India or the United States directly.

    However, if U. For instance, it may one day build on existing efforts at Gwadar Port to establish a permanent military presence in Pakistan. However, adjustments in U. Smaller states, largely focused on economic development and internal security, seek to avoid direct military confrontations and are averse to choosing an exclusive large power patron.

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    Assuming Beijing continues collaborative trade and commercial initiatives, investing vast sums of money, its influence is likely to continue growing. However, despite its wealth, China faces two major risks. India, as the largest country in the Indian Ocean region and the one that controls the air and sea lines of communication, has the potential to dominate geographically. Although India has steadily increased its engagement with the region in the past two decades, it faces several challenges to its further expansion.

    It lacks the resources to compete head-to-head with China in trade and commercial investments. Its naval and air modernization is plagued by inefficiencies, corruption, and competing requirements. It still has major domestic economic challenges and competing social priorities. These factors compel New Delhi to carefully calibrate its resistance to Beijing.

    The resulting destabilization and increased chances of a U. Smaller countries will be caught between the lure of Chinese largesse and a broad preference for a U. Indo-Pacific Strategy is at risk as China exploits the geographical seams, expands its alliance with Pakistan, and leverages its wealth to gain political influence. To counter China, the United States will need to significantly increase its non-military investments and diplomatic engagement and implement an integrated strategy that considers the whole region — from Southeast Asia, through Iran and Pakistan, and all the way to the African littoral and the Arabian Peninsula.

    Harry I. Hannah has spent over three decades working on national security issues for the U. He is a retired employee of the U. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the U. This does not constitute an official release of U. This material may reflect CIA-required edits for classification and compliance with legal obligations.