After the Soviet Union fell, democracy expanded at an unprecedented rate. Today, global democracy has receded slightly every year since 2006; in other words, there has been no democratic forward progress for the last decade.
At the other end of the spectrum, powerful authoritarian regimes are becoming more authoritarian. Across multiple indexes and measures, democracy is steadily declining at worst and stagnating at best. Unless the trend is reversed, anyone born in 2016 will be, on average, less free than someone born during the 1990s. These declines are not an accident; they are the battle scars of a struggle between the rule of the people and the rule of despots and dictators. Right now, the people are losing.
However, the democratic sky is not falling. The world remains more democratic than it has been at almost any time in human history. Many countries that were bastions of authoritarian repression just a few decades ago are now democracies. Nonetheless, the recent retreat of democracy is serious cause for concern. This is not a theoretical philosophical debate. Billions of people remain trapped in unresponsive, unaccountable regimes where ruthless oppression is common.
As many despots have rolled back democracy or refused to embrace it, they have found an unlikely accomplice: the West. Western governments, in London, Paris, Brussels, and most of all Washington, have directly and indirectly aided and abetted the decline of democracy around the globe. This unfortunate truth comes despite the stated goals of all Western governments and despite the personal principles of almost everyone in those governments. Overwhelmingly, Western elites genuinely believe in democracy. They want democracy to spread. Moreover, Western governments have been, are, and will continue to be the biggest force backing democracy in the world. But their current approach is backfiring. ... For the moment, though, the West is suffering an acute case of democracy promotion fatigue. Its leaders have less of a stomach for the short-term risks it presents than they used to. This feeling has only intensified in recent years as prolonged debacles in Ukraine, the Arab Spring, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq have replaced stable authoritarian regimes with violent chaos. As a result, democracy promotion has been knocked down several rungs on the priority list of Western governments as they set foreign policy agendas. It’s perfectly understandable. After all, failed transitions to democracy in places like Libya after botched interventions are indeed tragedies. Yet it would be a greater tragedy to doom the next generation to the rule of despots, dictators, and thugs, simply because this generation of political leaders is unwilling to make smart but difficult choices to support democracy consistently across the globe. Instead of running away from the challenge, Western governments need to learn from their mistakes and redouble their efforts. They need to stick to their principles and challenge despots, rather than aiding them in pursuit of nearsighted pragmatism. This will not be easy; there are few lowhanging authoritarian fruits just waiting to be plucked. Nor is there any guarantee that toppled despots will be replaced by genuine democrats. But the current approach needs to change, in order to give democracy a fighting chance.
I discovered a strange cast of characters on the frontlines of this battle for global democracy. Their voices are important but are rarely heard in the West. So, over the last five years, I have crisscrossed the world exploring local struggles for democracy to understand why the world is becoming less democratic and what can be done to reverse the trend.
I lived for months at a time in many different countries. Some seemed superficially democratic but were nonetheless home to toxic politics and broken societies. Dictators or juntas governed others. I had poetry read to me by a general in Madagascar who spoke of the glory days when he kidnapped politicians. I sipped mango juice with ex-rebels and was robbed at machete point in post-conflict Côte d’Ivoire. I was tailed by the KGB in Belarus as I spoke to presidential candidates bravely challenging Europe’s last dictator. I had tea with a failed coup plotter’s family in Zambia and coffee with generals in Thailand’s junta café.
These were surreal experiences. But the crisis of democracy in the twenty-first century is all too real for the billions of people around the world who live either under the unforgiving yoke of a dictator or the illusion of freedom in what I call "counterfeit democracies"—countries that claim to be of the people, by the people, and for the people, but are really none of the above.
A minority of the global population lives in true democracies, where people can meaningfully participate in decisions being made about their lives, where the laws matter more than the whims of strongmen, and where citizens have a real choice in electing leaders to represent them. The true criminals in this heist against democracy are dictators and counterfeit democrats—the dictatorial wolves cloaked in democratic sheepskins. But the West is also an accessory to the crime, inadvertently robbing pro-democracy forces abroad of a path to power. Governments in Washington, London, and Brussels pick the side of the despot all too often, as they chase competing short-term economic and security—and ultimately pyrrhic—victories. This approach undermines long-term Western interests, batters global democracy, and keeps billions oppressed with little hope for better governments.
If the West is doing so much damage, should Western governments even try to make the world more democratic? If so, how? After all, domestic factors are critical to democratization. Perhaps it’s none of our business. Countries often democratize without a nudge from the outside. Moreover, many key barriers to democratization are difficult to remove or overcome: dynastic oil monarchies, poor countries with weak political institutions, and single-party states that manage strong economic performance are all less likely to democratize. But scholars have also shown that links to the West are a crucial aspect of democratization across all types of countries.
How, then, can Western governments maximize the probability that a given country will become genuinely democratic?
There are three overarching camps that capture most thinking related to Western democracy promotion. First, do nothing. Don’t worry about democracy elsewhere. Treat a country the same regardless of its political system. This is the approach that authoritarian China takes, but this amoral foreign policy has vocal backers in the West too. Proponents of this view tend to see the spread of democracy as a peripheral interest to the West, a distraction from what really matters—security, stability, and economic growth. Foreign policy, in this view, is about entrenching stability while serving ourselves—wrought by the cold, hard calculations of realpolitik. Out of necessity, those calculations often focus on short-term interests. Do whatever needs to be done; work with whoever will work with you; the ends justify the means.
The second camp has slightly more tolerance for democracy promotion. Try to promote democracy, but only when it is in the short-term geostrategic interest of Western governments. Push for democracy against unfriendly dictators who already hate the West, but leave friendly dictators alone—or at least don’t press them aggressively. In this view, the dictatorial devil we know is much better than the democratic devil we don’t. Encourage countries that are not strategically important to become democratic because it doesn’t really matter anyway, but set an absurdly low bar so that most can at least hit the mostly meaningless target of claiming to be democracies and the West can cheer them along. This is the current approach. It is failing.
Third, promote democracy across the globe, as a long-term goal, even when it may not be in the immediate short-term interest of the United States and its Western allies. Think long-term. This does not mean pouring millions or billions into quixotic quests to rapidly democratize places unlikely to change, like North Korea. It also does not mean that the West should pursue any other foolish wars cloaked as adventures in democracy promotion, as Western governments have in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Libya. But it does mean applying much more meaningful pressure to authoritarian regimes whether they are geostrategic friend or foe at any given political snapshot in time. It means respecting elections, even if the people of another country freely choose governments that are unfriendly to the West. It means making hard choices rather than easy ones now, in order to build a more prosperous and safer world for the future.
I argue for this third approach, while demonstrating how and why a combination of the first two strategies is shaping the world into a more volatile, less prosperous, and less democratic place.
In the last decade, most Western governments have simply tried to minimize risk in dealing with non-democratic governments. This is true even of terrible tyrants, so long as they are willing to work with the West. In the name of stability, security, and economic self-interest, the United States and its Western allies have repeatedly worked to forge an uneasy co-existence with dictators, despots, and counterfeit democrats, from powerful kingdoms like Saudi Arabia to the less menacing regimes stalled between dictatorship and democracy that are scattered across Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America, and elsewhere. In most places, democracy promotion is done halfheartedly, aimed more at around-the-edges reforms of authoritarianism than at undermining authoritarianism itself.
The problem with this is simple: it’s not working. We now have not only a less democratic world but also a more unstable one. Authoritarian regimes project the mirage of stability but then eventually tend to collapse catastrophically. Democracy can be risky and volatile too, but has built-in mechanisms to resolve domestic conflict, a safety valve that can help prevent violence and chaos. If nothing is done and the West remains an accomplice to despotism, we may have already hit "peak democracy." It’s not too late. The trend can be reversed. If it is not, global democracy will remain at risk, economic growth will continue to underperform its potential, and Western security will be further imperiled.
I've been exploring why democracy is in retreat and suggesting solutions to get it on the march again. In doing so, I’ve found that the protagonists in the stories of global democracy are often bizarre. Their tales are frequently unbelievable. There’s the birth of democracy in Athens that can be traced to a fateful incident involving gay lovers; or the failed Cold War CIA plot to assassinate a Congolese politician with poisoned toothpaste; or the backfiring "democracy war" quagmires in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; or Rwandan hitmen plotting to assassinate pro-democracy critics in London; or the results of an election in Azerbaijan being released on an iPhone app the day before voting took place; or the tragicomic blowhard Donald Trump blustering about how he has himself as his primary foreign policy adviser because he “has a very good brain” and he’s “said a lot things”; or even the story of how a Turkish court was forced to enlist "Gollum experts" to determine if a pro-democracy activist comparing the authoritarian President Erdogan to the Lord of the Rings character was, in fact, insulting him.
Curious and occasionally amusing tales aside, the crisis of democracy is real and it is dangerous. The West is aiding and abetting the decline of global democracy, when it should instead be working toward its resurgence. Doing so will help create a safer, richer, and more just world.
But first, to understand the future of democracy and its spread around the world, we need to understand its past and its principles.
Author: Brian Klaas