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  • Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism: US and European Policy in Jordan by Benjamin Schuetze
  • Curtis R. Ryan (bio)
Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism: US and European Policy in Jordan, by Benjamin Schuetze. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 256 pages. $99.99.

In this provocative new book, author Benjamin Schuetze forces readers to rethink democracy promotion and the broader politics of Western governments and institutions intervening in the internal politics of countries in the Middle East. The empirical data for the book include detailed studies of various aspects of politics in Jordan, but the arguments have implications beyond the Jordanian case, potentially across the global south. [End Page 330]

The author argues that democracy promotion is too often framed as a narrative of well-meaning democracy promoters working with similarly minded pro-reform elites, who together are struggling in an uphill battle to achieve real reform. To the contrary, however, Schuetze argues that democracy promotion — not just in Jordan but well beyond — is not actually about promoting democracy but rather about social control and domination.

His concern is not with the intentions or motivations of democracy promoters but rather with what they actually do in practice and what their effects actually are. Demo cracy promotion, he argues, is not actually promoting democracy if efforts remain focused on procedural aspects and institutional engineering but with no structural shift in power. “‘Democracy promotion’ interventions,” he writes, “are based on a procedural narrative of democracy which effectively helps to postpone any meaningful redistribution of power to a distant future, thus only reinforcing Jordanian authoritarianism” (p. 139).

Schuetze is especially critical of Western democracy promoting governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) pushing universal models of liberal democracy regardless of local circumstances or empirical realities. He argues, for example, that “‘democracy promotion’ operates like a bubble that all involved parties contrive to maintain, but that ultimately only floats above Jordan, and contributes to what one Jordanian economist pointedly called ‘Potemkin villages’ of democratic appearance and procedure” (p. 19).

The author also questions directional arguments — the idea that Jordan is ever struggling onward toward a distant reform goal but that it is nonetheless moving forward. Like many of us working on Jordan, Schuetze sees much movement but little progression. Schuetze’s main focus, however, is not the actions of the Jordanian state but rather of American and European democracy promoters. The book, therefore, examines the efforts of a multitude of institutions and NGOs — including the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), as well as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and initiatives of the European Union, among others. The author is especially critical of the democracy promotion industry as focusing specifically on repetitive topics — developing political parties, electoral laws, election observation, supporting civil society, and so on — but all of these are various elements of procedural democracy, without challenging the broader political, social, and economic structures of authoritarian rule. And here Schuetze adds to his unique contribution to the literature, because he is not only viewing democracy promotion through a critical lens but also bringing his sights to bear on the linked issues of neoliberal economic change and of securitization and military cooperation. Democracy promotion, he notes, cannot be treated entirely separately from economics and securitization, and he therefore examines each of these topics in the book. Economically, for example, American and European democracy promotion efforts, he argues, are directly linked to the “consolidation and advance of neoliberalism in the context of Jordan” and that “the two are sufficiently closely intertwined to justify the use of the term ‘neo-liberal democracy promotion’” (p. 168).

The book is organized so that successive chapters each tackle a key theme and then focus on case studies within that theme. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 examine key aspects of democracy promotion — political participation and parties, elections, and civil society — but also include case studies of specific elections as well as political party and civil society initiatives. Chapter 5 expands beyond these topics to examine neoliberal economic development projects and provides a detailed case study of Jordan’s Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA). Chapter 6...