The End of Democracy?

Around the world, authoritarianism is on the rise, and the West seems powerless to oppose it

The End of Democracy?Earlier this month a Russian court acquitted three men accused of involvement in the 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya’s writing had exposed Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya, and she had been detained on occasion by the Russian military as a result. The end of that court case followed the murder of Stanislav Markelov, another critic of the Russian government who had represented many victims of Russia’s security services. He was gunned down on the streets of Moscow in January. Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old student and journalist with Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper that is often critical of the Kremlin, and for which Politkovskaya also wrote, was shot dead when she tried to help. She was the fourth Novaya Gazeta journalist murdered since 2000.

Russia isn’t the only country where it is dangerous to oppose the government these days. China has recently arrested dozens of dissidents as part of a crackdown on free speech on the Internet, which it says is necessary to protect its children from “vulgarity.” Censored websites include those of the BBC and Voice of America. Kyrgyzstan has similarly removed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz-language programs from its national, government-owned TV and radio networks. Kyrgyz authorities said the programs were too critical of the government and would not be broadcast unless they are submitted to and approved by government censors in advance. And Syria last fall sentenced 12 pro-democracy dissidents to 2½ years in prison. The activists had called for greater freedom of expression and an end to the ruling Baath party’s monopoly on power.

These snapshots paint a bleak picture of the state of democracy and political freedom around the world. And yet it was only 20 years ago that the American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama concluded that democracy’s ultimate triumph was at hand.

“The 20th century saw the developed world descend into a paroxysm of ideological violence, as liberalism contended first with the remnants of absolutism, then bolshevism and fascism, and finally an updated Marxism that threatened to lead to the ultimate apocalypse of nuclear war,” he wrote in a seminal 1989 essay published in The National Interest. But the 20th century was ending, he believed, with the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.” The West had prevailed, conclusively and irreversibly, on the battlefield of ideas. History itself, defined as mankind’s ideological evolution, was over.

Fukuyama was, and is, an idealist. But his conclusions appeared to have been supported by facts on the ground. Liberal democracy had prevailed against fascism and Communism. Former Soviet client states were flocking to be embraced by the West. Within a year, McDonald’s would open its first restaurant in Moscow. China’s liberalization was mostly economic rather than political, but pro-democracy activists flooded Tiananmen Square, and thousands of Chinese students were studying in the West. “It is hard to believe that when they return to run the country they will be content for China to be the only country in Asia unaffected by the larger democratizing trend,” Fukuyama wrote.

It is almost painful to read such dated optimism today. China has indeed liberalized its economy but remains as dictatorial as ever. The autocratic Vladimir Putin and a cabal of KGB cronies and alumni run Russia. Cuba’s dictatorship has survived the fall of its Soviet patron, while Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez—who has politicized the judiciary, weakened regional government, and tried to muzzle hostile media—has secured the right to run for office as many times as he’d like. And political Islamism, a movement whose most radical offshoots took flight following the West’s victory against the Soviet Union in a proxy war in Afghanistan, is flourishing not just in the Middle East, but in European enclaves as well. In predominantly Muslim areas of east and north London, it is easy to find signs affixed to walls and street lamps that urge residents: “Stay Muslim, don’t vote.”

Worse, for those who want to believe in the inevitability of liberal democracy, it is no longer possible to attribute democracy’s global stall solely to heavy-handed repression. China’s democratic opposition, brutalized during the protests in Tiananmen Square and understandably quiet, is dwarfed by populist nationalism. Writing in Maclean’s last year, former Canadian diplomat Maurice Strong claimed that Chinese are better off and more satisfied than ever, and value stability and security over democracy. It’s debatable how credible such an assertion is, given that there are frequent strikes and demonstrations across China every year, and questioning the legitimacy of China’s ruling Communist party might earn you a stay in a labour camp. Still, the level of dissent in China is manageable, and few predict a democratic revolution, even as China’s own economic problems intensify popular unrest.

In Russia, also, the democratic opposition is in tatters. Some of this can be explained by the harsh measures used to stifle it. Putin and his allies control most of the levers of power and regional government in Russia. And prominent critics, including journalists, have a habit of ingesting poison or falling to their deaths from upper-floor windows—more than two dozen journalists have been murdered in Russia since 2000. But Putin, for all his undemocratic ways, is immensely popular. Like China’s Communist leaders, he has tapped a deep well of popular nationalism. Russians believe their country is strong again and feel proud. And Putin is not the only anti-democrat capable of making Russians swoon. The mass murderer Joseph Stalin took third place last year in a television contest to determine the greatest Russian ever. Fifty million Russians voted.

“Autocracy is making a comeback,” writes Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in his 2008 book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams. “Russia and China have figured out how to permit economic activity while suppressing political activity. They have seen that people making money will keep their noses out of politics, especially if they know their noses will be cut off.”

Kagan argues that China and Russia’s model of an open economy and a closed political system is appealing in places like Central Asia. “It certainly offers a model for successful autocracy, a blueprint for how to create wealth and stability without having to give way to political liberalization,” he writes. “In the 1980s and 1990s, the autocratic model seemed like a losing proposition as dictatorships of both right and left fell before the liberal tide. Today, thanks to the success of China and Russia, it looks like a better bet.”

Azar Gat, a military historian and political scientist at Tel Aviv University, makes a similar argument. The defeats of Nazism, fascism, and Soviet Communism in the 20th century came about because of unique historical circumstances, not because of democracy’s inherent superiority, he says in a 2007 essay: “Authoritarian capitalist states, today exemplified by China and Russia, may represent a viable alternative path to modernity, which in turn suggests that there is nothing inevitable about liberal democracy’s ultimate victory—or future dominance.”

Democracy’s prospects appear no brighter in the Middle East, where liberalism vies with nationalism and Islamism in countries stifled by dictatorship. And it is Islamism that is often the more powerful and popular ideology among those opposed to their autocratic governments. The Muslim Brotherhood is easily the strongest opposition group in Egypt. Its offshoot, Hamas, won the legislative election in the Palestinian Authority in 2006. In Pakistan, Islamist extremists have floundered in recent elections, but in large swaths of the country the Taliban are nevertheless more powerful than the state and are de facto rulers.

In short, was Fukuyama not just premature in declaring the triumph of liberal democracy, but wrong entirely? Is it possible that liberalism in the world has already reached its apex and is facing a future of decline and retreat before extreme nationalism, Islamism, and old-fashioned dictatorship? Could it be that it is not history that is ending, as Fukuyama once claimed, but democracy itself?

As with most questions about the direction the world is heading, it helps to take several big steps back to look at the bigger picture and the longer time frame. A good guide in this process is the pro-democracy NGO Freedom House. Freedom House has been evaluating the state of democracy and human rights in nations around the world since 1972. “At that time we felt that the state of global freedom was under extreme duress, that things were moving in the wrong direction,” says Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House, in an interview with Maclean’s.

“You had Communism taking over Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. You had strongmen with quasi-Marxist instincts ruling much of Africa. In Latin America, you had Marxist revolutionaries using violence to try to shoot their way into power, and death squad right-wingers running a lot of these countries. And in Asia you had strongmen in places like Indonesia and South Korea—not to mention that you still had Mao running China. Then you had the entire Soviet bloc, which just seemed likely to be around forever. So you had democracy in North America, Western Europe, and a few other English-speaking outposts around the world. That was about it.”

Seen from such a vantage point, democracy’s rise has been astonishing. This doesn’t change the fact that it is stumbling. Freedom House’s most recent report, for the year 2008, concludes that political freedom has retreated around the world for the third year in a row, with the decline led by a deterioration of civil rights and political liberties in sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union.

Liberal democracy, according to Puddington, reached its global peak with the so-called “coloured revolutions” of 2003 to 2005, which peacefully swept pro-Russian autocrats from power in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. A “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country and the disbanding of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government. For a while there was even talk of an “Arab Spring” that might lead to the greater democratization of the region. But autocracies around the world, especially Russia, saw these revolutions as an American-stoked threat and responded with measures to suppress democratic reformers in their own countries and to frustrate their progress abroad.

“What makes Russia especially problematic is that it would like to export its problems to its democratic neighbours,” says Puddington. “If you look at the last couple of years, they’ve waged a cyber war against Estonia. They’re trying to buy a lot of influence in Estonia and Latvia. They have projects to stir up resentments in the Russian-speaking enclaves of Latvia and Estonia. They have troops in Moldova protecting this breakaway region called Trans-Dniester. In Georgia, clearly [President Mikhail] Saakashvili deserves a great deal of the blame for what happened there, but there is no question that Russia was leaning, leaning, leaning, provoking, provoking, provoking. And the result was what happened. In Ukraine, the Russian political leadership basically went ballistic after the Orange Revolution, and they’ve been trying to influence events in Ukraine and support the Russian-oriented political circles ever since.” (China, also, undermines the spread of democracy abroad by giving enormous amounts of no-strings-attached financial aid to dictatorships, especially in Africa, where it hopes build alliances and secure access to resources.)

Russia has the muscle to pressure its neighbours largely because of its oil and gas wealth. Like Iran, it has become a strong player in the global economy despite an absence of political freedom. “That is an entirely new phenomenon,” Puddington says. “You didn’t have that in the Cold War. Communist countries were impoverished by their own decision-making.”

But if, during the Cold War, the poverty of the Soviet bloc compared with the West only strengthened democracy’s appeal, what will be the impact of today’s faltering economy on democracy’s global stature?

History suggests the results will be damaging. Political freedom rarely advances during a worldwide recession. “The current downturn, if it continues for some period of time, is likely to be very unhelpful for hope that democracy will spread around the world,” says Benjamin M. Friedman, a Harvard University economist and the author of The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, in an interview with Maclean’s. Friedman argues that political freedom expands during prolonged periods of prosperity, and contracts during regression or stagnation. It’s a thesis echoed by Freedom House’s Puddington. “Democracy moves ahead when things are flush,” he says. “The history of democracy in times of real economic pain and crisis—it’s not very good. I’m certainly hopeful that we’re not going to end up like we did in the late 1920s and 1930s. That was a terrible time for world politics.”

Faced with an economic downturn that will force democracies to scale back their ambitions abroad, and with resurgent autocracies willing to throw their weight around, should liberal democracies still try to counter their influence and work to protect and spread democracy around the world? Should it matter to Canadians whether democracy succeeds in, say, Georgia—or, for that matter, in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Arguments in favour of democracy promotion can be roughly divided between the moral and the practical. Moral proponents of spreading liberal democracy, such as James Traub, a writer and director of policy at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York City, believe that only democracy can satisfy “the most fundamental questions of human dignity.”

The practical argument was championed most famously in recent years by former American president George W. Bush. The complexities of the “Bush doctrine” of foreign policy eluded Sarah Palin when she was asked to define it during a television interview, but its essential premise boils down to the belief that what happens in undemocratic countries can impact countries like the United States and Canada in unexpected and unwanted ways. “One of the sources of terrorism is clearly the failed dynamic of the states from which terrorism comes,” says Traub, author of The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did).

But practical reasons for promoting democracy, according to some analysts, go beyond trying to undermine terrorism, which can and does flourish in democracies as well as in dictatorships and failed states. “The broader truth is that, over time, more democratic societies seem to be more prosperous, and therefore better trading partners and treaty partners,” says Thomas O. Melia, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and the executive director of Freedom House. “A functioning economy to some degree depends on the same freedoms that a functioning democracy depends on: free speech, the ability to travel across borders, the ability to challenge authority when the government has wacky regulations. If you can’t do that, you can’t have an economy. And those are the same freedoms you need to have a democracy.” (Friedman, the Harvard economist, isn’t so sure. Economic growth might lead to greater political freedoms, he says, but political freedoms don’t necessarily result in a stronger economy. “I don’t think the evidence was ever very strong that democracy was itself an engine of growth,” he says.)

Those who do believe in democracy’s intrinsic economic advantage look to the financial strength of autocracies and see temporary, ultimately fleeting success. Countries like Russia and Iran have power, money, and influence because they have oil and gas, which will eventually run out, and for which prices are already dropping. China does not have even the luxury of oil. It has prospered in recent decades, but, its critics argue, this is not compatible over the long term with political shackles. “The problems of corruption, inequality, and unaccountability will continue to drive political change in China, Russia, and the rest of the world’s autocracies,” write political scientists Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs.

Robert Kagan offers a third reason why countries like the United States should support democracy abroad—in this case, referring specifically to the Middle East. “One way to answer that question is to turn it around: should the United States support autocracy in the Middle East? That is the only other choice, after all. There is no neutral stance on such matters. The world’s democracies are either supporting autocracy—through aid, recognition, amicable diplomatic relations, and regular economic intercourse—or they are using their manifold influence in varying degrees to push for economic reform.”

There are many who would respond by saying that, actually, supporting friendly autocracies in the Middle East—as the United States does in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt—may not be such a bad idea. Democracy, after all, saw Hamas elected in the Palestinian Authority and might well lead to the Muslim Brotherhood running Egypt. Kagan responds by recalling that similar debates took place during the Cold War, when America backed pretty much any tyrant who promised to fight Communism. Conservatives warned that cutting off the squalid little men ruling much of Asia and, at the time, South and Central America might lead to their replacement by pro-Soviet Communists. Sometimes it did. “But more often than not such efforts produced moderate democratic governments that were pro-American,” he writes, citing El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea as examples of countries where “reasonably democratic” governments replaced right-wing dictators.

Kagan argues that it’s worth taking the same risk today in the Middle East. There will be setbacks, he says. Democracy will provide a channel for the expression of popular resentments, and some radical Islamists will achieve power through elections. “But perhaps this phase is as unavoidable as the present conflict, and the sooner it is begun, the sooner a new phase can take its place,” he writes. The success of moderate political parties in Pakistan’s recent elections—along with the concomitant failure of extreme Islamists—suggests that, in Pakistan at least, the idea that democracy would result in the country falling into the hands of nuke-crazed mullahs was mostly alarmist hot air. Extremists have expanded their influence in Pakistan of late—securing control of much of the Swat Valley in the last two years—but these gains have come through violence and terror, not the free choice of the people who live there. Pakistani authorities sadly sanctioned these gains in February by agreeing to bring sharia law to the region in exchange for a ceasefire with local Pakistani Taliban.

If we can accept that democracy’s growth is good for people living in autocracies, and good for those of us already in the democratic world, what can be done to spread democracy’s reach? The short answer may be less than we think.

“There are a lot of things that are in our interest that we may not be able to do much about,” says Traub. “If you use the expression ‘exporting democracy,’ you’re already describing a thing that cannot be. Because democracy is not a product that one consumes. It is a set of values, habits, expectations, and principles, which are inside individual people and inside a culture. So by its nature it cannot be exported.” Failed attempts to bring democracy to countries with little or no democratic tradition—such as American efforts to promote political freedom in Russia during the 1990s—demonstrate how difficult it is to establish a free society where one hasn’t existed before.

Traub believes democracy can be nurtured, however, which is why he says the democratic world would make better use of its time and resources by strengthening and consolidating feeble democratic states, rather than trying to bring democracy to outright dictatorships. Georgia and Ukraine, for example, should be supported and protected from Russian machinations. Trying to establish a pro-democracy NGO in North Korea, on the other hand, would be a waste of time.

Promoting democracy is most effective, according to Traub, when it is part of a larger state-building effort. “If you have a profoundly impoverished country with no infrastructure, with poor public health, with poor educational prospects, you have to be able to do something about that. And that’s something which outside states can do a little bit more about. It’s easier to do that than it is to, for example, produce an independent and honest judiciary—something which tends to develop very slowly from an already existing democratic culture.”

The United States has lost its appetite for the most extreme method of promoting democracy: invading another country and trying to install one. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have simply been too costly. American Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said as much in a recent essay: “The United States is unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan—that is, forced regime change followed by nation building under fire—anytime soon,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. In other words, in the absence of a security threat the United States judges it cannot ignore, countries like Sudan, Burma, and Iran won’t see American soldiers on their soil in the near future.

That American efforts to promote democracy abroad will likely be restrained doesn’t necessarily mean they will be less effective, only less forceful. “There is a strong line of argument that the best way Americans can spread democracy around the world is to be the best model of a working democracy that we possibly can, and that model is often undermined by our quasi-imperial international efforts that lead to things like Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib,” says Peter Beinhart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with Maclean’s. “We will be most effective at spreading democracy by focusing on things that make American democracy work best.” By this argument, improving America’s economy may also embolden democracy’s proponents in the developing world by demonstrating the economic advantages of political freedom.

Such a scaled-back agenda for democracy’s global expansion—targeted aid, diplomatic support, and strengthening democracy at home—will no doubt disappoint those who believe a more muscular effort is needed to counter the apparent rise of autocracies and the attraction they hold for weak and unstable states. It is a far cry from John F. Kennedy’s pledge during his inaugural address to pay any price and bear any burden to ensure the survival of liberty—or even George W. Bush’s 2005 promise to stand with the citizens of oppressed countries who choose to stand for their own freedom. It requires faith that democracy will ultimately succeed, not because of the strength of its proponents, but because it is the only political system capable of offering a nation’s citizens real liberty, and because of this its appeal will not fade.

It also requires patience and perspective to recognize that, over the long term, democracy’s rise has been steady and it has overcome enormous obstacles. It was Lord Byron, the British poet who died while fighting in Greece’s war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, who described a nation’s struggle against tyranny as freedom’s battle:

For Freedom’s battle once begun

Bequeath’d by bleeding Sire to Son

Though baffled oft is ever won.

These lines, written almost 200 years ago, were posted by an anti-Communist activist in the Lenin Shipyards of Gdansk, Poland, in 1980. The militant belonged to Solidarity, a trade union that grew into a social movement that Communist authorities repressed but could never contain. Solidarity did more than perhaps any other group to weaken the Soviet Union’s hold on Eastern Europe. Within a decade the Soviet Union lost its grip entirely, and half a continent was free.