Is Democracy in Retreat?

A conversation with Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy since its inception.

A graduate of Yale University and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Carl Gershman served as Senior Counselor to President Ronald Reagan’s United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick prior to assuming his current position at NED in 1984.

GAZETA WYBORCZA: Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain in June 1982, when President Ronald Reagan, in his address to the British Parliament, proposed that the United States undertake a bi-partisan global campaign for democracy.


GERSHMAN: In the Westminster Address, which was one of the most important speeches of Reagan’s presidency, the President recalled a marker in the center of Warsaw, showing that the distances from Warsaw to Moscow and Warsaw to Brussels are equal. The sign, he said, makes this point: Poland is not East or West. Poland is at the center of European civilization. Remember that the speech was given only months after the imposition of martial law, when Solidarity’s struggle for democracy and against totalitarianism was on everyone’s mind. When the President said that “optimism comes less easily today, not because democracy is less vigorous, but because democracy's enemies have refined their instruments of repression,” his point of reference was martial law and the suppression of Solidarity. He added that optimism is still “in order, because day by day democracy is proving itself to be a not-at-all-fragile flower.” But it needs cultivating, he emphasized, and that’s why America must take actions to assist the struggle for democracy.


GAZETA WYBORCZA: In 1983, the US Congress, at Ronald Reagan’s initiative, passed the National Endowment for Democracy Act, authorizing funding for the NED. You have been its president from day one—for almost 32 years. While at the time of NED’s birth, spreading democracy across the countries of the Soviet bloc seemed like a lofty and even unrealistic goal, in 1989, when communism collapsed, democracy appeared to be unstoppable. Today we are learning that democracy is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Were we then naive, or stupid?


GERSHMAN: The euphoria of those early days produced a lot of illusions. Democracy appeared to be triumphant and inevitable, as you say, and many thought that it would advance almost automatically. Many also assumed that the welcoming attitude in a pro-American country like Poland toward US support for democracy was typical of attitudes in other countries and regions. This, of course, was not the case, as we now know. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a painful reminder that history had not ended, but that we had simply taken a short vacation from it. The attacks made clear that America and democracy itself have enemies, and that we can’t take democratic progress for granted. 


Did we anticipate the potential for reverses? The answer is “yes.”  Samuel Huntington, a good friend of the NED, provided a theoretical framework for anticipating a coming reversal in his book The Third Wave that was published in 1991, a decade before 9/11. There he notes that each of the first two waves of democratization was followed by what he called a “reverse wave.”


The first democratic wave started with the American Revolution and continued with the spread of democracy to Europe, Australia and New Zealand, until it ended in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. As we know all too well, the war was followed in the 1920s and 1930s by the rise of Nazism, Fascism and Communism. This was the first reverse wave when democracy’s existence and the very idea of democracy were threatened. This led to a second terrible war there were massive civilian casualties—the Holocaust and what Tim Snyder has written about his book Bloodlands. But with the defeat of the Axis powers and then decolonization, democracy expanded once again. This is what Huntington called the second wave of democratic expansion, when democracy spread to India and other former colonies in Asia and Africa, as well as to parts of Latin America.


But democracy failed in many African and Latin American countries. The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of “third world” dictatorships, and the US turned isolationist after its defeat in Vietnam. When democracy was also suspended in India in 1975, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had been the US Ambassador to India and was one of America’s great public intellectuals, wrote in the bicentennial issue of The Public Interest that “Democracy is where the world was – not where the world is going.”


Ironically, it was at that very moment when democracy’s third wave, as Huntington later called it, was born in Portugal and Spain, where dictatorships fell and a process of democratic transition was just getting underway. This process spread to Latin America, Asia, and Africa, culminating in the peaceful democratic revolutions in Central Europe in 1989. 


So, according to Huntington’s analysis, a third reverse wave should not have come as a surprise. In fact, I think that such a reversal is now upon us with the rise of Putin and Russia’s growing aggressiveness in its immediate neighborhood and also in Syria; with China bullying all of its neighbors in the South China Sea, while it cracks down harshly on lawyers, journalists and others within China, as well as on the Tibetan and Uyghur minorities; and with the rise of ISIS and the expansion of Iranian power in the imploding Middle East. But bad as this trend is, it is not as dangerous as the rise of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was in the 1930s. At the same time, I think it may actually be worse than the second reverse wave in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly because the West is in greater disarray today than it was then.


Is such backsliding inevitable? Perhaps. When you have significant democratic expansion, it is often very difficult to consolidate the gains. And of course there are people in the world who strongly oppose and feel threatened by the spread of democratic values, and so they push back. Certainly the Orange Revolution in Ukraine alarmed Putin and his KGB friends, and I think you can trace the start of the third reverse wave to the backlash in Russia when the regime started taking very harsh measures to crush civil society and to prevent any similar uprisings taking place in Russia and the countries of its near abroad. Since then the backlash has only gotten worse.


GAZETA WYBORCZA: Why do you think this is happening?


GERSHMAN: The reasons are numerous and complex. One factor of course has been the reaction to Bush Administration’s war on terror, the invasion of Iraq above all. In reaction to that period, America has pulled back and sharply disengaged from world geopolitics—too much so, in my opinion. Stephen Sestanovich has written an important book called Maximalist that traces the ebbs and flows of American international engagement since World War II. He identifies Truman as a maximalist, along with Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, and George W. Bush. The minimalists, or proponents of disengagement to one degree or another, were Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, and now Obama. The difference today, though, is that the current disengagement trend is more radical than ever before. This may be because the Cold War is over and there is no longer a clear geostrategic threat that can generate a strong national consensus for international engagement. Huntington was prescient here, too. In an essay he wrote in 1993, he said that a world without US leadership—he called it US “primacy,”—would be a world with more violence and disorder—and less democracy and economic growth—than a world where the US continued to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs.


In effect, he was saying that US leadership is a good thing. I agree with that, but there is a strong body of opinion in this country that strongly rejects this idea. There are many people who believe that the US creates more problems than it solves if it tries to be too engaged and take on too many responsibilities for preserving world order. We’re now in the midst of what you might call a laboratory experiment on this issue, and I think the evidence is in. There is no question in my mind that America’s withdrawal has done more harm than good. US power and a favorable geostrategic balance do matter for peace and democracy. It’s difficult to imagine that the agreement to end apartheid in South Africa or to end military rule in South Korea—two milestones of the third wave—would have happened if US influence had not been strong at the time and communism had not been in retreat. Because there was less fear of communism, so-called “friendly tyrant” regimes were willing to take more risks in accommodating pressures for democratic change. It’s much harder to promote democratic openings today when so many countries are nervously circling the wagons. I believe that US disengagement—call it retreat, if you wish—has a lot to do with that.


When the only democratic superpower reduces its global presence and influence, regional adversaries will fill the vacuum. President Obama himself said as much when he told the United Nations General Assembly in 2014 that US disengagement posed a danger for the world since it would create a vacuum that no other democratic country would be able to fill. So it is no surprise that the vacuum that now exists because of US disengagement is being filled by resurgent autocracies, above all Russia, China, and Iran.  The migrant crisis that is causing such trauma in Europe is the direct result of this retreat, which has allowed the war in Syria to grow and the Assad regime, aided by Russia and Iran, to pulverize the rebels, leading to some 300,000 deaths and millions of refugees.


GAZETA WYBORCZA: So is the situation hopeless?


GERSHMAN: No, I don’t think so, principally for three reasons.  The first is that the autocracies have their own problems. They face a legitimacy crisis. They are terrified of popular rebellions like the Tiananmen uprising or the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine.  These uprisings have met with harsh repression, but they nonetheless demonstrate the continuing appeal of the democratic idea. Authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing frequently point to the danger of “colored revolutions.” Their fear of such uprisings betrays their lack of confidence, because while they can marshal force to repress democratic movements, they know that they rule without democratic legitimacy and that their power is not secure, and their stability lacks resilience. 


The only legitimacy they have is based on their economic performance, and here they are not doing very well today. That’s the second reason there’s hope. The China model has lost its luster with the crash of the Shanghai stock market, record capital outflows, severe problems of air pollution and water contamination, rising levels of corruption and inequality, and an inability to undertake any real economic reform, such as ending corrupt and inefficient state monopolies in critical sectors. The economic crisis in Russia is even worse, and it’s deepened by the sanctions over Ukraine, as well as by the sharp drop in the price of oil, which has also affected Iran and Venezuela. So dictatorships are also in crisis today, not just democracies. But the global tide won’t turn if democracy has few advocates and democratic countries are mired in internal troubles.


This is why the resilience and determination of civil society—the third reason for hope—is so important. Activists in backsliding and repressive authoritarian countries are showing extraordinary courage, just like Solidarity under martial law. I have in mind, for example, bloggers in Ethiopia, journalists in Azerbaijan, the “umbrella” movement in Hong Kong, students in Venezuela, and lawyers and human rights defenders in China. It amazes me that in Russia, where the government has passed harsh NGO laws and democratic figures like Boris Nemtsov have been murdered, activists have continued to work fearlessly to expose kleptocracy and to offer independent news and information to counter the regime’s steady drumbeat of nationalist propaganda. These examples are just the tip of a massive iceberg of civic activism that exists in all regions of the world and that may now be preparing the way for new democratic breakthroughs in the future.


GAZETA WYBORCZA: What should the West do to support democracy?


GERSHMAN: Despite—and because of—all the problems on both sides of the ocean, it is absolutely necessary to reinvigorate transatlantic relations. Zbigniew Brzezinski once said that Putin is doing us a favor by reminding us about Russia’s imperialistic ambitions. Putin is playing it cleverly, particularly in the Middle East. But as I said, we should not overestimate his strength or ignore his own deep vulnerabilities. That’s why the challenges today are not like they were in the 1930s with the rise of Nazism.  Still, if democracy appears weak and divided, and the liberal idea has few defenders, there will be an opening for nationalistic and autocratic tendencies. We are troubled by some evidence of this taking place in Central Europe.


GAZETA WYBORCZA: How then to revive the liberal idea?


GERSHMAN: I come back to my concern about the need for US leadership. We have to recover our will and confidence, to remember who we are as a country and why turning inward is so dangerous to our friends and to ourselves. Sometimes we need a wake-up call like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 to notice that two vast oceans don’t always give us the luxury of looking the other way when a storm is gathering far from our shores. The US has the capacity to act, but I worry that anger, and not clear thinking, is dominating the national conversation today. On the Left, it is anger about growing inequality; on the Right, it’s anger about America’s decline. That is why we suddenly have Sanders and Trump running surprisingly strong campaigns, even though neither, in my view, has viable policies.


GAZETA WYBORCZA: What have we learned from recent democratic setbacks?


GERSHMAN: Today we understand much better than before how difficult it is to build and maintain liberal societies that value tolerance and respect rights. We recognize more clearly that there are forces that will try to undermine liberal democracy, both from within and from outside. From my many conversations with friends in Central and Eastern Europe, I know that, until quite recently, they worried mostly about Putin’s efforts from the outside to destabilize democracy. But they are now coming to appreciate that democratic culture must also be buttressed from within.


Hopefully there is a greater realization that democracy can never be taken for granted. It requires constant outreach to all the people, especially to those who feel excluded or looked down upon by the elites. It doesn’t suffice just to decry populism. You have to find ways to let all the people know that they count, that they are equal citizens. And this is everyone’s job. I have to do that in running the NED. If I don’t pay attention to everyone, I’ll have problems, and I’ll deserve to have them. Just imagine how complex this is on the level of running a country. I do not underestimate how hard it is to preserve and nurture liberal values in the face of external problems like Putin, the global financial crisis, and terrorism. People are afraid, and it creates an opening for those who exploit fear. But it’s not enough to just call them demagogues. It’s necessary to offer a compelling alternative, with responsible and realistic policies. Of course it’s also necessary to challenge demagogues and refute their populist arguments. And in new and fragile democracies, it’s especially important to resist attempts to rewrite the rules of the political game and erase institutional checks and balances. There has to be trust that everyone will play by the rules.


GAZETA WYBORCZA: Vaclav Havel always worried that the established democracies of the West were unable to understand certain threats because they had never lived under communism. And that ignorance, in turn, led to complacency. He even blamed himself for not making it clear to his own nation. The younger generation in the post-communist space may suffer from the same affliction.


GERSHMAN: That’s why it is absolutely essential to talk to and educate young people, which is why teachers are so important. I had the pleasure of knowing the great philosopher Sidney Hook.  In his book The Hero in History, he said that “the true hero of democracy…should be not the soldier or the political leader, great as their services may be, but the teacher – the Jeffersons, Holmeses, Deweys, Whitmans, and all others who have given the people vision, method, and knowledge.”


My friend, George Weigel, the biographer of John Paul II, convincingly reminds us, most recently in a wonderful book about Krakow entitled City of Saints, that the future pope’s convictions grew out of the struggle for freedom against Communism, and he did so much to defend and restore the values of freedom and human dignity. It may be true that it’s tougher to foster strong democratic convictions when you don’t have a clear enemy. But I hope that threats are not needed to develop a passion for democracy. You need education—and probably also religion. I worry that as Western societies become increasingly secular, it will be harder to nurture democratic conviction.


You mentioned Havel, who said at a meeting we held in Ukraine in 2009, years before Putin became as aggressively nationalistic as he is today, that sacrificing political values for short-term economic interests would not just be immoral but also “suicidal.” He worried about the cynicism and complacency of modern societies, and increasingly in his later years he traced these moral weaknesses to the death of religion, which he felt would separate modern man, as he said, from “his transcended anchor…the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect.” Leszek Kolakowski shared this concern. He thought religion was a restraint on humanity’s dangerous propensity to greed and materialism and warned that “The survival of our religious heritage is the condition for the survival of civilization.” I’m fully aware that religion can be abused, and it’s certainly not the NED’s job to promote a religious awakening. But recognizing this dimension of the problem may help us appreciate how difficult it will be to revive democratic conviction and an ethic of individual and social responsibility.


GAZETA WYBORCZA: So you worry about democratic societies, though I guess your efforts are not aimed at such countries.


GERSHMAN: We are supposed to be working in four groups of countries: dictatorships, semi-authoritarian states, emerging democracies, and countries such as Afghanistan and Bosnia that are trying to heal the wounds of violent conflict. However, we’re now discussing whether we should revisit the question of working in democracies that are at risk. South Africa’s democracy is experiencing terrible problems, and a lot of our friends of Hungary have urged us to start thinking about ways we can help reverse the backsliding there.


GAZETA WYBORCZA: So, to sum up, is democracy in retreat?


GERSHMAN: It is clearly in recession, to use an economic term, but the decline, such as it is, is not severe enough to call it a depression. According to the Freedom House survey, the number of electoral democracies in the world today is 125, which is the highest number ever. So, yes, while there’s a reverse wave and growing authoritarian power and repression, we need to keep the problem in perspective. Many people feared that many democracies would collapse as a result of the economic crisis of 2008, but democracies showed unexpected resilience. Also, last year there were significant gains as a result of elections in a number of countries, among them Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Argentina, Burma, and Venezuela. So we shouldn’t get too discouraged.


There are no quick or magic bullet solutions to counter the authoritarian resurgence. The effort to counter the autocrats’ growing repression must be continued and expanded. Given, for instance, the assault on media freedom, the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the US Congress, in a bipartisan fashion, is considering how to reform our international broadcasting to counter the information offensive that is being waged by Russia and other autocracies. At the same time, we have to remember that democracy must come from within—it cannot be exported or imposed.


We have published a book called Democracy in Decline? We can debate whether “retreat” is a better term. Democracy certainly has seen better times. The world does not consist only of angels, and the lion rarely lies down with the lamb. I support democracy because I believe it is the best way to contain violent conflict and the human propensity to do evil. That is what the founders of our republic knew, and that is why they built a system of checks and balances, to safeguard liberal freedoms against these tendencies. We have to do a much better job of fostering the idea of democratic solidarity, so that people here in America understand that our support for freedom abroad also safeguards our own democracy. But to build alliances based on common democratic values is easier said than done. How can we do it without overreaching or while showing proper respect for the legitimate rights and interests of others? We don’t always do that as well as we should.


I frequently quote the famous anti-slavery abolitionist Wendell Phillips who said that “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” As I’ve said, that means we can’t take freedom for granted. To me it also means that we need to recognize our own weaknesses, even as we remain firm in the defense of core principles. The human capacity to do evil means that bad people can grow stronger when the good people become self-deluded and complacent. 


GAZETA WYBORCZA: Ronald Reagan said in 1982 that democracy is “not-at-all-fragile flower.” He might have overstated the flower’s resiliency.


GERSHMAN: But at least he knew that the flower requires constant support and constant tending, with weeding and fencing off the jungle that threatens it both from within and without.


This interview originally appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza. It has been republished with permission. 

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