Democracy in Peril?
I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I say that Anne Applebaum, in the final pages of ‘Twilight of Democracy’ (1) suggests that the future of democracy could go either way; it could go well, or it could go badly wrong!
Democracy has always been a fragile entity; open to misuse, exploitation by bad or extremist actors, and most of all perhaps by failure, a basic inability to live up to its own ideals.
Since Donald Trump got elected in 2016 there has been much talk about how democracies everywhere are weakening or backsliding. Freedom House have confirmed this bleak outlook in their latest report which shows how, for the 15th year in a row, democracy is in decline all over the world.
Donald Trump, it seems, was more a symptom of the rot than the rot itself.
Whilst such an assessment does not exactly paint a rosy picture of democracy, not everyone is so downbeat about the general state of things. Steven Levitsky, a Harvard Professor of Government, is much more optimistic, for example. In a recent episode of ‘The President’s Inbox,’ (2) a CFR podcast, he suggested that the number of nations with healthy democracies globally is pretty stable and that this, as much as anything, is reason to be optimistic.
Moises Naim, in ‘The End of Power’ (3) whilst being reasonably upbeat about global democratic progress, suggests that great power is decaying, slipping through the hands of leaders and into that of citizens.
And while many of his arguments still ring true (such as the diminished global reach of the US President, and the effects of devolution on the power of the British PM), in many cases the renewed vigour of quasi-authoritarians, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, have made a power grab, turning the tide away from citizens and back into the hands of the few.
A confluence of conditions, each with ramifications that reach far beyond the limits of their immediate effects, have contributed to the rising tide of democratic frailty. Starting with, but not necessarily limited to, 9/11, the global War on Terror, the Great Depression of 2008/9, the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, the Syrian and Libyan Civil Wars, the subsequent tide of refugees and finally the Covid-19 pandemic, have all in some way or other shaken global stability and weakened democracies either directly or indirectly, and in the process have allowed fissures to open which populists and budding authoritarian leaders can readily exploit by undermining existing norms and institutions, spurning democratic freedoms and processes in favour of something infinitely more sinister.
Applebaum too, notes pragmatically that the health of democracies can ebb and flow, and though her book is a pretty damning assessment of the state of current democracies worldwide, she, like Levitsky, avoids the temptation to sound the democratic death knell.
And when you see pro-democracy rallies happening all over the world, in such places as Hong Kong, Belarus, Thailand, Myanmar and Russia, are we right to be so glum about the prospects for democratic freedom everywhere?
Back in the early 1990’s, following the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama rode the wave of optimism and declared that it was the ‘End of History’ (4).
As the Soviet bloc disintegrated and people breathed the free air, fledgling democracies arose in nations that had been previously stifled by the weight of the iron curtain. The sense of optimism was thick in the air.
Democracy had won the war of the ideologies and the future was bright. Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), the GDR (or East Germany), Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Belarus and more all moved towards a more democratic future. The democratic garden was in full bloom and everyone looked forward to a vote-giving, free-speech making, Summer of bliss, wealth and new found freedoms.
That optimism however, was soon deemed to be misplaced and Fukuyama himself later re-appraised his own ideas, though the conclusion remained more or less the same, for him it was only the time-frame that had altered.
So now just a few decades later, that optimism, that Summer of bliss has given way to a blustery Autumn, with chill winds and leaden skies. Democracies across the former Soviet bloc are in peril. Quasi-authoritarian leaders are flexing their muscles in Hungary, Poland, Belarus and Serbia, clamping down on new won freedoms and stifling the democratic process, often times using the pandemic as cover for more insidious purposes and to promote their agenda.
Across Africa and Asia too, authoritarian strongmen are dismantling hard won democratic institutions and freedoms, trampling on the rights of political opponents and pro-democratic protesters alike as they secure powers in their nations.
So was that 90’s optimism misplaced or merely mistimed? Or maybe the end of history scenario was a sign of over-confidence rather than a factual assessment?
Huntington (5) calls this theory ‘sheer hubris’ on behalf of the West. The assumption that the defeat of Communism meant that not only the West, but the Chinese, the Islamic world, the Indians and the rest would all rush to emulate Western liberal democracy was not just a step too far, it was pure folly.
Now, from our vantage point decades hence, we can see that other political avenues were already in the waiting room of history, opening up once the communist road block had been washed away. Liberal democracy was not the only alternative; many different political systems have evolved, and continue to evolve, some of them variations on existing democratic themes, all leading to a postponement of the end of history, perhaps indefinitely.
In his seminal 1993 essay in Foreign Affairs Huntington suggested that the end of the Cold War closed the book on the war of ideologies and signalled the opening of the next chapter in the arena of human conflict, the ‘clash of civilisations’ he called it.
And whilst the war of the ideologies may have been won, the predicted clash of civilisations remains uncertain.
In a 2016 article in Foreign Affairs Mahbubani and Summers suggested that far from a clash, more recent evidence pointed to a fusion of civilisations, a sort of halfway house between Huntington’s ‘clash’ and the global or universal civilisation that he had argued against.
Huntington suggested that the exchange of cultures between civilisations, particularly from the West to other civilisations, did not ‘equate to cultural conversion.’ And factually that remains true, but in a more diffuse way. The cultural exchange that occurs when an Indian, Chinese or Arab watches an American movie or TV series remains real enough, but it is just that; an exchange and not anything approaching a conversion.
As to whether non-Americans react to a Hollywood blockbuster in the same way as a Western audience is an entirely different matter however. The point here is that ‘cultural conversion’ per say might not be the cultural endgame in this instance; that may well have been achieved by actually getting non-Americans to sit down and watch at all.
The cultural exchange had taken place.
In much the same way as it does when we Westerners eat Chinese food. This exchange should be seen for what it is. It is a cultural coming together; and it is a mostly positive aspect of engagement between cultures (or civilisations) that can be built upon if the will is right.
But such exchanges do obviously have limits. A Chinese family watching Tom Cruise stop future crime does not mean that they are suddenly Americanised in some way, any more than it does mean that we become Chinese when we eat a spring roll!
However, I agree with Huntington (6) on one point, that being that most cultures have moved beyond their latent desire to Westernise. Burgeoning Asian economies are seeing many nations reassert themselves on the international stage. Confidence is on the rise as nations emerge from under the long shadow cast by Western domination, with many undergoing a process of more localised re-indigenisation; a resurgence of inherent cultures and a rejection of Western influences.
In 2009 I was in Mali, travelling from Bamako across the country and into the Sahara towards Timbuktu and beyond. Beautiful country and beautiful people!
At the end of the trip, and back in Bamako, I took a small boat trip with some locals on the Niger. We stopped in a shady spot for a drink and some snacks and began chatting. I’m para-phrasing now, but one guy said to me, ‘You non-Africans all think that we Africans want what you’ve got. But that’s not correct! We don’t want what you have because we can see what a mess you’ve made of things, and we want better for Africa!’
‘We just want what is ours, and a free, fair chance to make it work in the way we want it to work.’ Then he paused, and said, ‘The problem is…you won’t leave us alone! You still keep taking what is ours, then treading us down, stopping us from moving ahead how we want to move ahead! Still thinking we don’t know how to look after ourselves and treating us like a poor, uneducated race who doesn’t know which way is up. Look,’ he said throwing his arms wide open, ‘we live in Paradise. But it’s our Paradise! Not yours to tell us how it should be or what we should do with it.’
And maybe that encapsulates Western hubris right there. The West has been the dominant force in world politics and world affairs for so long now that many of our leaders do retain a certain sense of superiority and entitlement about them that is surely no longer warranted.
The power of the West in is rapid decline, and liberal democracies everywhere are feeling the pinch. Our leaders need to see beyond their own sense of ready entitlement and be more realistic about the prospects for Western-style democracies arising elsewhere, or indeed anywhere.
It doesn’t mean that liberal democracies won’t continue to flourish where already established (though nothing is guaranteed — Trump being a case to point), and whilst democratic promotion doesn’t, or indeed shouldn’t end, perhaps we need to be more realistic and flexible in our approach to this promotion with cultures that are reasserting themselves, and accept that democracy can come in many flavours, and they might not all be to our taste.
But this is far from the whole story. I’ll be back with more thoughts soon.
- Anne Applebaum; Twilight of Democracy: The failure of politics and the parting of friends. 2020.
- The Presidents Inbox, a CFR podcast. Episode April 8, 2021. Democracy Tested: Democratic backsliding in Latin America.
- Moises Naim; The End of Power. 2013.
- Francis Fukuyama; “The End of History?” National Interest 16 (Summer 1989): 18.
- S. P. Huntington; The Clash of Civilisations and the remaking of world order. 1996.
- Huntington; Ibid. 1996.