The Main Factors Which Accelerate And Slow Down The Diffusion Of Ideas And Practices Across Countries

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At the dawn of the twentieth century, Latin America had shaken the yolk of Spanish colonial rule through the Latin American Wars of Independence. By 1900, most Latin American countries were sovereign states, but those who had fought for their freedom “maintained the same political institutions and policies in place during the colonial period when they excluded non-property owners from the legal standing” (Engerman et al 19). Instead of a monarch, however, Latin America experienced the phenomena of caudillos. These were leaders of political factions, often linked to a band of armed men. These strongmen spearheaded extremely restrictive electoral systems, and, “in some cases, legislatures were closed, no elections held, and the electoral system failed to function” (Oxford Biographies). Laura Wills-Otero remarks that “in 1900, no Latin American country allocated legislative seats with proportional representation, but by the middle of the twentieth century, half the region had adopted such an electoral rule, and today all but three countries still employ this system” (Willis Otero 1). In the space of a century, Latin America’s political landscape transformed from restrictive and authoritarian to democratic.

The democratisation of the region is an example of policy transfer or diffusion, theories that are discussed at length by Marsh and Sharman in Policy Diffusion and Transfer and by Simmons, Dobbin and Garrett in Introduction: The International Diffusion of Liberalism. Marsh and Sharman consider the terms policy transfer, policy diffusion, policy convergence, traditional isomorphism that have been used interchangeably in policy research. They discuss the nuances between the terms, noting that policy transfer is “a process through which policy choices in one country affect those made in a second country”, while policy convergence “involves a process in which policies in two or more countries become more alike over time” (Marsha and Simmons 270, 271). The authors spend a large portion of their work discussing the differences between transfer, diffusion and convergence and how carless scholars have been in their selection biases, focusing mainly on Western examples, instead of on the developing world, especially since “many of the mechanisms that are said to drive transfer and diffusion could be expected to exert a stronger influence in the developing world than anywhere else” (280). The Latin American case supports Marsh and Sharman’s statement of developing states seeking legitimacy by modelling their policies after the developed world. What they, and other IR scholars agree on, however, are the mechanisms whereby policy diffusion comes to pass. The four mechanisms include learning, competition, coercion and mimicry or emulation. Latin American democratisation in the 20th century most comfortably fits the mechanisms of emulation and learning. Emulation or mimicry “explains the process of copying foreign models in terms of symbolic or normative factors, rather than a technical or rational concern with functional efficiency” (Marsh and Sharman 272).

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The spread of democracy in Latin America saw the nations adopting the widespread system to be “perceived by others and themselves as being advanced, progressive and morally praiseworthy” (Marsh and Sharman 272). In the early decades of the century, there was a worldwide movement for female suffrage concentrated, most notably, in foreign powers of the UK and the US, where women were granted the right to vote in 1918 and 1920 respectively. By 1929, Ecuador had become the first South American country to grant women’s suffrage and as the decades progressed, other countries followed suit. By the time that Peru adopted the policy in 1955, “it had become an almost unquestioned norm, a taken-for-granted international standard” (Marsh and Sharman 273). There are minor subtleties between learning and mimicry as learning “refers to a change in beliefs or change in one’s confidence in existing beliefs” due to “exposure to new evidence, theories, or behavioural repertoires” (Simmons et al 795), while mimicry seeks to clone policies.

While it is clear that there was a spread of democracy across the continent, it is unclear which of the diffusion mechanisms was most responsible for its rapid rise, as it could be argued that each nation learned, following the examples of their predecessors that the adoption of democracy enhanced their legitimacy in the international system which would encourage foreign direct investment and as my extension economic growth and stability. Analysing the regional spread of democracy through the lens of coercion may lead one to believe that through the establishment of the Organisation of American States (OAS), the United States used its asymmetrical power to push their pro-democracy agenda. The organisational successor to the U. S. -sponsored international organization the Pan-American Union, the OAS seeks to promote the peaceful settlement of disputes between member states, to provide for collective security, and to encourage cooperation in economic, social, and cultural matters (Lee and Renwick). It also fits the mould of the coercion mechanism which scholars use as an explanation of growing similarities among different countries institutions and policies. Simmons et al agree that coercion is a prominent explanation for the spread of political liberalism. They discuss at length the role of coercion in economic liberalisation, recognizing the role of power asymmetry that allows “dominant nations and their agents (to) directly coerce weaker nations to adopt policy changes” directly or through international and nongovernmental organizations (790). Clearly, in the Latin American case study, mimicry, learning and coercion, all played a part in the spread of democracy in the twentieth century.

As Simmons et al acknowledge, “policy processes are characteristically uncoordinated processes which cannot be easily subsumed under the umbrella of fully formed, rational decision making” (789) and as such, one cannot say that one diffusion mechanism is solely responsible for democratisation. The only mechanism that does not seem to have influenced the policy diffusion in this instance is competition, as democracy is not heavily based on gaining a comparative economic edge, where “governments compete with each other for internationally mobile capital and export market share” (792) but rather gaining acceptance and legitimacy by the global hegemon and by extension, the rest of the international community. The region transformed its electoral system from colonial rule, to restrictive authoritarian, to largely democratic in little over a century due to the spread of global attitudes towards open elections and pollical liberalisation.

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