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The Great Democracy Meltdown

Why the world is becoming less free.

As the revolt that started this past winter in Tunisia spread to Egypt, Libya, and beyond, dissidents the world over were looking to the Middle East for inspiration. In China, online activists inspired by the Arab Spring called for a “jasmine revolution.” In Singapore, one of the quietest countries in the world, opposition members called for an “orchid evolution” in the run-up to this month’s national elections. Perhaps as a result, those watching from the West have been positively triumphalist in their predictions. The Middle East uprisings could herald “the greatest advance for human rights and freedom since the end of the cold war,” argued British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Indeed, at no point since the end of the cold war—when Francis Fukuyama penned his famous essay The End of History, positing that liberal democracy was the ultimate destination for every country—has there been so much optimism about the march of global freedom.

If only things were so simple. The truth is that the Arab Spring is something of a smokescreen for what is taking place in the world as a whole. Around the globe, it is democratic meltdowns, not democratic revolutions, that are now the norm. (And even countries like Egypt and Tunisia, while certainly freer today than they were a year ago, are hardly guaranteed to replace their autocrats with real democracies.) In its most recent annual survey, the monitoring group Freedom House found that global freedom plummeted for the fifth year in a row, the longest continuous decline in nearly 40 years. It pointed out that most authoritarian nations had become even more repressive, that the decline in freedom was most pronounced among the “middle ground” of nations—countries that have begun democratizing but are not solid and stable democracies—and that the number of electoral democracies currently stands at its lowest point since 1995. Meanwhile, another recent survey, compiled by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, spoke of a “gradual qualitative erosion” of democracy and concluded that the number of “highly defective democracies”—democracies so flawed that they are close to being failed states, autocracies, or both—had doubled between 2006 and 2010.

The number of anecdotal examples is overwhelming. From Russia to Venezuela to Thailand to the Philippines, countries that once appeared to be developing into democracies today seem headed in the other direction. So many countries now remain stuck somewhere between authoritarianism and democracy, report Marc Plattner and Larry Diamond, co-editors of the Journal of Democracy, that “it no longer seems plausible to regard [this condition] simply as a temporary stage in the process of democratic transition.” Or as an activist from Burma—long one of the world’s most repressive countries—told me after moving to Thailand and watching that country’s democratic system disintegrate, “The other countries were supposed to change Burma. ... Now it seems like they are becoming like Burma.”

Twenty or even ten years ago, the possibility of a global democratic recession seemed impossible. It was widely assumed that, as states grew wealthier, they would develop larger middle classes. And these middle classes, according to democracy theorists like Samuel Huntington, would push for ever-greater social, political, and economic freedoms. Human progress, which constantly marched forward, would spread democracy everywhere.

For a time, this rosy line of thinking seemed warranted. In 1990, dictators still ruled most of Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia; by 2005, democracies had emerged across these continents, and some of the most powerful developing nations, including South Africa and Brazil, had become solid democracies. In 2005, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s people lived under democratic systems.

Then, something odd and unexpected began to happen. It started when some of the leaders who had emerged in these countries seemed to morph into elected autocrats once they got into office. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez is now essentially an elected dictator. In Ecuador, elected President Rafael Correa, who has displayed a strong authoritarian streak, recently won legislation that would grant him expansive new powers. In Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who led the 2005 Tulip Revolution, soon proved himself nearly as authoritarian as his predecessor. And, in Russia, Vladimir Putin used the power he won in elections to essentially dismantle the country’s democracy.

But it wasn’t just leaders who were driving these changes. In some cases, the people themselves seemed to acquiesce in their countries’ slide away from free and open government. In one study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, only 16 percent of Russians said it was “very important” that their nation be governed democratically. The regular Afrobarometer survey of the African continent has found declining levels of support for democracy in many key countries. And in Guatemala, Paraguay, Colombia, Peru, Honduras, and Nicaragua, either a minority or only a small majority of people think democracy is preferable to any other type of government. Even in East Asia, one of the most democratic regions of the world, polls show rising dissatisfaction with democracy. In fact, several countries in the region have developed what Yu-tzung Chang, Yunhan Zhu, and Chong-min Park, who studied data from the regular Asian Barometer surveys, have termed “authoritarian nostalgia.” “Few of the region’s former authoritarian regimes have been thoroughly discredited,” they write, noting that the region’s average score for commitment to democracy, judged by a range of responses to surveys, has recently fallen.

But what about the middle class? Even if large segments of the population were uninterested in liberal democracy, weren’t members of the middle class supposed to act as agents of democratization, as Huntington had envisioned? Actually, the story has turned out to be quite a bit more complicated. In country after country, a familiar pattern has repeated itself: The middle class has indeed reacted negatively to populist leaders who appeared to be sliding into authoritarianism; but rather than work to defeat these leaders at the ballot box or strengthen the institutions that could hold them in check, they have ended up supporting military coups or other undemocratic measures.

Thailand offers a clear example of this phenomenon. In 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecommunications tycoon turned populist, was elected with the largest mandate in Thai history, mostly from the poor, who, as in many developing nations, still constitute a majority of the population. Over the next five years, Thaksin enacted several policies that clearly benefited the poor, including national health insurance, but he also began to strangle Thailand’s institutions, threatening reporters, unleashing a “war on drugs” that led to unexplained shootings of political opponents, and silencing the bureaucracy. In 2005, when the charismatic prime minister won another free election with an even larger mandate, the middle class revolted, demonstrating in the streets until they paralyzed Bangkok. Finally, in September 2006, the Thai military stepped in, ousting Thaksin. When I traveled around Bangkok following the coup, young, middle-class Thais, who a generation ago had fought against military rulers, were engaged in a love-in with the troops, snapping photos of soldiers posted throughout Bangkok like they were celebrities.

The middle class in Thailand had plenty of company. In 2001, urban Filipinos poured into the streets to topple President Joseph Estrada, a former actor who rose to power on his appeal to the poor, and then allegedly used his office to rake in vast sums of money from underworld gambling tycoons. In Honduras in 2009, middle-class opponents of populist President Manuel Zelaya began to protest his plans to extend his power by altering the constitution. When the military removed him in June of that year, the intervention was welcomed by many members of the urban middle class. An analysis of military coups in developing nations over the past two decades, conducted by my colleague David Silverman, found that, in nearly half of the cases—drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East—middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for the coup, or, after the takeover, expressed their support in polls or prominent press coverage.


Even as domestic politics in many developing nations has become less friendly to democratization, the international system too has changed, further weakening democratic hopes. The rising strength of authoritarian powers, principally China but also Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other states, has helped forestall democratization. Moscow and Beijing were clearly rattled by the “color revolutions” of the early and mid-2000s, and they developed a number of responses. First, they tried to delegitimize the revolts by arguing that they were not genuine popular movements but actually Western attempts at regime change. Then, in nations like Cambodia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova, Moscow and Beijing intervened directly in attempts to reverse democratic gains. The Kremlin’s youth group, Nashi, known for its aggressive tactics against democracy activists, launched branches in other Central Asian nations. In Kyrgyzstan, Russian advisers helped a series of leaders emulate the Kremlin’s model of political control. In part because of this Russian influence, “[p]arliamentary democracy in Kyrgyzstan has been hobbled,” according to the International Crisis Group. China and Russia even created new “NGOs” that were supposedly focused on democracy promotion. But these organizations actually offered expertise and funding to foreign leaders to help them forestall new color revolutions. In Ukraine, an organization called the “Russian Press Club,” run by an adviser to Putin, posed as an NGO and helped facilitate Russia’s involvement in Ukrainian elections.

But China and Russia are only part of the story. In many ways, the biggest culprits have actually been stable democracies. Consider the case of Myo, a Burmese publisher and activist who I met four years ago in a dingy noodle shop in Rangoon. The educated son of a relatively well-off Burmese family, he told me he had been working for a publishing company in Rangoon, but had to smuggle political messages into pieces he published in magazines that focused on safe topics like soccer or Burmese rap. “It’s kind of a game everyone here plays,” he explained, “but after a while it gets so tiring.”

When I next met Myo, it was in Thailand two years later. He’d finally grown weary of trying to get his writing past the censors and left for India, then for Thailand. “I’d heard that, before, India had been very welcoming to Burmese activists, particularly after 1988,” Myo said, referring to a period of anti-government rioting in Burma. At one time, Indian officials had assisted Burmese democracy activists, and India’s defense minister from 1998 to 2004 was George Fernandes, a prominent human rights advocate who even gave some Burmese exiles shelter in his family compound. By the time Myo came to India, however, Delhi had stopped criticizing the Burmese junta. Instead, it had reversed itself and was engaging the generals under a policy called “Look East.” When Than Shwe, the Burmese junta’s leader, paid a state visit to India, he was taken to the burial site of Mahatma Gandhi, a cruelly ironic juxtaposition that Amnesty International’s Burma specialist called “entirely unpalatable.” For Myo, India’s chilly new pragmatism was a shock. “I expected China to work with Burma,” he said. “But to see it from India, it was so much more disappointing.”

Like Myo, many Western officials had expected that stable developing-world democracies like India, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, and Turkey would emerge as powerful advocates for democracy and human rights abroad. But as they’ve gained power, these emerging democratic giants have acted more like cold-blooded realists. South Africa has for years tolerated Robert Mugabe’s brutal regime next door in Zimbabwe, and, in 2007, it even helped to block a U.N. resolution condemning the Burmese junta for human rights abuses. Brazil has cozied up to Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and to local autocrats like Cuba’s Castros. When a prominent Cuban political prisoner named Orlando Zapata Tamayo held a hunger strike and eventually died, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva seemed to ridicule Tamayo’s struggle, likening the activist to a criminal who was trying to gain publicity.

There are exceptions to this trend. Poland, for one, has used its influence to support reformers in other post-Soviet states like Belarus. But Poland is unusual, and by playing a limited—or hostile—role in international democracy promotion efforts, countries like South Africa or Brazil or Turkey have made it easier for autocratic leaders to paint democracy promotion as a Western phenomenon, and even to portray it as an illegal intervention.

Why have regional democratic powers opted for this course? It seems hard to believe that a country with, say, Brazil or South Africa’s experience of brutal tyranny could actively abet dictators in other nations. But it now appears that the notion of absolute sovereignty, promoted by authoritarian states like China, has resonated with these democratic governments. Many of these emerging democratic powers were leading members of the non-aligned movement during the cold war and weathered Western efforts to foment coups in their countries. Today, they feel extremely uncomfortable joining any international coalition that could undermine other nations’ sovereignty, even if potentially for good reason. And many of these countries, such as Turkey and Indonesia and India, may simply be eager to avoid criticism of their own internal human rights abuses.

Then there is the United States, still the most influential nation on earth. Its missteps, recently, have been serious. Barack Obama’s efforts to distance himself from the Bush administration—which greatly undermined America’s moral authority-have combined with the country’s weakened economic position to downgrade the importance of democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy. While Obama has delivered several speeches mentioning democracy, he has little obvious passion for the issue. When several prominent Iranian dissidents came to Washington in the summer of 2009, following the uprising in their country, they could not obtain meetings with any senior Obama administration officials. Rabeeya Kadeer, the Uighur version of the Dalai Lama, met with Bush in 2008 but found herself shunted off to low-level State Department officials by the Obama administration.

More substantively, the administration has shifted the focus of the federal bureaucracy. Though it has maintained significant budget levels for democracy promotion, it eliminated high-level positions on the National Security Council that, under Bush, had been devoted to democracy. The administration also appointed an assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor who in his previous work had been mostly focused on cleaning up America’s own abuses. This was not a bad thing—the Bush administration indeed left major issues to resolve—but it meant that he had far less experience than many of his predecessors with democracy promotion abroad.

To be fair, the White House has to grapple with an increasingly isolationist American public. In one poll taken in 2005, a majority of Americans said that the United States should play a role in promoting democracy elsewhere. By 2007, only 37 percent thought the United States should play this role. In a subsequent study, released in late 2009, nearly half of Americans told the Pew Research polling organization that the United States should “mind its own business” internationally and should let other nations work out their challenges or problems themselves. This was the highest percentage of isolationist sentiment recorded in a poll of the American public in four decades.


There is an obvious appeal to the constantly touted notion that the march of human freedom is inevitable. But not only is it simple-minded to treat history as a story with a preordained happy ending; it is also, for those who truly want to see democracy spread, extraordinarily dangerous. After all, if democracy is bound to triumph, then there’s no reason to work too hard at promoting it. This overconfidence can spread to developing nations themselves, lulling democrats into a false sense of security once an election has finally been held, and dissuading them from building the institutions that are necessary to keep a country free over the long-term. Democracy is not a simple thing: It’s a complex system of strong institutions and legal checks. Very few nations have mastered it fully. And sustaining it is a never-ending effort.

Stopping the global democratic reversal, then, will require giving up the assumption that democracy will simply happen on its own—and instead figuring out what we can do to promote it. At the most basic level, the United States can be much less abashed in its rhetorical advocacy of democracy and much more consistent. Condemning autocracy in places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—where the United States has significant strategic interests—would help to counteract the notion that democracy is merely a concept the West wields to serve its own geopolitical aims. In addition, the United States and its allies should do more to make democracy promotion pay off for emerging powers. New democratic giants, like Brazil, should be granted more power in international institutions like the United Nations—if, that is, they show a commitment to helping expand human rights and free government around the globe.

Right now, few of these lessons have been learned. Instead, we seem content to watch events unfold across the world and assume that things will work out for the best, because history is invariably headed in the direction of freedom. We should stop telling ourselves this comforting story and instead do what is needed to give democracy a fighting chance.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article originally ran in the June 9, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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