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Democratic fragility is also increasingly pervasive, particularly among newer liberal democracies, as well as the weaker, more illiberal ones, because of poor rule of law conditions and the apparent inability of these regimes to fulfill popular expectations of effective public services provision. Well-performing modern democracies, as Fukuyama observes, combine three core functions: the state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. In many relatively new democracies in particular, state capacity and the rule of law have lagged well behind the progress in democratic accountability achieved by the spread of electoral democracy over the past decades, creating growing popular disillusionment with (and ultimately the risk of the delegitimation of) democracy in many societies. State capacity and rule of law gaps exist to some extent even within the democratic heartland of the West, but are most common in those regions of the world that have made democracy a truly international norm — in Africa, Latin America, and the former Soviet bloc.

The fact that authoritarian regimes have been able to deliver seemingly effective governance (Singapore, China) or make considerable geopolitical gains at the expense of Western impotence (China, Russia, Iran) raises their prestige relative to the previously dominant democracies of the world. Just as the rise of Athenian democracy in the 5th century BC prompted the spread of democratic ideas and models of government among the Greek city states, Sparta’s eventual victory in the Peloponnesian War steered them towards oligarchic rule. When the Soviet Union’s power increased in the early years of the Cold War, the number of Communist regimes in the world rose; when it disintegrated, countries flocked to emulate the triumphant political and economic models of the West. International politics is shaped by the internal nature of the countries that make up the international system, but local politics will also follow geopolitics.

Halting Western economic and political decline, rolling back populism and authoritarianism, and renewing global confidence in the values and institutions of liberty — these must become the top priorities for anyone concerned to safeguard, and eventually continue to expand, peace, freedom, and prosperity. This may well take decades of struggle to achieve, but we can begin immediately by overcoming prevailing Western complacency in three fundamental areas.

First, we must overcome our current complacency about the historical “inevitability” of democratic progress. The heady exuberance experienced in the West at the end of the Cold War (a mood famously captured in Fukuyama’s “The End of History” essay in the summer of 1989) has abated, but its anaesthetic effects are still hard at work on our collective psychology. We need to wake up from the dream of democratic historical determinism. The arc of the moral universe may indeed be long, but it doesn’t bend towards justice, or liberty, of its own volition. If we continue to take political and economic liberty for granted — at home and abroad — if we continue to shy away from actively protecting and reinvigorating them, we should expect to eventually lose them.

Second, we have been complacent about the degree and depth of popular attachment to the existing democratic order, and have consequently made the mistake of believing that liberal democracy is popularly understood to be inherently superior to its competitors, and will therefore be backed by the people regardless of performance. We seriously underestimated, it seems, the degree of alienation, insecurity, and anger felt by voters and the ease with which many of them could be lured by populists and demagogues preying on those anxieties, scapegoating the media, free trade, and minorities, and promising easy fixes. Regaining confidence in liberal democracy will require a renewed sense of urgency. Adherents of liberty must understand that we are in a state of real competition once again. This means focusing on making democracy deliver and, at the same time, becoming more effective at persuading disaffected electorates that anti-liberal populism and authoritarianism are vacuous and dangerous.

Lastly, the democratic West has been complacent, not to say Pollyannaish, about its ability to successfully integrate anti-liberal regimes into the liberal international order. Since the end of the Cold War, the central assumption guiding the political, security, and economic elites in America and Europe has been that a sunshine policy of inclusion and soft-engagement would coax even the harder authoritarians toward socio-economic and, eventually, political liberalisation. Hence, unreformed China and Russia were brought into a host of international organisations, including the G20 and WTO, and the mullahs of Iran were handed cash and legitimacy in return for signing a nuclear deal in which they made few meaningful concessions.

But “in an unanticipated twist”, as Christopher Walker recently observed, “the authoritarian regimes, both large and small, have turned the tables on the democracies”. Leveraging the economic, technological, and diplomatic gifts bestowed upon them by the West, they have adapted and deepened their authoritarianism, and now they and their proxies are working aggressively to corrode the very order that fed them and to undermine the architects of that order — the West itself. Here too, we must wake to the fact that a new contest of wills and powers has emerged, one that requires determination and smarts to win. Easing, containing, and eventually reversing the authoritarian subversion of the liberal international order necessitates that we come to grips with the new species of “hybrid warfare” practiced against us by Russia, Iran, and to some degree China; prevent these regimes from hollowing out the norms and organisations that make up the liberal international order; and be more willing to use Western economic, technological and — where necessary — military power to defend that order.

The free world is once again facing real and determined competition from anti-liberal forces that have taken root in its internal political space and are undermining the international order it has painstakingly constructed from the blood-soaked ashes of the First and Second World Wars. If we continue to take for granted the peace, freedom, and prosperity brought to us by the global spread of liberal democracy we will not continue to enjoy these blessings for long.
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January 18th, 2017
4:01 PM
I agree wholeheartedly with Lorna. This article is somewhat confused. Firstly followers of Trumpism (whatever that is)are not turning their backs on the values and institutions underpinning liberal democracy, although the author does not actually specify what these are, but simply voted for the wrong candidate in his eyes. Whatever you may think of Trump he won a free and fair election, and just because he panders to certain voters fears to suggest he is a danger to democracy is a falsehood. Secondly Amichai seems to then go on to conflate the Trump voters with a growing number of younger citizens 'more willing to entertain the notion of living under authoritarian rule'. I am pretty sure these young people are not Trump supporters, but have grown up being told by the left that the 'gentle authoritarianism' of institutions such as the EU are a better form of government than liberal democracy within a sovereign state. People are voting outside the 'system' because they no longer trust the political elite and are sick of being patronised by them if the only alternative is a Trump of a party of the extreme right or left then that's where they will turn.

December 1st, 2016
8:12 PM
Good comment Lorna

Lorna Salzman
November 26th, 2016
2:11 AM
A close comprehensive look at the history of democracy, with only one flaw: depicting opposition to 'free trade" and immigration as regressive anti democratic populism. But this is typical of liberals (including George Soros) and institutions like the EU who cling to their own kind of "gentle"authoritarianism" in order to promote what are actually anti democratic policies as well as trying to persuade us that opposition to unlimited unvetted immigration is pure xenopohbia and racism. It is this arrogance that pushes people into the arms of the populists and right wing. The author of this piece has regrettably joined forces with the neo liberals in denigrating genuine public concern over terrorism and globalization policies written by and for the corporate elite. The Democrats lost the election in the US because in the end they couldn't fool the American electorate about what they stood for.

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