Is democracy losing its global appeal and credibility? Are the economic crises and political paralyses within both the United States and the European Union evidence of “a failure of liberal democracy“?
The giants of the democratic West are in serious trouble, argues Timothy Garton Ash.
“The two leading polities of the west seem incapable of tackling the debt and deficit burdens which their closely related versions of liberal democratic capitalism have built up,” he writes.
A bright young Chinese diplomat recently set the FT’s Philip Stephens an examination question:
do these twin crises represent one of those damaging but short-lived spasms that have periodically disturbed the advance of the wealthy economies? A rerun of, say, the 1970s? Or are the shocks of an entirely different order – a harbinger of accelerating decline as the west surrenders two centuries of global hegemony?
You can see what he means, writes Stephens.
“Strategic decision-making is held hostage to ideological polarization” in the United States, while European “[s]olidarity has been lost to resurgent nationalisms.” So “it is tempting to say all is lost – that a political and economic model built on western primacy is cracking under the strain of the shifting balance of international advantage.
But the West’s democracies still have a choice whether to accept decline or exploit the capacity for innovation and reinvention, the competitive advantage that open societies enjoy over authoritarian counterparts.
Furthermore, as the Journal of Democracy’s Marc Plattner has noted – the sustainability of authoritarian capitalism is yet to be established, while liberal democracies have demonstrated the political resilience and institutional flexibility to withstand economic and other crises.
Warnings of the demise of democracy are a hardy perennial for Western commentators, but there does appear to be a looming battle of ideas between democracy and authoritarianism. With the waning of the Third Wave of democracy, a backlash against free trade, globalization and democracy promotion itself “is entirely possible – maybe even likely,” according to Gideon Rachman’s recently-published Zero-Sum World: Politics, Power and Prosperity after the Crash.
On the other hand, history is determined not by ideas but by “events, dear boy, events” and developments in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond give cause for pause when it comes to democracy’s supposed loss of élan. The relative decline of the West’s democracies does not appear to be undermining the appeal of the democratic idea.
“It is ironic that the democratic movements in the Arab world broke out just as autocracy seemed to be coming back into fashion,” Rachman observes.