Western Paralysis and Retreat Threatens Democratic Progress

Democracy is being challenged today as never before since the end of the Cold War. Freedom House has recorded ten consecutive years during which democracy and human rights have declined in more countries than it has advanced. There have been setbacks and backsliding in countries as diverse as Thailand, Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, and of course in Russia and China as well. 

Certainly one of the reasons for the perception that democracy is in decline is the failure of the Arab Spring. Five years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, there was hope that what was called the Arab Spring might translate into democratic gains in the one region that had been by-passed by the third wave of democratization two decades earlier. But as we know, the Arab Spring quickly turned into an Arab Winter.

In Egypt, there was blame to go around—from the military and the deeply entrenched state bureaucracy that never had any intention of allowing a real transition, to the over-reaching and illiberal Islamists, the fractious secular parties, and civil society groups that were unable to make the transition from street protest to meaningful political action. None of these participants appreciated the need to build consensus on core constitutional principles and democratic reforms, and so, instead of finding a way to build coalitions to move forward, the process descended into a zero-sum struggle for power. 

With the exception of Tunisia and Morocco, the failure occurred across the region. A recent report in The Economist described the Middle East today as “more benighted than ever.” Sisi’s regime in Egypt is now more repressive than Mubarak’s; state institutions have collapsed in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen; there is growing sectarian violence fed by the regional contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia; and of course there is the rise of ISIS and international terrorism, which has not only undermined hopes for democratic change in the Middle East, but has given autocrats in the region and beyond a new argument to justify strong-arm rule. It has also led many in the West to conclude—wrongly, in my view—that efforts to advance democracy in the Middle East will encourage instability and harm Western security interests in the region.

Perhaps most troubling has been the geopolitical retreat of the West that has opened the way to the emergence of ISIS and other dangerous developments, among them Iran’s expanding influence in the Arab world, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine and his reassertion of Russian power in the Middle East for the first time since Sadat cut Egypt’s military ties with the Soviet Union after the 1973 war, and not least, China’s brazen assertion of power in the South China Sea. 

The effect on democracy of the deteriorating geopolitical context has been worsened by a pervasive moral and political crisis in the West. The crisis is partly the result of an extended period of economic stagnation that was triggered by the global financial crisis of 2008 but is rooted in systemic problems, among them increasing indebtedness and large budget deficits, uncontrolled entitlement spending, and growing inequality. There is also a crisis of political dysfunction, exemplified in the United States by political polarization and declining trust in government, and by the rise here and in Europe of a new populism that exploits grievance, fear, and frustration. These developments have undermined democracy’s standing and credibility internationally and have emboldened the opponents of liberal democracy, who are rushing to fill the vacuums created by Western paralysis and retreat.

The growing projection of hard power by Russia, China, and Iran, and the increased threat of terrorism, have obscured an equally important expansion of authoritarian soft power in the areas of information, communications technology, ideas, and culture where the advanced democracies had been thought to have had a natural advantage.

Globalization was always considered to be a favorable context for the expansion of democracy and liberal values. Indeed, it was assumed in the aftermath of the Cold War that the West could encourage the liberalization of countries like Russia and China by engaging them and integrating them into the liberal international order. Many believed that the attractions of our culture and life-style, and the impact of the global economy, would inevitably open up autocratic systems.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Against all expectations, these authoritarian countries have not liberalized but have grown more repressive, and far from being changed by efforts to integrate them into the liberal world order, they are subverting and destroying that order to advance their own interests and anti-democratic values.

At the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) we have called this phenomenon “resurgent authoritarianism” and have just come out with a book of essays on the subject called Authoritarianism Goes Global. It explains how a number of autocracies—in particular Russia, China, and Iran—have developed new tools and strategies in a number of areas to contain the spread of democracy and to challenge the democracy agenda on different fronts in the “soft power” battle of ideas. 

One of these fronts is civil society. Over the last four years, 120 laws that repress and control civil society have been passed in sixty countries—a remarkable commonality over an immensely broad international spectrum. These are laws that seek to frustrate, undermine, and prohibit the activities of democratic civil society groups and individual activists, who are often labeled “foreign agents” and a “fifth column.” Russia last year declared NED, the Open Society Foundations, the National Democratic Institute and other organizations “undesirable” and have threatened NGOs that receive support from such international organizations with severe legal penalties. A new law in China puts foreign and local NGOs under the control of the Public Security Bureau, meaning that they are being treated as a security risk. 

The goal here is to preemptively block what the autocrats call “colored revolutions,” which are popular uprisings like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Green Revolution in Iran. They hope to do this by cutting civil society groups off from international assistance and placing them under very tight political control. 

Information and media are a second front in this battle. As Anne Applebaum and Edward Lucas have noted, autocrats seek to exploit the declining influence of major Western media outlets and the proliferation of online information that makes it harder for people to judge accuracy of news. Russia, China, and Iran are investing heavily in the production of alternative models—RT and Sputnik in the case of Russia, along with a huge range of online vehicles that include “news” websites, information portals, trolls. China has expanded the international reach through its Xinhua state news agency, China Central TV (CCTV), and Confucius Institutes. For its part, Iran is expanding its broadcasting in Spanish over HispanTV, in English over PressTV, and in French, Arabic, Urdu and other languages over its Sahar network.

Peter Pomerantsev has described the Russian propaganda effort as “the weaponization of information.” Instead of trying to promote the regime’s political line, which was the purpose of Soviet propaganda during the Cold War, its goal now is to undermine the institutions of the West by destroying the credibility of all information. According to Applebaum and Lucas, the Russians encourage cynicism, fear and distrust by spreading scare stories about immigrants and portraying the West as racist and xenophobic. They push the notion that 9/11 was an inside job, that the Zika virus was created by the CIA, and that a German woman had been raped by a Muslim refugee—a phony story that blew up into a scandal and forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to ask German intelligence to investigate the nature and scope of Russian propaganda. Russian outlets have also circulated a variety of fake stories about the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH 17 by pro-Russian rebels, including one claiming it was shot down by Ukrainian forces who thought that Putin was on the plane.  

Such propaganda casts the European Union and NATO as aggressors and is often picked up by groups on both the far left and right. By fomenting confusion about the Euromaidan uprising and the alleged fascism of the protesters, it helped prepare the way for the Russia invasion of Ukraine and was a factor in the recent referendum in the Netherlands when Dutch voters disapproved the association agreement between the Ukraine and the EU.  

NED is also a target. For example, a fraudulent letter has been circulating online over the last year purporting to show a USAID official asking that NED “revise plans” to use NGOs in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to recruit people for ISIS, warning of a possible Congressional investigation and media controversy. The letter, undoubtedly the work of Russian trolls, has been picked up by a number of Russian online platforms. 

A third soft power front involves an effort to counter international democratic and human rights norms in key rules-based institutions such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as bodies concerned with the governance of the Internet. The goal is to replace established norms contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants with alternative norms based on unrestricted state sovereignty and justifying harsh measures against political and ethnic dissidents, who are often called terrorists. 

The autocrats have created their own international organizations to advance authoritarian norms globally. Organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which Turkey’s President Erdogan recently said that he prefers to the European Union), the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Eurasian Economic Union work to institutionalize principles that prioritize state sovereignty over human rights concerns. They reinforce domestic repression by helping dictators share techniques of political control and watch lists of dissidents, and they promote state cooperation in the repatriation of dissidents and the cross-border abduction of individuals targeted by security agencies. Just last month dozens of Taiwanese citizens working in Kenya and Malaysia were deported to China, and there have also been cross-border abductions by Chinese authorities of Chinese dissidents in Thailand and booksellers in Hong Kong who sold books critical of China.

Autocratic regimes are also trying to undermine global election norms by stacking international monitoring delegations with what are quaintly called “zombie” monitors who sign off on fraudulent elections. For example, such pseudo-monitors were used to legitimize deeply flawed election processes in Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, and Venezuela in 2013.

Another arena of soft power competition is cyberspace. Popular sentiment has long held that authoritarian regimes were technologically challenged dinosaurs that could not keep up with online activity and would inevitably be weeded out by the information age. But these regimes are proving much more adaptable than expected. According to a recent statement of the World Movement for Democracy, a global civil society network, authoritarian regimes have prioritized control of cyberspace, developed methods to exert that control, and martialed the resources needed to back their initiatives. National level Internet controls are now deeply entrenched, and authoritarian states are becoming more assertive internationally and regionally, promoting cyber security policies that emphasize concepts of state security at the expense of human rights. They have access to the most sophisticated tools to conduct digital attacks and espionage, to exert digital control over their own populations, and to combat dissent originating beyond their borders.   

In sum, the authoritarians are no longer content just to contain democracy. They’re now trying to roll it back, and the West has been caught off-guard. This is not the first time that democracy has been put on the defensive and that its prospects have appeared to be bleak. In 1976, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a special bicentennial edition of The Public Interest that “Democracy is where the world was, not where the world is going.” He said that in the aftermath of the US defeat in Vietnam, the suspension of democracy in India (he had just been the US ambassador there), the fall of many democracies in Latin America, and the rise of “third-world nationalism” and anti-Americanism in the Non-Aligned Movement and other international fora. 

Yet as we now know, this bleak moment coincided with what Samuel Huntington was later to identify as the start of the Third Wave of Democratization, which he said in his book by that name was triggered by the fall of the military dictatorship in Portugal on April 25, 1974.  The Carnation Revolution, as it was called, was soon followed by Franco’s death and the transition in Spain, the spread of democracy across Latin America, the People’s Power Revolution in the Philippines, and the great revolutions of 1989 in Central Europe that signaled the end of the Cold War. This was the historic “third wave,” which was the greatest expansion of democracy in world history.

Is such a counter-intuitive reversal of negative trends possible today? Obviously this is something we can’t know. The current crisis of democracy may be more serious than the setbacks that occurred in the 1970s because US leadership and influence have declined more dramatically. Still, there are a number of reasons not to despair and perhaps even to be cautiously hopeful.

The first is that while the Freedom House annual survey, as mentioned earlier, charts a decline in freedom in many countries, it does not show a decline in the number of electoral democracies in the world, which has held roughly steady at 125, the post- third wave peak level. This is one of the reasons that political scientists like Larry Diamond speak of a “democracy recession” today and not a democracy depression or a “third reverse wave.”

Second, there have been a number of surprising advances for democracy. These include the successful presidential election in Nigeria last year, which surprised many people who feared that a stolen election, which they expected, would trigger a deadly civil war. Another key election was the upset victory in Argentina last November of the liberal reformer Mauricio Macri, which The New York Times called “a stunner that is likely to set in motion a transformational era at home and in the region.”  The defeat the following month in Venezuela of the Chavista party in parliamentary elections was also a major setback for illiberal populism in Latin America. 

In addition, the National League for Democracy’s victory in Burma’s elections last November, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was a major step forward. Likewise, the constitutional agreement and democratic election in Tunisia, a process led by the National Dialogue Quartet composed of four civil society organizations that won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, was also a remarkable achievement. Tunisia is now the first democracy in the Arab Middle East. Other positive developments included the surprising defeat in Sri Lanka in 2015 of the extreme Buddhist Nationalists in both presidential and parliamentary elections, and the successful elections in some smaller African countries like Burkina Faso and Cote D’Ivoire.

A third reason for cautious optimism is that the world’s resurgent autocrats do not sit securely on their thrones. Their repeated warnings about the danger of foreign-instigated “colored revolutions” is actually an implicit admission that what they fear most is the test of a real election that they might lose, knowing that the trigger for a colored revolution would be an attempt to reverse an unacceptable result. Putin’s regime in Russia recently adopted a slate of new draconian laws targeting the upcoming parliamentary elections in September. These laws impose harsher restrictions on monitors, and potentially popular opposition candidates like Alexei Navalny will be prohibited from running. In addition, Putin’s formation of a new praetorian guard of 400,000 military personnel under the command of his former personal body guard Viktor Zolotov, a move directed at heading off possible mass protests, is a further sign of regime insecurity. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a political dissident who continues to be active despite an attempt on his life last May, recently asked: “Does this really look like the behavior of a government that has, as it claims, ’89 percent’ popular support?”

Chinese President Xi also appears insecure in his power. He has greatly tightened political controls, making China more repressive today that at any time since the death of Mao. Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution in China, a period that is remembered by many as a time of chaos, mass violence (over one million people were killed and tens of millions were tortured and humiliated), and ideological madness. It has been called a “spiritual holocaust.” Yet Xi has promoted a cult of Mao and campaigned against “historical nihilism,” which is how he terms a critical assessment of Mao’s rule, for fear that public discussion of the Mao-led catastrophe might damage the legitimacy of the Communist Party. Xi has been the target of an open letter calling upon him to resign and a sharp remonstrance appearing on the website of the party’s own enforcement arm warning that his cult of personality has gone too far. Andy Nathan, who in the past has said that China’s party dictatorship has resilience, now writes that Xi’s regime “behaves as if it faces an existential threat.”

The Castro regime in Cuba also has reason to worry.  In the past it has based its legitimacy on standing up to the United States and “imperialism.” These ideological props no longer work after the normalization of relations with the United States, and the developments in Argentina and Venezuela make the Cuban dictatorship look increasingly anachronistic. The Castro regime has also increased repression—a sign that it, too, feels vulnerable and insecure. According to opposition leader Manuel Cuesta Morua, 100,000 Cubans have left the Communist Party since 2012. 

A fourth reason for cautious optimism is that the world’s poorest people have made unprecedented economic, health, and education advances during the last quarter of a century, a phenomenon documented by the Georgetown University development scholar Steven Radelet in his new book The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World. According to Radelet, one billion people have been lifted out of poverty since the early 1990s, reducing by half the number of extremely poor people in the world. The child mortality rate has also shrunk drastically, from 10 percent in 1990 to less than 5 percent today (it was 22 percent in 1960). Life expectancy has increased significantly, average incomes have almost doubled, and there have been enormous gains in education, especially for girls, 80 percent of whom now complete primary schools compared to only one-half in 1980. Radelet gives much of the credit for these gains to the expansion of democracy and the rule of law. These factors, in my view, also help account for the sustainability of those gains as measured by Freedom House and for the electoral breakthroughs, since people are much more likely to insist upon respect for their rights as citizens as social, educational, and economic standards rise.

The last reason for hope that I want to point to is the energy and resilience of civil society, not just in fragile new democracies and semi-open autocracies but also in backsliding and increasingly repressive authoritarian countries as well. In Africa they include bloggers in Ethiopia, youth activists and trade unionists in Zimbabwe, investigative journalists in Angola, and human rights defenders and peace activists in Burundi and the Congo, where leaders are dangerously trying to steal or block elections. In Russia, where democratic leaders like Boris Nemtsov have been murdered, activists continue to work fearlessly to expose elite corruption, defend human rights, and offer independent news and information to counter the regime’s steady drumbeat of nationalist propaganda. In China, despite the harsh political crackdown, a Freedom House study reports that more people are joining rights-defense activities, information is spreading despite censorship, the fear of repression is waning, and the disillusionment with party corruption is growing. These examples are just the tip of a massive iceberg of civic activism that exists in all regions of the world and that may at this very moment be preparing the way for new democratic breakthroughs in the future.

We cannot know if a new democratic wave will occur in the foreseeable future. But there are three fundamental things that need to be done to renew democratic progress and momentum. The first is to acknowledge—and try to reverse—the authoritarian resurgence. Congress has awarded NED special funding to develop and implement a strategic plan to address some of the negative trends noted previously, and the Endowment is beginning to carry out that plan, even as the plan continues to be refined as conditions warrant. There is an important role in this effort for private foundations and organizations, both in the US and abroad, and the NED looks forward to working with others and deepening collaboration.

The US government—both the Administration and Congress—must also do more to integrate political support for civil society and democratic freedoms into its regular bi-lateral and multilateral diplomacy, to strenuously defend democratic norms in international and regional rules-based bodies, and to strengthen US capacity in the area of information and international broadcasting. It was a regrettable error to abolish the United States Information Agency (USIA) 15 years ago, but some of the damage can be repaired if Congress passes legislation that is now before it to reform and strengthen US public diplomacy as well as the surrogate radios like RFE/RL that provide alternative news to populations targeted by authoritarian media operations.

The second priority is to restore US leadership in the defense of the liberal world order that is essential for democratic progress, economic growth, and political stability in the world. Such leadership will require a new vision of political and economic cooperation in a globalized world. But that will not be enough.  It will also require a new international realism based on the recognition that diplomacy will be ineffective if it is not backed up by power and credible military deterrence. The new realism should also recognize that while engagement with dictatorial regimes is necessary, the US should never conflate a regime that rules without popular consent with the people of a country, or fall into the mirror-image trap of thinking that dictators act according to the same moral and strategic calculus as democratically-elected leaders. Nor should US leaders assume that engagement by itself will produce liberal change if it is not accompanied by significant and sustained human rights pressure and conditionality. No one today proposes that the United States should remake the world in its own image. But that doesn’t mean that the US shouldn’t support people who share our values and need our help.

Finally, it has become increasingly clear that the US must rebalance the need to promote global trade with the need to protect American manufacturing jobs, particularly against imports from non-democratic and low-wage countries. Bill Galston rightly pointed out recently in The Wall Street Journal that we need to make more “aggressive use of anti-dumping provisions in existing trade provisions.” 

The third priority is to restore our country’s sense of purpose in the world and to reaffirm America’s founding values that have done so much to inspire and influence the growth of democracy in the world. When Abraham Lincoln stopped at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on his inaugural journey to Washington in February 1861, he remarked that he had “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” the sentiments involving the equality and unalienable rights of all human beings. He said that he had often inquired of himself “what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together,” and he concluded that it was “that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, for the world, for all future time.” 

That is the source of America’s greatness, and that greatness will not be restored just by loudly proclaiming that America needs to be great again, especially when that call is accompanied by a rejection of the idea that democratic values are universal and that US ideals and interests are served by trying to advance them beyond the established democracies of the West.  

As a matter of fact, with the democratic West absorbed as it is today in its own problems, the effort to advance democracy is being led not by the West but by the global democracy movement—the people and organizations on the ground in one country after another in the global south and post-communist world who are fighting to defend their rights and human dignity. It is there—more than in the West today—that one hears the language of democratic solidarity and universal human rights. It is my hope that by linking young Americans and Europeans with young activists and others fighting for fundamental rights and freedoms in the non-Western countries of the world, this might spark a revival of democratic commitment in the Western countries where democracy, after many trials, first took root. 

It is ironic that the United States and other Western countries should need democratic inspiration from the very people they should be helping. But that will encourage humility, a virtue that will be needed in abundance as we try to respond effectively to the immense challenges that lie ahead in a dangerous and complex world. 


Carl Gershman is the President of the National Endowment for Democracy.  This article is based on the John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture delivered in New York to the Foreign Policy Association on May 17, 2016.

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