By now it’s old news that the world is living through a retreat of democracy. For a dozen consecutive years, the number of countries where liberty has declined has exceeded those where it has expanded, according to Freedom House. Autocrats are stepping up repression; populist movements are rising in Europe and the United States. China and Russia are offering new models of high-tech dictatorship.
The drift augurs ill for human governance in the 21st century. That’s why it’s encouraging that an unexpected and underreported counter-trend has appeared in the summer of 2019. Mass movements of people resisting the new authoritarianism have been popping up across the world.
In Hong Kong, the largest demonstrations since the restoration of Chinese sovereignty in 1997 have rocked the city, forcing authorities to withdraw legislation that would have critically weakened the rule of law. In Central and Eastern Europe, a host of countries have seen huge anti-government protests aimed at corruption or creeping authoritarianism. And in Africa, persistent pro-democracy street movements have continued in Sudan and Algeria even after the ousters of their entrenched rulers.
True, decisive results so far have been limited. This month, the Sudanese military signed a deal with civilian groups setting up a joint governing council and laying out a three-year transition to democracy. But the military will rule for the first 21 months, and many suspect it will seek to derail the process. Algerian protesters are demanding free elections in six months, but their generals remain resistant.
Following popular protests, Moldova and Slovakia have new leaders committed to rooting out criminality, and Romania’s once-dominant politician has been sent to prison. But demonstrations demanding the removal of corrupt and thuggish governments in the Czech Republic and Georgia have yet to succeed. Though Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front has forced a tactical retreat by the Chinese regime of Xi Jinping, its longer-term prospects look cloudy at best.
What all this means, according to Larry Diamond, a Stanford University scholar who studies democracy, is that “we are perched at a volatile and possibly historic moment” — and much depends on how the United States and other established democracies respond. “Forthright rhetoric and vigorous diplomatic and aid engagement could tip some of these countries [back] in a democratic direction,” he told me. “But if what autocrats see is Western apathy or pure realpolitik, they will judge that they have plenty of space to get as nasty as they need to.”
So far the U.S. record has been mixed: It depends on whether President Trump, a reliable friend to strongmen and populists, has weighed in. Where he hasn’t, as in Sudan and Moldova, U.S. envoys have played a positive role. One joined with other outside powers in inducing the Sudanese army to accept the power-sharing deal with the civilian opposition. Another helped persuade Moldova’s dominant oligarch to swallow a reformist government determined to break his hold on the judiciary and electoral system.
In Hong Kong, on the other hand, a plan by the outgoing U.S. consul to deliver a speech in support of the protest movement was squelched by the State Department. According to the Financial Times, Trump promised Xi at their meeting in Osaka, Japan, last month that he would keep quiet about Hong Kong while the two pursued a trade agreement.
Diamond has just published a new book chronicling “the rise of illiberal, anti-immigrant populist movements in Europe and the United States; the steady decline in the quality of American democracy; and the surge in global power of Russia and China, which are avidly undermining democracies and liberal values around the world.” Much of it is depressing reading.
But Diamond also reports encouraging data on whether people are losing faith in democracy. The short answer is that they are not. In recent surveys, 69 percent of respondents in Latin American countries, 89 percent in East Asia, 72 percent in Africa and 81 percent of Middle Eastern Arabs agreed with some version of the Winston Churchill-inspired precept that democracy might have its problems, but it’s still the best form of government.
That helps to explain what has happened this summer. It turns out that large numbers of people around the world still want democracy enough to take to the streets to demand it. The problem in those places lies not in popular will but in established democratic governments, which more often than not these days are unwilling to defend freedom elsewhere.
The retreat by the United States matters most. “We can get lucky and see some countries beating back autocracy, even in the absence of our help and encouragement,” says Diamond. But while Trump is president, the democratic recession is likely to continue.
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