Benjamin Schuetze, Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism: US and European Policy in Jordan (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Benjamin Schuetze (BS): I was intrigued by the relative stability of authoritarian rule in Jordan, and that the country was also one of the highest recipients of US and European “democracy promotion” funding worldwide. This prompted me to question what all those “democracy promoters” in Jordan actually do. While it might seem like a rather banal question, I soon discovered that most literature on interventions in the name of democracy is primarily concerned with the intentions and/or social and institutional backgrounds of the interveners, their theoretical assumptions, and/or various supposedly universally valid models of democratization. Only a few scholars explicitly discuss what “democracy promoters” actually do when they promote democracy.
In addition, I wanted to overcome the tension in critical literature on the topic between approaches that focus on ideational factors and those that focus on material factors. Even critical research on the topic at times unintentionally reproduces the predominant liberal understandings of democracy. That is to say, they fail to discuss the economic models and security arrangements that “democracy promoters” deem to be mutually reinforcing of their own work, and thereby suggest that politics and economics can be separated and that democracy is only about procedures. Some literature on Jordanian politics also still reproduces the teleological notion that Jordan is—pretty much since 1989—on a somehow everlasting journey towards “modernity” and “liberalism.” The implications of such an understanding are obviously very problematic, as they leave intact ideas of a benevolent monarchy and well-intentioned external actors, who “against all odds” struggle to reform the country.
In contrast to such analyses, I wanted to show how “democracy promotion” interventions function as a consensual means of social control. As such, I wanted to explore the role that liberal interventions play in reproducing authoritarian power in Jordan behind a façade of constant reform. Finally, my intention was to analyze the self-perpetuating tendencies of liberal interventions, and to demonstrate how imagined moral hierarchies are maintained and (re‑)constructed in the face of seemingly continual failure.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
BS: The book is about how US and European attempts at “democracy promotion” in Jordan end up reinforcing authoritarian rule. Based on over 160 qualitative interviews that I conducted in Jordan, Belgium, and the United States, as well as participant observation and analysis of a number of confidential documents and reports, it provides an empirically rich analysis of the micropolitics via which “democracy promotion” operates as a process of domination. By focusing on the role of actors from within the global “development aid” and “democracy promotion” industry—USAID, EU, NED (National Endowment for Democracy), NDI (National Democratic Institute), IRI (International Republican Institute), IFES (International Foundation for Electoral Systems), Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the German political associations, and so on—the book provides an alternative approach to understanding authoritarian power in Jordan. It suggests that Jordanian authoritarianism is not so stable despite, but in parts directly because of, US and European attempts at “democracy promotion.”
It demonstrates the depth of orientalist attitudes among “democracy promoters” and argues that the main character in “democracy promotion” interventions is neither Jordan, nor democracy, nor even an imagined Jordanian democracy, but instead a desired self-understanding among “democracy promoters” as “democratic” vis-à-vis “the Jordanian non-democratic other.” Counter to what a common sense understanding would suggest, the book shows that it is not the overcoming of differences that is central to “democracy promotion’s” functioning, but to some extent the exact opposite, that is the maintenance of deeply problematic assumptions of difference. Instead of contesting both national and transregional authoritarian practices that maintain authoritarian power in the country, interventions construct Jordanian political culture as inherently backward and different.
The book explores attempts at promoting a narrow liberal understanding of democracy that is emptied of most of its emancipatory potential—institutional support, political party training, electoral observation, and civil society support—but also highlights the further undermining of democratic values as they become circumscribed by the free market and security concerns. Recurrent themes are the depoliticization of the structural dynamics of power that underlie Jordanian authoritarianism via the expansion of market rationales as governing principles, the technocratization of questions of democracy, and the subordination of Jordanian politics to an often-idealized narrative of supposedly universally valid processes of democratization.
Finally, the book pays close attention to both ideational and material factors in the reproduction of “democracy promotion” as a process of domination. It suggests that although US and European policy in Jordan comes under the cloak of a universal morality that claims the surmounting of authoritarianism as its objective, its effect is not that different to traditional modes of imperial support for authoritarian regimes. It addresses literatures on Jordanian politics, “democracy promotion,” “development aid,” and liberal interventions, as well as authoritarian neoliberalism, critical security studies, and militarism.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
BS: The primary audience for the book is academics with an interest in the controversial consequences and yet self-perpetuating dynamics of liberal interventions. “Democracy promotion” is one of the defining characteristics of global liberalism and “democracy promotion” programs in Jordan have been “state of the art” for decades. The book is thus not just of interest to scholars of Jordanian politics and the modern Middle East, but also to researchers interested in what greater US and European policy presence elsewhere in the Global South will mean. Students and scholars of authoritarianism, authoritarian upgrading, democracy, and external interventions will find the book helpful to better understand how interventions in the name of democracy end up reinforcing authoritarian power and perpetuate precisely those imagined moral hierarchies that they initially claim to overcome. Given its strong empirical basis, I hope that all those who want to gain a better understanding of the actual practice and perpetuation of US and European interventions in the Global South will find it insightful.
While the book is about US and European policymakers, NGO staff, diplomats, and “democracy promoters,” I imagine that they would mostly not enjoy reading my interpretations of their work. Nevertheless, I of course do hope that they might read the book, even if it might make for uncomfortable reading. The most important sort of impact that I think this book could have, however, would be if Jordanian students and political activists might find it a helpful tool in their attempts to challenge and resist the narratives of moral superiority that US and European policy in the country, in conjunction with the Jordanian regime, so strongly relies on.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
BS: I am currently starting a new project in which I explore the political economy of solar energy projects in the Middle East and North Africa. In particular, I am looking at select mega solar energy projects in the region and ways in which social movements, labor unions, and decentralized solar energy initiatives challenge and resist them. I am interested in the role that investors and energy companies from the Gulf, Europe, and China play in such attempts at energy transition and how they reshape existing modes of governance. Overall, I want to explore the extent to which solar energy projects in the region challenge and/or reinforce existing inequalities, and the ways in which they interact with democratic and authoritarian practices.
Relatedly, and together with Kenny Cupers at the University of Basel and Alke Jenss at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute in Freiburg, we are about to start a project on “Making Infrastructure Global? Design and Governance of Infrastructural Expansion in the Global South.” We combine approaches from urban studies, architecture, political sociology, and political science to explore the role of global planning agencies and colonial legacies in three cases of transnational energy infrastructure projects in East Africa, North Africa, and Latin America. Overcoming the idea of infrastructures as generic artefacts of modernity, we explore the context-dependent, contested power dynamics triggered by attempts at making infrastructure global. In the part of the project that I am responsible for, I will investigate the integration of the Moroccan and Spanish energy markets via submarine cables.
Finally, while I am not anymore explicitly working on US and European efforts at “democracy promotion,” I continue to be interested in the role of “development aid” agencies and other transregional actors in authoritarian practices. Together with Alke Jenss, I am currently working on a manuscript in which we explore what we call transregional authoritarian entanglements between secondary port cities in the Global South. In the paper, we discuss authoritarian practices in Aqaba, Jordan, and Buenaventura, Colombia, with a particular focus on the role of actors beyond the state, such as shipping lines, logistics, and consultancy firms. Instead of simply comparing the two cities and thereby reproducing established notions of context, we pursue a connective scholarship approach. We suggest that conventional analyses of authoritarian practices in Aqaba and Buenaventura as primarily situated within their respective national and regional contexts downplay and/or ignore the importance of transregional authoritarian connections. We argue that we can only adequately grasp and resist contemporary authoritarian power and the ways in which it is transregionally interlinked if we rethink the contexts within which we analyze it.
Excerpt from the book (pages 58-63) Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism: US and European Policy in Jordan by Benjamin Schuetze © 2019 Cambridge University Press.
Marketing Political Parties
By the entrance to the conference hall at the Sports City Complex, a big poster heralded the IRI, MoPD and USAID-organised event as Jordan’s ‘first political parties fair’. The poster further asked the participants in giant letters in Jordanian Arabic whether they were ‘afraid of politics’, a sketch of a rather worried looking face complementing the question. In contrast to the above-quoted MSI report, which explicitly remarked that ‘visible US involvement in democracy-promotion activities in Jordan would be unwise’, the poster advertising the event featured the logos of USAID and IRI, and representatives of the latter also gave introductory speeches at the event.
As the organisers viewed themselves as neutral facilitators of democratization processes, they had invited all of the then twenty-three officially licensed political parties, of which only thirteen accepted, however. Those parties that were better known to the wider public seemed more likely to reject the invitation than those that were rather unknown: out of the seven best-known parties, only two were willing to present themselves at the fair, while five of the seven least-known responded positively to the invitation. The prominent role of USAID and IRI in the organisation of the event seems to have played a direct role in preventing more Jordanian parties from participating. Just as all leftist parties had declined the invitation, Jordan’s most prominent political party, the IAF, had also done so. A high-ranking member only stated that ‘we refused the invitation . . . because it was backed by USAID’. This inability to reach some of the more important Jordanian parties and the concomitant interaction with those of only marginal importance has important effects that I will elaborate on below. As ‘the process’ is the discursive framework through which Jordanian politics is analysed, all those who refuse to participate in it and who doubt its sincerity are effectively ignored. Criticising the parties that decided not to attend the event, one participant at the fair only noted that, ‘as they didn’t come, they don’t want to work for Jordan’.
As US ‘democracy promotion’ is only able to interact with a narrow part of the Jordanian party spectrum, it (re-)produces in its activities a distorted image of Jordanian politics that seemingly justifies precisely those kinds of interventions that so fundamentally fail to grasp the true reasons for the relative weakness of contemporary Jordanian political parties. As more popular and meaningful parties mostly boycott training and outreach events organised in particular by US ‘democracy promoters’, and as many of those parties that are willing to interact with ‘democracy promoters’ do indeed seem to suffer from a lack of capacity, the culturalist and capacity-focused discourses of the latter reveal their self-confirming tendencies. The perception that further training and capacity building is needed in order to overcome Jordanian authoritarianism is thereby both powerfully perpetuated and simultaneously shows its inherent futility.
During one of the sessions at the fair the representatives introduced their respective parties to the audience. While most only had the time for a few sentences, the representative of the National Current (at-Tayyār al-Wataniy), a party formed by Abdul Hadi al-Majali, a staunch conservative and former minister, was allowed several minutes to present his party without interruption. One ‘democracy promoter’ who had been involved in the planning of the fair later described this as one of the very few shortcomings of the event, which he otherwise saw as a success. While the difference in time given to party representatives was certainly worthy of critique, other non-procedural matters such as the absence of the IAF and leftist parties, all of whom questioned the sincerity of the organisers’ intention to promote democracy in the country to begin with, were arguably of much greater importance. Also, some students were quick to point out that one of their peers, who apparently had been at Jordan University since 2000, was, as ‘everybody knows’, ‘working for the intelligence services within the university’. One girl elaborated, explaining that besides participating in the NDI’s democracy education courses for Jordanian youth, the presumed employee of the Jordanian intelligence service is ‘always there when we have problems’. Finally, the identity of the organisers, the absence of some of the more serious political parties and the presumed presence of the secret service – which was probably one of the reasons why many of the parties present displayed large photos of King Abdullah II on their booths – all contributed to seriously compromising the credibility of the event and clearly illustrate that there are indeed pretty good reasons for Jordanian political activists to ‘be afraid of politics’.
During the speeches given by the party representatives, several individuals in the audience intervened with short poems praising the king, to which the audience responded with applause and repeated calls of ‘Long live the king!’ (ya‘ı¯sh al-malik!). Thereafter, the youth and university students present had the opportunity to meet the party representatives at booths set up in the entrance hall, where the latter also distributed party leaflets and programmes. In the afternoon the event continued with role play sessions prepared by participants in NDI’s ‘I participate’ (anā ushārik) courses, as well as a panel discussion by political party representatives, which was very poorly attended by the invited youth, as most seemed not particularly keen on engaging with the political parties present. As the party representatives debated inside, most of the youth were thus chatting outside and taking photos of each other under the posters advertising the event.
In one of the role play sessions presented by NDI’s students, a woman complained to her husband about their son, as he wanted to join a party. In the ensuing conversation the son mentioned the NDI programme, but his father continued to talk about tribes and ultimately asked him in a rather confused manner whether he wanted to join all the parties. A student watching the sketch succinctly described it as ‘old versus new mentality’. While this is exactly the kind of condescending modernization theory-inspired interpretation desired by the regime, which wants to present itself as a democratising and modernising force, it would be fundamentally wrong to assume that institutions and procedures such as parties and elections constitute in and of themselves any meaningful threat to Jordanian authoritarianism. One participant in the panel discussion criticised the parties present for being like ‘supermarkets’; that is, for not having a clear programme but simply offering anything that people might be interested in. Illustrating the efficiency of the Jordanian regime’s strategy of publicly calling for party activism (and thereby boosting its legitimacy as a supposedly democratising force), while at the same time maintaining a firm hold over parties, another participant bitterly remarked that ‘the guy who fought me because I am a party activist [when political parties were still forbidden] has now created a party’.
After one of the sketches, suddenly the song ‘Our high flag’ (yā bayraqunā al-‘ālı¯) began to play on the PA system, and several participants quickly started dancing along. Many of the youth present then began to sing:
Our high flag Abdullah II
Our high flag
We are your swords my homeland
. . . you are very dear and your people loves you
. . . Abdullah you are the people’s king
The one who protects the Hashemite nation
. . . we are the youth generation who are proud of our king
. . . and our dignity stems from yours
And the knight is one of us and we are proud . . .
Watching the participants – according to the organisers, all politically interested youth – dance and sing, praising King Abdullah II, Farah, a student attending the fair, remarked only that ‘there will never be political development in Jordan, because people don’t separate between the king and the state’. When after a later role play session some participants again began to dance to a song praising the Hashemite ruling family, she added that
the king is very safe . . . Seeing this – they take the elite of students and they are like that! . . . His Majesty is right in saying it is too early to go to constitutional monarchy if political activists just clap and support the king in a stupid way.
Instead of contributing to processes of democratisation, the event organized by the MoPD, USAID and IRI thus seems to have effectively become an opportunity for people to perform their obedience to the king.