“We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.”
—Ronald Reagan, Address to the British Parliament, June 8, 1982
Thirty-seven years ago, in one of his most visionary and enduringly influential speeches, President Ronald Reagan declared democracy to be the wave of the future, and committed the United States of America to a campaign to advance its cause worldwide. In what came to be known simply as the “Westminster Speech,” Reagan embraced a vision for fostering, through peaceful means, “the infrastructure of democracy—the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities—which allows a people to choose their own way.” The speech accelerated momentum for the establishment, the following year, of the National Endowment for Democracy, and ignited a new generation of efforts by the U.S. and European democracies to assist struggles for freedom around the world.
The rich democracies did not generate the growing pace of transitions to democracy—what the late Samuel Huntington would dub the “third wave of global democratization.” But Western democratic assistance, normative embrace, and diplomatic support helped to tip the balance against dictatorship time and again: first in Portugal in the mid-1970s, then in Latin America in the late ’70s and early ’80s, then in East Asia through the mobilization of people power in the Philippines and Korea, and finally through the big bang of democratic expansion in Eastern Europe and Africa after the fall of the Berlin Wall. By the mid-1990s, the world had been transformed. For the first time in history, a majority of states in the world were democracies, a majority of people in the world lived in democracies, and there was a critical mass of democracies (at least about a quarter) in every region of the world except the Middle East.
Those were heady and inspiring days, and maybe we can be forgiven if we thought that they would go on forever. As Francis Fukuyama observed in his famous work, The End of History and the Last Man, the big ideological battle seemed to be over: There was no foreseeable rival on the horizon to the basic model of democracy and market capitalism. And through the rest of the 1990s and the early years of this century, democracy was the only broadly legitimate form of government in the world. New democracies kept being born—for example with the “Color Revolutions” in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. And democracy had so much momentum that even some of the world’s poorest and most brutalized states—such as Liberia and Sierra Leone—were adopting representative government, with considerable international assistance, as a way of exiting from the deadly cycle of civil war and economic implosion. For the first six years of the new century, levels of freedom and democracy continued to rise.
Then, around 2006, this progress ground to a halt. The following year, 2007, was the first in what Freedom House has since identified as a trend of 13 consecutive years in which more countries declined in freedom than gained (usually by a considerable margin, in stark contrast to the preceding post-Cold War pattern). Democracy was failing in big and strategically important states, like Russia, Venezuela, and then, with worrisome signs of corruption, political decay, and illiberal ambitions of elected rulers, in Turkey, Kenya, Bangladesh, and much of Central America.
As I note in my new book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, what began more than a decade as a modest democratic recession has now mutated into something much more perilous. Every category of regime in the world is slipping backwards. Many of the world’s “illiberal” democracies—which have free and fair elections to decide who governs but lack a strong rule of law to contain abuse of power and protect civil liberties—are not only becoming less liberal, they are breaking down altogether. This has typically happened through a gradual process of strangulation by elected executives like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
These incipient autocrats start by demonizing the media as enemies of the people, trashing the opposition as worthless and unpatriotic, and purging the judiciary and the civil service of independent-minded professionals who might check their ambitions for total and arbitrary power. Then they continue by ruthlessly politicizing all these independent institutions and bending them to their will. Civil society organizations and universities are targeted for attacks and retribution for their “disloyalty.” Gradually the media, the business community, and the military and intelligence agencies fall into line, or they pay the price. The Brazilian autocrat of the 1930s, Getulio Vargas, had a concise philosophy to encompass this creeping assault on democracy: “For my friends everything, for my enemies, the law!”
But the decline does not end with the transition to “pseudo-democracy.” The noose has also been tightening around the necks of political oppositions and civil society in this category of regimes, places that were not democracies but at least had some surviving beachheads of political pluralism and freedom. Cambodia’s parliament has gone from a forum where opposition legislators could at least question and challenge President Hun Sen to an empty vessel with no opposition at all—a rubber stamp for a republic of fear. In 2017, Uganda’s parliament was beaten into retreat—literally, physically, by military thugs—in order to expedite the passage of a constitutional amendment that would permit the corrupt and autocratic President, Yoweri Musevini (already in power for some three decades), to have as many more terms in office as he would like.
The worst category of regimes, the deeply authoritarian ones, have become more ruthlessly so. Egypt’s cynical and brutal military dictator, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has not only completely crushed the opposition and independent civil society but has done so with a level of vengeful violence that has left the society traumatized. It would be hard to conjure a more fitting metaphor for this cruel campaign than the elected President whom the general toppled, Mohammed Morsi, collapsing in a courtroom and then dying soon after as a result of the pitiless treatment meted out to him in prison. Venezuela’s dictator has shown his willingness to starve and ruin his nation if necessary to hang on to power. Russia under Putin bans and purges an ever-widening circle of civil society and political opposition. China’s Communist regime detains well more than a million minority Uighur Muslims in political “reeducation” (translation: concentration) camps, while deploying stunning advances in facial recognition and other digital and genetic technologies to create the first truly Orwellian surveillance state—in fact a neo-totalitarian system in which Orwell finally meets Huxley.
Added to all of this has been the alarming decline of democracy in the very same democracies of Europe and the United States that played such a vital supporting role in democracy’s third wave. Buffeted by years of destabilizing erosion of liberal democracy’s political and social contract—the decline of economic security and opportunity for much of the middle and working class, the displacing and disorienting pace of globalization and automation, and the surge of unfamiliar or accelerating flows of immigration—liberal democracies now confront a growing illiberal, xenophobic, populist backlash against established elites, traditional parties, and even hallowed democratic norms of tolerance and willingness to compromise. This is not only pushing deeply illiberal and polarizing parties into the front ranks of parliament, it has also produced the shocks of Viktor Orbán and the death of Hungarian democracy, the Law and Justice Party and the assault on judicial independence in Poland, Brexit and the unraveling of the British party system, and now in the United States the presidency of Donald Trump, with its contempt for norms of truth, tolerance, and transparency, and its escalating assaults on the checks and balances that sustain our liberal democracy.
Moreover, this decay is happening in (and to some degree because of) a new international context that is inverting the democratic resolve and energy immortalized in Reagan’s Westminster Speech. Now the international momentum lies with a Russian kleptocracy that is intervening in democratic media and elections to try discredit democracy—and the very notion of truth; and with a Chinese Communist party-state that is pouring money and manpower into a vast and rapidly expanding global propaganda machinery, the world’s most ambitious program for building physical infrastructure, a concerted campaign to corner control of many of the world’s most strategic ports and sea lanes, and a rising ambition to achieve regional domination (at least) by pushing the United States out of Asia and the Western Pacific.
These ill winds of authoritarian populism, Russian rage, Chinese ambition, and American complacency are now gathering gale force, and threaten to converge into what Winston Churchill would call “a gathering storm.” This is the sense in which we are at a hinge point in history, where the world’s leading democracies must either restore their democratic vigor at home and resolve internationally, or resign themselves to a new and frightening era of surging, emboldened, and aggressive dictatorship. Even a casual acquaintance with the history of the last century clearly points to the path we must take.
It is important to recognize not only the danger but also the opportunity. True, established democratic institutions may be performing poorly and losing public confidence. But democracies offer their citizens the means to reform and correct them without overthrowing them. Dictatorships do not. Hence, they are always a step away from a whopping legitimacy crisis. That is the fear that now grips Vladimir Putin every time tens of thousands of young Russians pour into urban streets protesting corruption, administrative abuse, and electoral fraud. That is the fear that grips Xi Jinping as he proves unable to get a serious grip on intractable corruption in the Chinese system—intractable because only an independent judiciary, truly separated from the Communist Party, is capable of controlling corruption, and no dictatorship can tolerate an independent judiciary, and thus a true rule of law. This is the quandary that Xi and his fellow communist rulers of China find themselves in, as two million people from every age and walk of life in Hong Kong show their readiness to take to the streets, again and again, to defend their last vestiges of freedom and the rule of law in that small piece of liberalism that Beijing promised to preserve in 1997 but instead has squeezed and intimidated with growing arrogance. This is the passion—not simply the anger over 30 years of corruption and repression, but the positive aspiration for freedom—that mobilized waves of protest from an impressively broad and peaceful cross-section of civil society in Sudan, finally bringing down the genocidal tyrant, Omar al-Bashir, and now aiming for something more daring, the military regime’s commitment to real democratization.
The truth is, people want to be free, and international law gives them broad rights to civil and political freedom. No military coup, no authoritarian playbook, no election fraud, no party ideology, no system of surveillance can extinguish those realities. The great question now is whether we in the wealthy Western democracies will recommit to our own constitutional norms and founding ideals. Ronald Reagan understood, as did Jimmy Carter before him and every American President since—until Donald Trump—that our own freedom is bound up inextricably with the fate of freedom in the world, and that we have the power, through our own example and through our tools of assistance, diplomacy, and sanctions on dictators, to help inspire and empower other peoples to realize their rights under international law.
The inspiring and indefatigable protests in Hong Kong and Khartoum, and in a host of other places from Kinshasa to Kazakhstan, remind us that oppressed people will take risks to press for freedom whenever the opportunity arises, and that tactics of non-violent civil resistance can work to challenge the mightiest bastions of tyranny. For all the current flaws of American democracy, we retain the power and imagination to help launch what Lincoln called a new birth of freedom, if we can rejuvenate our will.