Too many in the West have assumed that the spread of democratic government is inevitable. Can we cope with the authoritarian threat?
The spread of liberal democracy around the globe over the past four decades is rightly understood by defenders of political and economic liberty to be among the most profoundly positive developments achieved by humanity in the modern era.
As Emmanuel Kant predicted in his celebrated essay, “Perpetual Peace” (1795), a world dominated by sovereign liberal democracies dramatically reduces the risk of war among nations and is the form of government least likely to inflict violence on its own citizens or degenerate into civil war.
Economically too, liberal democracy is far superior to the alternatives, and historically economic and political freedoms have tended to go hand in hand. A few authoritarian regimes may brandish double-digit growth rates for a few years, but in the long run democracies grow more and they do so more consistently. In fact, democratisation increases GDP per capita by about 20 per cent in the long run, because it encourages trade and investment, increases schooling, improves public goods provision and reduces social unrest. No democracy has ever experienced famine. Conversely, measures curtailing free enterprise, trade and finance — so popular with demagogues and tyrants — almost invariably end up in tears. Just ask the people of Venezuela.
And yet we not only tend to take for granted the peace, freedom, and prosperity brought to us by the global spread of liberal democracy over the past decades, but demonstrate an astonishing lack of gratitude or commitment to its preservation.
This is not new. As late as the mid-1970s, many Western experts argued that liberal democracy was done for. Some even relished its demise. For them liberal democracy was a fickle, obsolete model of government ill-suited for all but a few, and bound to wither away before the forward-marching forces of central planning and authoritarian efficiency. In 1975, for example, the American sociologist and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan lamented that liberal democracy “increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy in the 19th century: a holdover form of government, one which persists in isolated or peculiar places here and there, and which may even serve well enough for special circumstances, but which simply has no relevance to the future. It was where the world was, not where it is going.”
Moynihan was dead wrong at the time. At almost exactly the moment democracy was being written off, it began an ascendance that rapidly transformed it from an endangered species to the predominant form of government across large swaths of the world, and an even wider human aspiration. On April 25, 1974, the Portuguese Revolution of the Carnations overthrew the longest- standing dictatorship in southern Europe. Portugal’s domestic revolution heralded the launch of a global one. Democratisation quickly spread to the rest of the Iberian Peninsula and Greece, then in the 1980s to Latin America, several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and, with the demise of Soviet Communism at the turn of the 1990s, to Central and Eastern Europe and more countries in Africa and Asia.
By the time the democratic wave plateaued at the turn of the millennium, more than ﬁve dozen democracies had been created or restored, and the percentage of democratic states in the world rose from 27 in 1975 to 62 in 2005. Among the 192 independent states surveyed by Freedom House in the same year, 119 ranked as electoral democracies and 89 attained the more exacting standard reserved for truly free societies, ones respectful of civil liberties and the rule of law, as well as exercising genuine electoral competition.
The democratic surge was certainly boosted by the demise of Soviet Communism and the triumph of the West, but it also played a critical role in legitimising the post-Cold War international order and transforming expectations about acceptable forms of government. In a bipolar world with few democracies, both the US and USSR fostered loyal protégés above all else and avoided potentially destabilising political experiments.
The end of the Cold War not only allowed for the expansion of democratic government and free markets into the former Communist bloc and non-aligned group of countries, it eliminated a chief rational for tolerating autocratic regimes — such as apartheid South Africa or Ceauşescu’s Romania — and produced an explosion of international political and economic incentives for states to qualify as democracies. For the first time, membership in prestigious Western-led clubs, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the EU, and Organization of American States (OAS) became explicitly conditional on fulfilment of democratic criteria. International election monitoring, virtually unknown until the end of the Cold War, became ubiquitous. And after the 9/11 attacks there was renewed interest in liberal democracy as the guarantor of peace and security, with the European Security Strategy unanimously adopted in December 2003 by the heads of state of the EU declaring that “the best protection for our society is a world of well-governed democratic states” and the 2006 National Security Strategy of the US unequivocally endorsing the central liberal insight that “the fundamental character of regimes matters as much as the distribution of power among them”. So much for Cold War “realism” in which states were likened to opaque billiard balls whose internal values and systems of government were irrelevant to international politics.
Gains in political freedom reached a high water mark at the turn of the millennium, stagnated until 2005–6 and then entered a period of accelerating decline. Since 2006 the number of both electoral and liberal democracies has dropped slightly, though so far we have not experienced an outright “reverse wave”, in which democratic regimes collapse and authoritarianism proliferates, on the scale experienced in the 1930s and, to a lesser extent, the 1960s.
Still, there is no doubt that the skies have darkened considerably for liberal forces over the past decade, and that there are growing signs of a looming democratic recession and authoritarian resurgence. Acceptance of liberty as the foundation of legitimate government, and of an international system built on liberal ideas — is under greater threat than at any point since the fall of the Berlin Wall 27 years ago.
Beyond the halting of the positive momentum between 1974 and 2004 and the erosion in the number of democracies in the world, the international system has experienced a growing rate of democratic breakdowns in the last decade and a half. Between 2000 and 2015, nearly 18 per cent of democracies broke down — as a result of coups, rigged elections or other incremental degradations of democratic procedures — compared to far lower democratic failure rates of only 8 per cent in the period 1984–93 and 11 per cent in 1994–2003. Many of these have taken place in large, strategically important states, including Pakistan (1999) — which analysts saw as a harbinger of future decline — Russia (2000), Nigeria (2003), Venezuela (2005), Thailand (2005 and 2014), the Philippines (2007), Kenya (2007), Ukraine (2012), and Turkey (2016).
After a decade of nearly uninterrupted gains in freedom outpacing losses by a ratio of at least two to one, the trend was broken in 2006, and since then more countries have consistently declined in freedom than improved. By 2014, Freedom House noted that nearly twice as many countries suffered declines as registered gains, with the number of gains hitting its lowest point since the nine-year erosion began. This pattern held true across geographical regions. Net declines worsened further in 2015, with no fewer than 72 countries — nearly one in three in the world — recording deterioration in aggregate scores of civil liberties and political rights. Again, the erosion is compounded by the fact that a troubling number of backsliding states are either large, economically powerful, or regionally influential ones — including Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Russia, Turkey, Thailand, and Venezuela — or are members of the EU itself, notably Hungary, Poland, and Romania.
Just as disturbing as the statistical declines is an increasingly assertive and coordinated authoritarian resurgence. This has taken a number of forms. At the height of the democratic boom, nearly all dictatorships either sought to persuade international public opinion that their regimes were democratic (as in the case of Vladimir Putin’s 2005 claim that Russia constituted a “managed democracy”) or that they are gradually moving towards democracy (China, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia). In contrast, autocrats now feel much freer to flout democratic values openly, assert the superiority of non-democratic forms of government, and violate the core principles of the liberal international order.
This trend has been most pronounced in Russia — which has sharply restricted space for political dissent, treats human rights activists and investigative journalists as enemies of the state, and directly violated international agreements guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity — and China, which has abandoned “softer” methods of authoritarian control, and resorted to cruder Cold War-era tools, including criminal sanctions designed to restrict civil activists, administrative detention, and the placement of dissidents in psychiatric hospitals.
Russia, China, but also lesser regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even economically-devastated Venezuela increasingly seek to wield informational, diplomatic, and economic resources designed to discredit Western democracies, roll back democratic gains, and promote their own anti-liberal ideologies and institutions as legitimate alternatives for other countries to emulate. As part and parcel of the new assertiveness, authoritarian regimes are leading a growing, and increasingly coordinated, assault on support for Western democracy, imposing various constraints on reformist NGOs, closing down pro-democracy organisations, harassing activists, and launching cyber-attacks designed to sabotage democratic processes within Western countries. Indeed, a recent inquiry by a team of experts at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in the US found that the “Big Five” leading the authoritarian charge — Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela — are increasingly bold in their efforts to insinuate themselves into the democratic political processes of Western countries with the goal of sowing discord and disrupting democratic political space. The Kremlin’s and Tehran’s undisguised glee at Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections suggests they believe they are succeeding in their campaign of sabotage.
Another facet of the democratic recession can be observed in the general dashing of the hopes for political liberalisation in North Africa and the Middle East, the cascade of state failure in the region (most notably in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen), and the rising influence of revolutionary Shia and radical Sunni movements in the Islamic world. Indeed, in the post-Arab Spring resurgence of radical Islamist ideologies and groups we observe not only the return of religion as an alternative organisational principle of world politics, but the outright rejection of all forms of man-made law, democracy, and the Westphalian international order. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Hamas in Gaza, and Salafist jihadi groups — IS, Jabhat al-Nusra (which last July rebranded itself as “The Front for the Conquest of the Levant”, or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), and various al-Qaeda regional affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula and Maghreb — are increasingly contesting the most fundamental values and institutions of modern political liberalism, and challenging the state-based international order.
But the most worrisome contemporary challenges to liberal democracy emanate from the heart of the democratic world itself. Within the historically most powerful and successful Western democracies — in North America and Europe — democratic performance has become deeply deficient. The US and the EU, the two geopolitical epicentres of the free world have experienced a series of destabilising financial crises over the past decade; are increasingly mired in political paralysis and polarisation — in which their respective democratic institutions struggle to fulfil citizen expectations of effective governance delivery and voters are increasingly alienated from mainstream political parties — and face a number of daunting, long-term, structural socioeconomic challenges. These include growing popular concerns over migration and terrorism; low economic growth rates and falling incomes; ageing populations; looming entitlements crises; and (in the case of European states) demographic decline.
At the same time, voter turnout, levels of political party-membership and public trust in governments and courts are all declining in America and Europe. Citizens of the supposedly most affluent and stable democratic countries on earth are increasingly voting for “anti-system” political parties and candidates, driving what one commentator describes as “the astonishing rise of illiberal movements of the far Right and far Left”.
Trumpism, and its sister manifestations in Europe, may in fact be symptomatic of a more fundamental erosion in popular attachments to the most basic values and institutions undergirding modern liberal democracy. Indeed, citizens in supposedly stable democracies in North America and Western Europe have become deeply cynical about the value of democracy as a system of government, are less engaged in politics, and are more willing to entertain the notion of living under authoritarian rule. In a recent study published by the Journal of Democracy, for example, only 30 per cent of Americans born in the 1980s thought it was essential to live in a democratically-governed country, as opposed to 75 per cent of those born in the 1930s or 50 per cent of those born in the 1960s. Similarly, in a survey conducted in 2011, nearly 25 per cent of Americans in the 25-34 age group expressed the view that having a democratic political system is a “bad” or “very bad” way to “run this country”, and a full 32 per cent believe it would be better to have a “strong leader” who does not have to “bother with parliament and elections”. These sentiments, which are especially prevalent among younger age cohorts, not only carry reduced Western commitment to protecting the liberal international order, but portend of a real danger of democratic de-consolidation in the erstwhile most affluent and stable democracies in the world.
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.