Unless we act fast, the world may have already reached “peak democracy.”
After World War II, there were only a few lonely democracies scattered across the West. This began to change dramatically in the 1980s, when most of Latin America joined that exclusive club. But most crucially, in the 1990s, the fall of the Soviet Union unleashed a rapid and broad expansion of democracy across the world. From Eastern Europe to sub-Saharan Africa, civil liberties rose as dictatorships fell.
That rosy trend has reversed. In each year since 2006, the world has become less democratic. We have now suffered more than a full decade of declines for global democracy.
At the same time, despots across the globe are becoming more authoritarian. Their abuses are becoming more brutal; their violations of democracy more egregious. From Turkey to Russia to Iran, ruthless regimes are steadfastly suffocating the dying gasps of pro-democracy reform movements in their societies. Indeed, in the last 11 years, 109 countries have seen a net decline in their level of democracy, according to the independent watchdog organization Freedom House.
The West–that hodgepodge of developed countries that embody liberal values, from Canada to the European Union to Japan—is partly to blame for the global recession of democracy. Misguided Western foreign policy, like backing friendly dictators, turning a blind eye to abuses of democracy, or actively toppling democratic regimes, hurt democracy in the long run. More recently, counterproductive foreign policy decisions have corresponded with the rise of illiberal populism.
Unfortunately, in the short term, the state of global democracy is going to get worse. US president Donald Trump certainly did not start the trend of democracy’s retreat, but his “America First” foreign policy guarantees its continued—and likely accelerated—global decline.
From democracy to autocracy and back again
To understand why we find ourselves in this perilous tipping point, we need to look at our foreign policy choices over the past several decades.
The United States and its Western allies have, at best, a checkered relationship with promoting democracy around the globe. During the Cold War, American foreign policy was far more concerned with finding friendly pro-West, anti-Soviet regimes than it was with finding democratic ones. Indeed, in de-classified memos, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger argued that the biggest threat to American interests was the “insidious model” of a legitimately elected democratic regime that supported the Kremlin instead of the US. As a result, from Iran to the Congo to Chile, the American government has actively intervened (often with the help of European allies) to overthrow democratically elected regimes at various points in history.
That calculation shifted when the Cold War ended. The Berlin Wall crumbled, and despotic regimes collapsed. Western foreign policy began to earnestly support democracy in a much stronger way. It was still imperfect, of course. But there was genuine, sustained diplomatic pressure exerted in an attempt to liberalize authoritarian states. The results were clear: The 1990s were so auspicious for the spread of democracy that Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama even claimed that the world was approaching ‘The End of History,” with democracy as the natural and inevitable endpoint of global development.
But we now live in a darker period for democracy. Certainly, the true culprits for democracy’s decline are dictators and despots, along with “counterfeit democrats”—those authoritarian wolves like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines or Viktor Orban in Hungary who cloak themselves in the façade of democratic sheepskins to gain political legitimacy.
They deserve the overwhelming blame. They have organized and executed a heist against democracy, from Turkey to Thailand and Azerbaijan to Afghanistan. But when you look closely, it’s clear that the West has often been driving their getaway car.
How the West acts as an accomplice to despots
First, there’s what I call the “Saudi Arabia effect.” The West—with America at the helm—has, for decades, cozied up to awful, abusive authoritarian regimes out of geopolitical expediency. The United States knows that it is being two-faced, praising democracy publicly while inking arms deals with emirs and despots under the table. But the West proceeds nonetheless because it perceives some despotic regimes as key strategic allies. The same hard-nosed realpolitik calculation is made with many countries across the world, even though that type of global diplomacy inhibits democracy and empowers authoritarian regimes.
Second, increasingly since the 1990s, Western governments set laughably low standards for what constitutes “democracy.” This serves as a counterproductive incentive for cynical leaders to do only the bare minimum—to simply appear democratic. This allows Western governments to accept deeply flawed counterfeit democracies so that they can work with them in seemingly good conscience. I call this the “curse of low expectations.”
In Madagascar, a few years ago, I met with the head of a political party who told me:
“Unlike the other parties, we are a party of values.”
“Okay,” I responded, “which values?”
A look of panic crossed his face.
“I left the values in the car. Someone go get the values for the American.”
This was a carefully choreographed charade gone wrong. He was trying desperately to play the part of an ostensibly committed democrat. He was expecting me to play the part of the Westerner waiting eagerly to see just enough glimmers of democracy. The problem, though, is that the more than 100 regimes around the world trapped between pure dictatorship and genuine democracy have no meaningful political competition, and no meaningful input from the people.
Nonetheless, the West often calls elections “free and fair” when they are not (which I saw firsthand in Madagascar) and often labels countries as democracies when they are not. In Azerbaijan’s 2013 election, US Congressional representatives even praised an election where the results were accidentally released on an iPhone app before voting took place.
Counterfeit democrats get foreign aid and political legitimacy that should only be conferred to genuine democrats. Yet that low bar for what counts as democracy, paradoxically, ensures that leaders in the developing world have absolutely no incentive to ever build a real democratic government.
The last issue is the botched Western military interventions that purported to be in support of democracy—particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Libya. These misguided efforts have given despots a gift of plausibility when they crack down on pro-democracy activists, foreign NGOs, and human rights organizations. Because America and its closest allies claimed to be invading those countries in the name of democracy, despots use those examples as a pretext to purge pro-democracy reformers.
Despots often falsely claim that any pro-democracy agenda is a Trojan horse, a ploy to craftily achieve the West’s true goal: regime change by force. Paradoxically, then, misguided and failed interventions in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have given anti-democratic forces key rhetorical ammunition to justify their authoritarian rule. And in the West, the risks of pushing hard for democracy has also reinforced the emerging consensus in Brussels, Washington, London, and Paris that the dictatorial devil we know is better than the democratic devil we don’t.
A global crisis of confidence
Those three aspects of Western foreign policy coincided catastrophically with the rise of illiberal populism across the globe and a crisis of confidence in the concept of democracy in the West. This was the perfect storm necessary to halt democracy’s advance and transform it into a retreat back toward authoritarianism.
President Trump is already accelerating this retreat. Several authoritarian regimes—including China—are already using his 2016 election as anti-democratic propaganda, arguing that Trump is clear evidence of the bad decision-making ushered in by democratic government.
More substantively, Trump’s early foreign policy decisions (and especially his “America First” rhetoric) has sent a clear signal that the United States will be shifting its focus away from global human rights to focus exclusively on its narrow conception of self-interest. Indeed, his budget proposal would gut the State Department budget, axe pro-democracy foreign aid, and make it far more difficult for the United States to promote democracy generally. That’s not the right approach, even though there is room to improve the strategies that the United States uses to boost democracy across the globe.
Beyond the budget, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson bucked longstanding tradition and did not unveil the State Department’s annual human rights report personally, thereby signaling the United States’s diminishing focus on human rights.
Such signals matter. The United States and its Western allies used to be an important referee on the global stage, blowing the whistle on the most egregious abuses of democracy and human rights. Certainly, America has been a biased referee—turning a blind eye to countries like Saudi Arabia and only lightly penalizing others that deserved harsher treatment. But it’s important that the referee exists. After just a month, Trump’s rhetoric suggests that he’s not even going to watch the game.