The decline of democracy and popular disenchantment with democratic institutions have recently become hot topics in academic and think tank circles. Freedom House, in its annual Freedom in the World report released in January, cites a seventh consecutive year of decline in freedom around the world but cautions that the decline is not a precipitous one and thus shouldn’t be exaggerated. Joshua Kurlantzick’s book, Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, and essay in Foreign Policy “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back”, by comparison, offer a starker view of a ”consistent” decline of democracy. Kurlantzick identifies the key culprit for the decline: The middle class, contrary to the expectations of Samuel Huntington and Seymour Martin Lipset, isn’t showing all that much of a longing for freedom these days.Interestingly, the democratic societies of today feel democratic “retreatism” and the absence of a policy vector much more acutely than they did from the 1960s through the early 1970s, the last period of democratic stagnation and crisis. True, at that time, Western civilization could not afford a prolonged spell of depression and pessimism; the existence of the Soviet Union and the world Communist system forced the West to focus intently on the struggle for the preeminence of its principles. The West constantly needed to flex its muscles and look for ways to reassert itself. Today the decline of democracy seems more palpable. At the very least, democracy seems to have lost its energy, or has allowed that energy to flow into populist channels. The excitement following the Arab Awakening in 2011 has been replaced by concern that Islamist movements have hijacked whatever democratic prospects existed in those countries. This is especially true of Egypt, and in Syria, the tragedy unfolding on a daily basis and the impact of that tragedy on Syria’s neighbors have also dampened democratic hopes in the region. With only a few exceptions (Georgia, Moldova, and Kyrgyzstan), Eurasia has become a region known for its rising anti-democratic behavior and policies; Russia has experienced the worst deterioration in human rights since the collapse of the USSR. Repression in China has actually increased in recent years—and China presents its own model as an alternative to Western democracy. At the same time, Western democracies are consumed with their own challenges, most notably the economic crisis, felt in many countries, but most severely in Greece and Spain.. Despite its Nobel Peace Prize last year, the European Union, Western civilization’s most ambitious project in the 20th century, is a source of concern and disappointment (with notable exceptions, including the Nordic states in particular). The United States is increasingly turning inward, pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan and showing great reluctance to get more involved in Syria. One could, and probably should, feel depressed thinking about this state of affairs, but one should not therefore conclude that the time has come to bury democracy. A few questions are in order: Does the democratic recession indicate that there is a fault in the entire system of democratic competition and rule of law, or does the crisis merely flow from flaws in the current manifestations of the liberal democratic model? Do the reversals of democratic gains in transitional societies and their turn to the personalized-power model reflect genuine longing for authoritarian rule, or are these societies simply expressing their discontent with the quasi-democratic mechanisms put in place in their countries? Lastly, have the lessons learned from the democratic transitions in the 1990s been proven right? Perhaps, the problem is that some of our democratic axioms need revision. The issue of democratic recession is not a new one. Leading writers on the subject voiced their concerns about the stability of the democratic wave even in the midst of the democratic triumphalism of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Samuel Huntington, who actually coined the term “the Third Wave,” deliberated on the possibility of a “reverse wave.” Juan J. Linz, Alfred Stepan, Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Carothers, to varying degrees, have all expressed pessimism on the subjects of the democratic paradigm and the prospects for the inevitable democratic evolution of modern societies. And how about Francis Fukuyama’s thoughts on the limits of changing human nature and human desire to dominate. These voices can hardly be called triumphalist. The “democratic pessimism” that arose even as the Third Wave was cresting generated the idea of cyclical development. Quite a few analysts believe that the democratization cycle will be followed by a return to authoritarianism, which will once again followed by democratization. This theory has rather tenuous foundations. It not only justifies passively accepting fate; it also overlooks the fact that the failure of democracy doesn’t always lead to pure authoritarianism but sometimes to a “gray zone”—in Freedom House parlance, a “Partly Free” society, in which the ruling elite tries to legitimize itself through democratic means, thus further discrediting the democratic process. The exit from this state can drag on for years, frequently resulting not in democratic renewal but in a much harsher personalistic rule. The terms “competitive authoritarianism” and “imitation democracy”, which rose to the fore in the middle of the 2000s, reflected analysts’ attempts at understanding the origins of hybrid regimes, as well as their likely trajectory. We have come to realize today that these regimes pose a serious threat to democracy, and that it is more difficult to deal with a fake democracy than with a state under pure authoritarian rule. In their recent essay, “Democratization Theory and the ‘Arab Spring’”, Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz pay special attention to the “authoritarian-democratic hybrid.” The 2010 Journal of Democracy discussion of democracy’s past and future by Francis Fukuyama, Philippe C. Schmitter, Guillermo O’Donnell, Larry Diamond, Mark Plattner, Ivan Krastev and others was one of the most productive. It highlighted and elucidated the obstacles on the road to democratization. The editors’ introduction concluded, “[W]e are now in a period marked by a kind of standoff between democracy and authoritarianism. . . . It may be a long time before we again experience the avalanche of regime changes that characterized the late 1980s and early 1990s.” Of course, this was followed by the developments in the Arab world, a region that for decades had shown few signs of democratic awakening. Nevertheless, the discussion raised quite a few problems that subsequently emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring. Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2013: Democratic Breakthroughs in the Balance” testifies to the contradictory nature of current global trends. On the one hand, the report cites a more active and aggressive response from authoritarian regimes to efforts to promote democracy. On the other hand, it notes greater public efforts to achieve freedom and human dignity throughout the world. One has to look at the totality of the global picture and not reduce it to a single pessimistic trend. Besides, any discussion on democratic decline should include both analysis of its causes as well as suggestions to reverse the trend. At any rate, there is no civilizational alternative to democracy, its current ailments notwithstanding. This is the hallmark of our times. Even the most authoritarian regimes now prefer to shroud themselves in quasi-democratic vestments, seeking legitimacy through controlled elections and by unconvincingly mouthing the mantras of the rule of law. But there is a catch: The absence of a civilizational alternative means that the way open for future democratic development in non-democratic states, but it also means that democracies aren’t pressed to renew themselves as a result of external competition. One has to admit that the collapse of world communism and the absence of other powerful ideologies have in a way undermined liberal democracy—by making it complacent. Liberal democracy still has not yet found a way to renew itself absent rival systems. Moreover, as a system, liberal democracies have compromised on principles to make political deals, becoming transactional democracies, trying to distance themselves from ideology. Since the democratic system has no rivals that can boast firm organizational structure or clear ideology, one can hope that its decline is related to a crisis in its current model—a crisis stemming from conflicts between economic efficiency and equality, economic progress and social justice, national identity and multiculturalism, and secularism and religion. But we should avoid irrational optimism on this subject. As Arnold Toynbee warned us numerous times, the civilization that cannot adequately respond to the challenges it faces has already begun to decay and is in danger of imminent collapse. Thus, not only is our whining about the democratic recession counterproductive; so is our belief in the pre-determined triumph of democracy, or in its self-renewal as took place in the 1930s and 1970s. What is the major obstacle to democratic self-renewal today? Is it the authoritarian system? Definitely not—at least for now. One could point out three major threats to democracy. The first threat is so-called “imitation democracy”—that is, the emergence of new regimes that use democratic institutions and rhetoric to preserve their personal or group power. There is no doubt anymore that imitation democracy and the very existence of hybrid regimes discredit and weaken democracy much more than openly authoritarian regimes do. It is time to admit that democratic institutions can be used to promote personal and egotistic interests. The second threat concerns the states whose democratic institutions are becoming perfunctory and thus degenerate. These are the “old” democracies that are trying to maintain the old balance of power and avoiding revising norms in a way that would threaten this balance. The third and final threat to democracy proceeds from the Western states’ inability to incorporate the normative dimension into foreign policy. Before world communism collapsed, in the 1960s through 1980s, the West combined its values and its interests, albeit not always successfully. The old democracy promotion model has exhausted itself today, but the new one was never created. In fact, imitation democracies managed to find a way to survive by latching on to Western civilization and undermining it from within. In turn, the pragmatic foreign policies of the old democracies have served to legitimate hybrid regimes. This is yet another consequence of dismantling of the Soviet-led communist system; this system had compelled the West to apply the normative approach to its foreign and domestic policies. What else is impeding democracy? According to Fukuyama and Zakaria, one thing is the tendency to overstress the importance of elections, especially founding elections, at the cost of neglecting liberal values, particularly the rule of law. When democratic states are unable to strike the right balance between democracy and liberalism, liberal democracy is undermined. As Fukuyama correctly noted back in 2010, “Outsiders have learned a great deal about democracy promotion over the past twenty years and have considerable ability to help organize and monitor elections. Whether anything remotely comparable will be possible with regard to rule of law remains to be seen.” This observation is especially important today, as many non-democratic states, including Russia, have found a way to prolong the life of their authoritarian regimes. They don’t just do it by means of elections but through the judicial system, which has been turned from a guarantor of the rule of law into an instrument of repression. To revive democratic progress, one must analyze the prerequisites for democracy once again. Many of the prerequisites created in the early 1990s remain relevant to this day. In their catechesis of democracy (Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies), Philippe Schmitter and Guillermo O’Donnell were right to refuse to accept the notion that democracy requires some fixed set of economic or cultural prerequisites. They were right when to point to the importance of the international factor and the need to think about a new form of external intervention, namely “political conditionality.” Meanwhile, facts on the ground call for new interpretations of some of the better known prerequisites for democracy, particularly the ones that were relevant in the past in Latin America and Eastern Europe. These prerequisites no longer held true in new historical contexts, or they even began to work against democracy. Let’s consider a few principles formulated by Schmitter, O’Donnell and Terry Karl. Schmitter and O’Donnell stressed the role of the elite interaction during the transition and believed in the limited importance of mass mobilization from below. In a sense, they were probably guided by Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning that revolution can replace bad regimes with an even worse ones. Transformations in Europe, Latin America, South Africa and some Asian countries occurred after the elite groups within the regime realized the necessity of adopting new rules of the game. The members of these groups became reformers. They gradually relaxed restrictions within the system, allowing for some pluralism and thus laying foundations for democracy. When the system reformers set out to undermine authoritarianism, civil society activism and mass mobilization could have fueled populist and nationalist sentiments; thus they were unnecessary, and possibly even harmful, in the context of gradual democratization. However, the electoral authoritarian regimes of today very probably will not be able to accomplish what the Polish or Brazilian regimes did. And so we are left with our hopes for the mobilization of civil society. In this context, one should certainly remember Schmitter’s thoughts on the ambivalent or even malignant role of civil society; in this case, social mobilization may complicate the transition to the new rules of the game. It makes sense that, as a result of mobilization from below, populist or nationalist forces may come to power—and quite possibly another authoritarian regime. The Egyptian scenario is a case in point. But if the risk of such a scenario exists, should we then give up supporting the idea of democratization? If we do reject democratic procedure, this move will most probably discredit democracy and result in an even worse form of authoritarianism. Failure to formulate a clear position on this issue can hardly help the democratic process resume; this is one of the reasons for the current paralysis of the discourse on democracy. Anyway, the most successful cases of democratic transition began with the emergence of system reformers inside the authoritarian regime, who initiated the process of transformation. Such has been the classic case of democratic transition. Most of the regimes in Eurasian states will face difficulties reforming from within in this way. In many cases, these are decaying systems that are clearly incapable of transformation, although their elites constantly talk of their commitment to modernization in an attempt to delay and discredit reforms. Hence, one cannot rule out the collapse of these regimes. This calls for a different transformational model and another approach to politics than the ones used in the 1960s through 1980s. Another traditional transition mechanism involves pacts between the pragmatists in the old elite and the opposition. But there may be no such pragmatists in many of the “imitation democracies”, or they might have discredited themselves while in power. We should therefore think about charting a path for democratization absent pacts between the ruling elite and the counter-elite. The role of the “founding elections” at the beginning of the democratization process should not be overstated. All new authoritarian leaders used these elections and subsequently usurped power. Larry Diamond was right to describe the trap that oppositions are ensnared in with authoritarian regimes that use elections: If oppositions take part in elections, they face the risk of being co-opted; if they boycott them, they lose a chance to broaden their influence. Thus they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The question of whether or not to participate in elections run by an authoritarian regime is usually the subject of heated debates inside oppositions in authoritarian societies. Kurlantzick is right to say that the middle class has lost or is losing its role as the primary agent of change. At least, we can observe this trend in a host of countries—including Russia. The middle class here is very tightly integrated into the system and thus depends on the state and the regime. The discontent expressed by the middle class in the 2011–12 street protests to a large extent reflected its claim to a more important role and status within the authoritarian regime framework. In other words, the Russian middle class is still more concerned about populism and nationalism than about authoritarianism. Nevertheless, this trend does not equally apply to all of the country’s regions and is not certain to last. For instance, the Egyptian middle class has demonstrated a much higher revolutionary potential and readiness to accept new rules of the game, or at least regime change. Part of the Russian middle class is beginning to gravitate toward system change; perhaps these very people will effect transformational change in the future. Finally, the role of international context is important. The first issue here is how attractive liberal democracies seem to the outside world; the second is whether liberal democracies will incorporate democracy promotion into their foreign policies. With David Kramer, I have already discussed the first issue in The American Interest, and a lot was written about it. The second issue—that of liberal democracies including the normative dimension in their foreign policies—is proving to be more complex and elusive. The normative dimension has been discredited for a number of reasons (among those reasons are crude attempts to impose democracy in some countries). Today, liberal democracies prefer to pursue a narrowly formulated tactical agenda. This is effective in solving the problems of the day but obscures strategic vision. Moreover, liberal democracies change their leaders and governments frequently; subsequent governments are not responsible for the failures of the current government. It is also difficult to formulate a strategic course under these circumstances. Certainly, the whole “democracy promotion” approach used by the West for decades has to be rethought. My feeling is that Lincoln Mitchell (“The Rose Revolution Through a Funhouse Mirror”) is on firm ground when he writes that the democracy promotion model has become “a loop” that hardly helps to promote real democratic change in authoritarian or transitional societies. There is evidence to support Mitchell’s conclusion that democracy promotion often serves to satisfy the corporate interests of democracy promotion aid donors and non-democratic rulers. In some cases, aid donors have built quite a cozy relationship with authoritarian governments or their agencies. In such cases the imitation of “democracy promotion”, which has triggered the emergence of its own bureaucracy and vested interests, has turned into a serious obstacle for democratization in transitional societies, and has become one of the reasons that the West and its intentions are not trusted. When rebuilding the whole model of democracy promotion, the West needs, of course, to disengage the process from the Western foreign policy mechanism; democracy promotion can’t just be another means of implementing the situational interests of Western governments. The passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Act is a recent important development pushing back against the ability of one authoritarian, Russia, to prolong its life. But creating the mechanisms that will make the Act effective will take a long time. Besides, merely defending the West’s borders from penetration by corrupt authoritarian elites doesn’t really create international incentives for transforming authoritarian societies. In fact, closed access to Western resources may provoke immigration restrictions and harsher repressions by authoritarian regimes, which will try to survive through greater isolation. In turn, the internal repressions will translate into a more aggressive posture on the world stage. So the West has to start thinking about new approaches to its foreign policy. These new approaches should include more diverse and more effective external mechanisms for creating a benevolent transformational environment for authoritarian regimes. It is time to finally learn from past mistakes and to take up the need for a new transformational model in political discourse. One can hardly expect any universal global trends to repeat themselves at this historical juncture. Neither the transition to mass democracy nor a wholesale return to authoritarianism seem likely. The world is becoming more diffuse, fragmented and diverse, so we should cherish no illusions that globalization will necessarily result in universal and simultaneous processes. We are more likely to see different societies moving at different paces and in different directions. One cannot rule out that the prerequisites for democratization will vary from region to region. For instance, democratization in so-called petro states, including a number of Arab, Asian and Latin American states as well as Russia, will largely depend on the ability of oil prices to preserve the status quo of their regimes. Democratization in China will depend on Beijing’s ability to transition to a post-industrial and more urbanized society, while addressing growing frustration with corruption and discontent among Tibetans and Uighurs. As for Belarus and Ukraine, their democratization will be contingent upon the European Union’s commitment to their integration, a process made very difficult by the rule of Alexander Lukashenka and Viktor Yanukovych. It is also plausible that hybrid regimes in some countries will tarnish democratic institutions there, leading to popular demands for a charismatic leader and authoritarianism. At this point, there are reasons to conclude that global trend toward democracy is weakening even as popular discontent with authoritarian and imitation regimes is strengthening. Regrettably, political oppositions cannot offer the discontented populaces viable alternatives. For their part, Western democracies experiencing crisis or mired in stagnation are not attractive alternative models either. Further progress toward freedom and the rule of law depends on our ability to answer “yes” to these questions:
- Can the civil society in a given authoritarian state become an agent of change, thus compensating for the weakness of political opposition?
- Can the political oppositions of various stripes consolidate and offer a “road map” that goes beyond mere regime change and lays the foundation for a rule of law state?
- Can the middle class break from the tight embrace of the state and become an agent of change?
- Can liberals rehabilitate the tarnished reputation of liberalism in authoritarian or transitional societies?
- Can the opposition neutralize religious fundamentalism when it seeks to become the pillar of a traditional state?
Even if we can answer all of these questions in the affirmative, democratization is not likely to proceed unless there is a favorable international context. The creation of that context will depend on the West’s ability to resolve its internal conflict between democracy and liberalism and to renew its democratic model. It will also depend on the inclusion of a normative dimension in the foreign policies of Western states.