Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


How US and European ‘democracy promotion’ in Jordan ends up reinforcing authoritarianism

Benjamin Schuetze

While Jordan is one of the main targets of US and European attempts at ‘democracy promotion’, it also demonstrates a remarkably stable authoritarian system. Existing literature on ‘democracy promotion’ however mostly fails to see a connection between authoritarian reinforcement and external efforts at moral intervention. The dominant approaches to the study of ‘democracy promotion’ widely suffer from a narrow focus on developing policy recommendations and/or from a lack of empirical research. This is often associated with a strong focus on the social background and normative convictions of Western ‘democracy promoters’, while the level of implementation on the ground is only inadequately explored. As findings from Jordan show, an investigation of what ‘democracy promoters’ in the country actually do when they promote democracy provides ample evidence for the conclusion that Jordanian authoritarianism is indeed so stable not despite, but in part precisely because of external attempts at moral intervention.

The abundance of external ‘democracy promotion’ funding targeted at Jordan and the Jordanian regime’s self-portrayal as eternally reforming are mutually dependent on one another and highly effective in reproducing authoritarian power behind a façade of ongoing reform. As US and European interventions in the name of democracy are much less about Jordan and/or an imagined Jordanian democracy, than instead about interveners’ desired self-understandings as ‘democratic’ vis-à-vis the imagined Jordanian ‘non-democratic other’, the practical failure of such interventions fails to inhibit their constant perpetuation. While setting out to challenge and overcome imagined moral hierarchies, US and European ‘democracy promotion’ actually requires and perpetuates them. Central to this reinforcement of authoritarian power are deeply Orientalist perceptions of Jordanians at large, the depoliticisation and technocratisation of Jordanian politics, and a very narrow understanding of democracy that primarily concerns itself with questions of democratic procedure as opposed to their actual emancipatory potential.

The ensuing interventions ignore the structural power dynamics of Jordanian authoritarianism, view the Jordanian regime as agent of democratization, and interpret authoritarian power to quite some extent as a mere result of lacking capacity among Jordanians. The numerous attempts at institutional engineering, political party training, election observation and civil society strengthening that the international ‘democracy promotion’ industry in Jordan engages in, demonstrate a curious convergence of interests and discourses between the latter and the Jordanian regime. Both tend to ignore the political economy of authoritarianism and the structural violence inherent to US imperial strategy, and instead problematize Jordanian culture. Individual efforts at ‘democracy promotion’ regularly seem to evolve primarily around self-promotion and CV enhancement for those participating in them, with democracy appearing as not much more than a fancy US- and EU-sponsored event in which supposedly ‘everyone is a winner’.

To challenge the predominant narrow procedural conceptualization of democracy also means to look into the notions of political economy and security that ‘democracy promoters’ deem to be reinforcing of their work. As neoliberal reforms radically exacerbate socio-economic inequalities, external attempts at ‘democracy promotion’ provide them with a semblance of popular control. Neoliberal ‘democracy promotion’ thus functions as a highly effective component of an imperial agenda of control and domination. Opposed to traditional imperial coercion, it operates via consensual means of social control. These are not marked by open coercion, but instead by various forms of structural violence. In contrast to many ‘democracy promoters’’ assumption that external support to Jordan’s security sector is mutually reinforcing of their own work, the processes of commercialization and militarization triggered by US-Jordanian military collaboration are deeply antidemocratic and replace deliberative questions about war by consumerist desires to play war. While external assistance helps to secure Jordan as a state, Jordanians increasingly appear as security threats, or as mere passive objects waiting to be secured and democratized. Finally, even though US and European policy in Jordan comes under the cloak of a universally applicable morality that claims the surmounting of authoritarianism as its objective, its effect is thus not that different to traditional modes of imperial control and domination.

Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism by Benjamin Schuetze

Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism by Benjamin Schuetze

About The Author

Benjamin Schuetze

Benjamin Schuetze is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Freiburg and Research Associate at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute ...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!