After a steady increase in the number of the world’s democracies, authoritarianism is on the rise, Council on Foreign Relations analyst Joshua Kurlantzick writes in a forthcoming book. Democracy has been in decline over the past decade, he contends, a development that is likely to have a vast impact on human rights, economic freedoms, and the international system.
At the start of the 20th Century, only a tiny fraction of the countries in the world could have been called true democracies. 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.
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.
Choosing to look at democracy’s decline over the past decade 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.
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.
This is taken from a longer extract published by Asia Sentinel. Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, The Decline of Democracy, is to be published soon by Yale University Press.