Democracy and Democracies in Crisis

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Courtesy of Amir Jina / Flickr.CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This article was originally published by World Affairs on 22 November 2016.

Democracy today is facing greater challenges than at any time since the fall of communism a quarter of a century ago; greater than at any time, in fact, since the dark days of the 1970s when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, writing on the occasion of the U.S. bicentennial in 1976, said that “democracy is where the world was, not where the world is going.”

In retrospect, we know something that Moynihan couldn’t have known at the time—that the fall of the military government in Portugal in 1974 and Franco’s death in Spain the following year had initiated what Samuel Huntington was later to call “the third wave of democratization,” which was the most far-reaching process of democratic transition in the history of the world.

It’s always possible that the current moment of democratic gloom conceals factors that could give rise to dramatic democratic progress in the years ahead. But we are now faced with a crisis of democracy of grave proportions, and it remains to be seen if our country can rise to the challenge. This crisis has three dimensions.

The first is the radical weakening of the position of the United States and its democratic allies at the level of geopolitical power, and the corresponding increase in the influence and assertiveness—and sometimes the aggressive behavior—of authoritarian countries like Russia, China, and Iran.

Today Russia occupies twenty percent of Georgia’s territory. It has annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine, and threatens its Baltic and Nordic neighbors. Just weeks ago it was revealed that its secret services had botched a coup in Montenegro to overthrow a government seeking further euroatlantic integration. Though the plot failed, the incident sent alarms throughout the region, especially in Serbia. Russia also uses email hackers, information trolls, and open funding of parties to sow discord in Europe, weaken the European Union and NATO, and undermine confidence in Western institutions. In league with the Iranian and Syrian regimes, it is now expanding its influence in the Middle East, and it even intervened in the US presidential election.

China meanwhile is tightening internal controls, building up its military facilities on contested shoals in the South China Sea, and increasing pressures on Taiwan. Last month, the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte used a state visit to Beijing to realign the Philippines, a traditional US ally, with China. His statement that “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” led analyst Walter Russell Mead to comment that America’s authoritarian opponents abroad, seeing our current absorption in our own problems, are using the last days of President Obama’s tenure in office “to weaken the foundations of American power around the world.” He said that “the global scene is getting darker,” and I agree. This deepening security crisis will, of course, also make it harder to address the enduring threat of global terrorism, which feeds off the security vacuums created by the retreat of Western power.

The second dimension of the crisis is that the weakening of our geopolitical “hard power” has been paralleled by deterioration at the level of soft power as well. The NED has published a collection of essays entitled Authoritarianism Goes Global that describes how Russia, China, and other authoritarian countries are using sophisticated soft-power techniques and multilateral coalitions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to subvert the global norms contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to replace them with the norm of unlimited state sovereignty. They’re also trying to neutralize and control civil society by passing very restrictive NGO laws and cutting indigenous civil society groups off from any international assistance. And as already noted, they’re using hackers, trolls, and other instruments to subvert the integrity of the media space in Europe and elsewhere to spread confusion and division and to undermine the institutions of the West. Autocratic regimes are also trying to weaken global election norms by stacking international monitoring delegations with what are quaintly called “zombie” monitors who sign off on fraudulent elections.

Of greatest concern is the third dimension of the problem, which is the crisis of democratic values and will in the established democracies of the West. This crisis has been gathering momentum since the financial collapse almost a decade ago and the subsequent problems of economic stagnation and dysfunctional governance. More recently it has taken the form of a backlash against globalization, the rise of populism and illiberal politics in Europe and the United States, and the emergence of what Ivan Krastev, in the current issue of the Journal of Democracy, calls “counterrevolutionary democracy,” which he links to “a world of vast inequalities and open borders, [where] migration becomes the new form of revolution.” Last week George Freeman, the head of the British Prime Minister’s Policy Board, said that the US election and the Brexit vote were linked by the failure of the globalized economy to serve the interests of average workers, adding that “a genuine crisis of legitimacy [is] sweeping through Western political economy.”

Since it is the democratic West that has built the security, political, and economic institutions that constitute the liberal world order and that have produced unprecedented peace and prosperity over the past seven decades, this crisis of legitimacy now threatens to shake the foundations of contemporary global civilization.

We have grown complacent about our democracy, assuming that its survival is inevitable and that it doesn’t need constant care and civic engagement. Last July NED published an article in its Journal of Democracy by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk that was ominously entitled “The Danger of the Deconsolidation.” It contains some very alarming statistics about the attitudes of young people towards democracy that show that democratic commitment declines with age. Young people, in other words, show less commitment to democracy than their parents and grandparents.

For example, only 30 percent of millennials think it’s “essential” to live in a democracy, compared to 72 percent of those born before World War II. 24 percent of millennials think that democracy is a bad way to run the country. Among all age cohorts, the share of Americans who think it’s best to have “a strong leader” who doesn’t have to bother with a parliament or elections has steadily risen, from 24 percent in 1995 to 32 percent in 2011. In 1995 one in sixteen respondents felt that it would be a good thing for the army to rule. Today that figure is one in six. Citing the declining trust in government in our country, Foa and Mounk write that democratic breakdown is “extremely unlikely” in a world where citizens fervently support democracy, but that “It is no longer certain…that this is the world we live in” today.

There’s obviously no short or simple way to address a crisis of such profound scope and depth, but let me offer a few thoughts by way of conclusion. The first priority is to create a new bi-partisan consensus in defense of American security in a dangerous world. We need to have a serious discussion about the reasons for our weakened geopolitical position that is so tempting to our opponents, and about how the US retreat is connected to our internal divisions and the drastic swings that have occurred in our foreign policy between over-reaching and unilateralism on the one hand, and radical retrenchment on the other. We’ve always had swings between global engagement and retrenchment, as Steve Sestanovich explained in his important book called Maximalism. In the past decade-and-a-half, however, such swings have been more drastic, and we need to understand how damaging this is to our national interest.

Second, we need to recognize that the defense of our national security requires the exercise of power, and that diplomacy will be feckless and ineffective if it is not backed up by credible military deterrence. This is the nature of the world in which we live and an inevitable aspect of inter-state relations. I have often been asked to explain why supporting democracy abroad helps our national security, and I can do that. But I also believe that defending our national security and using our power to help preserve world order and stability is absolutely essential for democratic progress.

Maintaining and strengthening our alliances is also critical. It may be hoping for too much to call upon the new administration to prioritize repairing the liberal world order, which has eroded so dangerously. But it is not unrealistic to hope that it will reassure our allies in Europe and elsewhere about our reliability and commitment to the common defense.

We also need to recognize that while engagement with dictatorial regimes is necessary, we should never conflate a regime that rules without popular consent with the people of a country, or fall into the mirror-image trap of thinking that dictators act according to the same moral and strategic calculus as democratically-elected leaders. Nor should we assume that engagement by itself will produce liberal change if it is not accompanied by significant human-rights pressure and conditionality. This certainly doesn’t mean that the United States should try to impose its values, export its democracy, or remake the world in its own image. But it means that we should support people who share our values and need our help.

To do that, we will need to rediscover the art and importance of soft power. The potential of soft power is rooted in the fact that there are people around the world who want to live in societies that are not ruled by fear and force, and who have the will and capacity to build the institutions and processes of democracy. What they need is modest help from and closer relations with democratic societies. We have instruments, both governmental and nongovernmental, to provide such help and contact, and we should appreciate their role and develop their potential. The National Endowment for Democracy and its core political, labor, and business institutes are among the most important of such instruments, and there are others in government and the private sector. They are a low-cost but effective way to strengthen people who offer an alternative to nationalist and populist fragmentation.

This is especially true in Muslim countries where there are brave and dedicated people who are working to create and promote a counter-narrative to radical Islamists. They are Muslim religious leaders and educators, intellectuals and activists, workers and entrepreneurs, young people and especially women who do not reject the modern world but have a vision of success and achievement within it. Far from being our enemies, these people within the Muslim world are the most important friends and allies we have. We need to know who they are, and we must do what we can to help them.

Of course we have to fix our own democracy, which will be the great challenge for the next Administration and Congress. To do that, we will need to end the deadlock in Washington and to identify major initiatives that will enable government to deliver on pressing problems. A key first step might be to bring together a coalition around a plan to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, and in the process to provide jobs for many of the aggrieved workers who have been left behind by globalization. This is something that a new Trump Administration and a bi-partisan majority in the Congress should be able to support.

Then there is the challenge of civic education here at home. The survey data I mentioned earlier make clear that it’s urgently necessary to teach young people the basic responsibilities of citizenship and try to inculcate a new appreciation of democratic values. One way to do it would be to link young Americans to people and organizations on the ground in one country to another in the global south and post-communist world who are fighting to defend their rights and human dignity. It is there—more than in the West today—that one hears the language of democratic solidarity and universal human rights, and it is my hope that by linking young people here and in Europe with young activists and others fighting for fundamental rights and freedoms in the non-Western countries of the world, this might spark a revival of democratic commitment in the Western countries where democracy, after many trials, first became rooted.

We are at a moment today similar to the one in 1946 when Winston Churchill delivered his “sinews of peace” address at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. He called the basic values of democracy the “title deeds of freedom” and implored us to “preach what we practice” and to “practice what we preach.” We need a comprehensive and coherent strategy to defend the values of freedom and to rebuild the democratic world order, and it has to start with our citizens at the grassroots.

This is possible. We are resilient. Vaclav Havel once said, “none of us as an individual can save the world as a whole, but that nevertheless each of us must behave as if it were in our power to do so.” That’s what he meant by “living in truth.” Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that our authoritarian adversaries, Russia and China above all, have severe internal problems, and that democracy has hidden strengths.

Perhaps the democratic crisis that has been magnified by our tumultuous and troubling election and by dangers we face in the world today will help us to better understand the need for democratic vigilance, something that the abolitionist Wendell Phillips once called the inescapable price of liberty and democratic freedom. The question is whether we can summon the will and the unity to rise to the challenge. I don’t think we have a choice.

About the Author

Carl Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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