Is Democratic Government in Decline?

Across the planet, things look a bit disturbing

(Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, The Decline of Democracy, to be published soon by Yale University Press, revolves around a disturbing thesis: that after a steady increase in the number of democracies in the world for nearly a century, autocratic rule is on the march. With Kurlantzick’s permission, Asia Sentinel presents this excerpt from what can be expected to be a profoundly unsettling work.)

When viewed against the entire expanse of the 20th and 21st Centuries, or against even longer periods of human history, the world today appears to be highly democratic. At the start of the 20th Century, only a tiny fraction of the countries in the world could have been called true democracies.

Nearly all of these democracies were in Western Europe, North America, and the former overseas territories of the British Empire. Together they constituted no more than one- tenth of the world’s population. Empires ruled much of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Even as recently as 1988, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a small minority of the world’s people lived under democracy; Central Asia and Eastern Europe had no democracies, and sub-Saharan Africa had virtually no true democracies as well.

Compared with those bleak periods, the number of democracies in the early 21st Century seems like a great advance. Many African nations have made the beginnings of a transition to democratic rule, and real democracy is increasingly entrenched in Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and many parts of East Asia.

No one expects that democracy will backslide to its weak global position in 1900; the prospect of democracy being wiped away completely, as seemed possible in the 1930s, now appears all but impossible. Indeed, the point of this book is not to suggest that democracy is in its death throes, but that it is in decline over the past decade— a decline that should be worrying because of its vast impact on human rights, economic freedoms, and the international system.

If policy makers do not recognize this decline, and understand the complex reasons, examined later on, for democracy’s current weakness in many developing nations, they will fail to reverse this trend. Worse, as the economic crisis lags on, publics in many developing regions may become far more distrustful of democratic rule— a prospect that could indeed help set the world back to the situation in 1988 or before.

Choosing to look at democracy’s decline over the past de cade is not arbitrary. Just as 1974, and then 1989, were watershed years for democratization, so too was 2001 such a year, although not in a positive way. Over the subsequent decade certain trends, which were less apparent in the 1980s or 1990s, clearly indicated weakening democracy throughout the developing world.

Those trends began to materialize in 2001, and they would grow stronger throughout the 2000s and into the early 2010s, as surveys such as those done by Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit, as well as my own research, would show this distinct decline in democracy in many nations.

The global landscape that had begun to be transformed in 2001 included the weakening of American power. In the months after the September 11, 2001, attacks, American power seemed to be at its zenith, but as the United States became entangled in two long wars stemming in some ways from that day, its power would ebb, with significant consequences for America’s ability and willingness to attempt democracy promotion in the developing world. In 2001, too, both Russia and China would begin to consolidate their leadership transitions, and in that year the foundations would be set for the authoritarian great powers to reassert their dominance both at home and in their near neighborhoods, where they would lead a backlash against democracy.

Also in 2001, broadband Internet began to become available to a growing number of homes in developed countries, the first step toward what would become its widespread use, and would impact democratic change in many developing nations. The early 2000s also saw the height of the anti-globalization movement and the questioning of the Washington consensus regarding economic liberalization, a change that would reverberate through young democracies, as many citizens who had linked economic and political reform would come to question whether democracy was necessarily the best system to produce growth and development.

Finally, in 2001 the initial signs of conservative, middle- class revolts against electoral democracy would begin to emerge in many key developing nations, including Pakistan, the Philippines, Venezuela, Russia, and others.

Though Thailand is not as unusual as many Thais seem to believe, every country certainly has its own political history and circumstances. Democracy was imposed by an occupier in Japan, midwifed by a king in Spain, and fought over for decades in Timor-Leste. Reversals of democracy in each nation likewise have unique characteristics. In Thailand the king’s prolonged illness has hurt democratic consolidation, while in Russia the anarchy of the Boris Yeltsin era, in which a proud country teetered on the brink of bankruptcy while oligarchs plundered its wealth, soured many Russians on the freedoms of democracy. But the broad—and dangerous—reasons for the global democratic rollback today differ relatively little.

Democracies have faced many challenges in the past, and at other times countries that seemed to have democratized suffered serious reversals, occasionally regressing, as in the case of Germany in the 1930s, to outright totalitarianism. But those reversals tended to be relatively isolated, and eventually global democracy progressed once again. That progression can no longer be taken for granted: today a constellation of factors, from the rise of China to the lack of economic growth in new democracies to the West’s financial crisis, has come together to hinder democracy throughout the developing world.

Absent radical and unlikely changes in the international system, that combination of antidemocratic factors will have serious staying power. Yet Western leaders do not seem to recognize how seriously democracy is threatened in many parts of the developing world. Though some observers, like Freedom House, have begun to recognize how democracy has become endangered, few have systematically traced how a form of government once thought to be invincible has been found lacking in so many places and consequently tossed aside, often by the very middle-class reformers who once were democracy’s vanguard. Among senior American officials, few are willing to accept that the current climate is anything more than a blip in democracy’s ultimate conquest of the globe, that the Arab Spring and Summer might not turn out to be like 1989’s year of democratic revolution— or that a prolonged democratic rollback would have severe consequences for global security, trade, and American strategic interests, not to mention the well- being of millions of men and women across the developing world.

The official national security strategy developed by the George W. Bush administration, which enshrined democracy promotion as a central value of US foreign policy, carried the unstated assumption that, with US backing, democracy would continue to spread around the world. Although the Obama administration’s 2010 national security strategy acknowledged that this progress had met obstacles, experts within the administration seemed to assume that, given the right adjustments in American policy, the United States would soon be leading a renewed wave of global democratization.

The United States is not the only entity that does not comprehend that democracy’s progress may have stalled. In 2008, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the main regional grouping in Southeast Asia, passed a new charter that made respect for human rights a core component of membership. Even in private, senior Asean officials argue that the region is moving toward shared democratic values. This despite the fact that, except in Indonesia, democratization and human rights have regressed throughout Southeast Asia in the past 10 years, as well as the fact that the region is still no closer to having real shared values than it was when Asean was formed more than four decades ago.

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