Democracy in Retreat

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the threat of a nuclear Iran, and China’s maritime ambitions are just a few of the issues that will make foreign policy a larger issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. As candidates assemble their advisers and get briefed, they should devote some time to considering whether these challenges to US allies and interests are related to a larger phenomenon.

In a recent article for the Journal of Democracy, Robert Kagan traced democracy’s advance and retreat over time, asking whether the triumph or failure of democratic ideals over ideological rivals has to do with “the victory of an idea or the victory of arms?”

Since President Obama took office in 2009, Kagan writes, the US, and Europe, have failed to counteract a worldwide decline in democracy. “Insofar as there is energy in the international system,” Kagan writes, “it comes from the great power autocrats.”

Freedom House agrees. Its 2015 “Freedom in the World” survey reported a ninth-straight year of democratic losses. The problem is one of quality as well as quantity, according to Arch Puddington, Freedom House’s vice president for research. Shedding the “quasi-democratic camouflage” they donned when liberal values unquestionably held sway, the autocrats “now increasingly flout democratic values, argue for the superiority of what amounts to one-party rule, and seek to throw off the constraints of fundamental diplomatic principles.” As an example, Puddington cites the invasion of Ukraine, which “exposed Moscow as a committed enemy of European peace and democratization rather than a would-be strategic partner.”

The growing challenge to the democratic ideal by the “big five” authoritarian regimes—China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela—is the focus of a project on “Resurgent Dictatorship” by the National Endowment for Democracy. These countries, says the NED, share a desire to overturn democratic norms. To do so, they are helping each other to refine repressive methods, manipulate the media, and undermine the international organizations set up to safeguard a liberal world order.

“It is autocracy, not democracy, that has been the norm in human history,” Kagan writes. “Only in recent decades have the democracies, led by the United States, had the power to shape the world.

It’s not at all clear that the US is willing to exert that power, or who of among the rapidly growing presidential field would most compellingly explain the need to do so.

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