Why democracy is worth fighting for – now more than ever

larryDiamondThis is an important and volatile time for democracy in the world, says Stanford University’s Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, where he directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Many people are questioning the viability of democracy and the wisdom of trying to promote it, he writes for Foreign Policy.com.

The fashionable mood these days is skepticism, if not downright pessimism, about the near-term prospects for democracy. Some believe democracy promotion was always a fool’s errand. Others contend that we did what we could and should now pull back. Or that after 30 years of intensive democracy promotion, we still don’t know how to do it effectively, except in places where democratic progress would have happened anyway…..

Yes, it’s a difficult and messy time for democracy and freedom around the world. …There have been a lot of democratic breakdowns in this new century. In fact, the rate of democratic breakdown in these last thirteen years has been 50 percent higher than in the preceding period.

Since the third wave of global democratic expansion began forty years ago, one-third of all the democratic regimes have failed. And half of these failures have been just in the last thirteen years. Many of these breakdowns have come in big and strategically important states, like Russia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Venezuela. ….

If you care about democracy in the world, we are in trouble.

But this is not the whole story. We are in a prolonged political recession, not a depression. We have not yet seen the onset of “a third reverse wave.” The extraordinary expansion in the number of democracies essentially halted around 2005. Since then, it has not significantly increased, but neither has it substantially diminished. Globally, average levels of freedom have ebbed a little bit, but not calamitously…..

A long-term strategic approach to promoting democracy would make the following resolution:

Once a country (and especially a middle-income country) achieves or renews democracy, we should do everything possible to help lock it into place for the long run, to consolidate it.

Once a country (and especially a middle-income country) achieves or renews democracy, we should do everything possible to help lock it into place for the long run, to consolidate it. That means that when a new, fragile Libyan transitional government appeals to us for security assistance (assistance, not occupying troops) we don’t say, “sorry pals, we helped you get there, now let somebody else help you stay there.” It means that we need to go to the new democratically elected Tunisian government after these approaching elections and ask them what it needs. What can we do to help revive the economy and rejuvenate flows of tourism and investment? Beyond our existing programs of party training, election observation, and other assistance, what can we do to support new civil society monitoring and training initiatives, to strengthen independent journalism and policy think tanks, to advance democratic civic education in the schools and the media, to support women’s groups, student groups, human rights groups, and many other initiatives to build a culture and civic infrastructure to sustain democracy?

If we want to promote democracy in the Arab world for the long run, we should invest very heavily in Tunisia in every possible way, because what the Arab world most needs now is one example of a decent, functioning democracy that can serve as a lesson, an inspiration, and a point of diffusion for the region.


Diamond is the founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and the co-chair of the Research Council of the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy.

The article is based on the keynote address from the conference “Does Democracy Matter?” co-sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C., on October 20.

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Normal Countries? 25 Years After Communism


post-communistThe prevailing gloomy narrative about the postcommunist world is mostly wrong. Media images aside, life has improved dramatically across the former Eastern bloc, say two prominent analysts.

Since their transition, the postcommunist countries have grown rapidly; today, their citizens live richer, longer, and happier lives, according to Andrei Shleifer, Professor of Economics at Harvard, and Daniel Treisman, Professor of Political Science at UCLA, and the author of The Return: Russia’s Journey From Gorbachev to Medvedev. 

Russia’s growing authoritarianism should not distract from the remarkable progress in the postcommunist region as a whole, they write for Foreign Affairs:

Twenty-five years ago, the countries of the Eastern bloc represented an alternative civilization. To imagine them quickly converging with the global mainstream required a certain chutzpah. Yet that is exactly what they have done. The transition has had its disappointments. But overall, the changes since 1989 have been an outstanding success. 

It is time to rethink the misperception of this period. Market reforms, attempts to build democracy, and struggles against corruption did not fail, although they remain incomplete. The claim that a gradual path of economic reform would have been more effective and less painful is contradicted by the evidence.

Important as advances in living standards and other socio-economic variables are, the most fundamental transformation in the former Eastern bloc was political, they suggest:

The citizens of most of the transition states live under governments that are more free and open today than at any point in their history. Even against the backdrop of democracy’s global resurgence in recent decades, the extent of political change in the former Eastern bloc is remarkable. 

A few numbers tell the story. Using the most common measure of political regimes, the Polity index, compiled by the Center for Systemic Peace, we placed countries on a scale from zero (for pure dictatorships) to 100 (for the strongest form of democracy). In 1988, the Eastern-bloc states ranked between five (Albania) and 40 (Hungary), averaging a score of 20, which was close to the ratings of Egypt and Iran. Given their levels of economic development, the communist countries stood out as abnormally authoritarian. After the revolutions of 1989–91, the regional average shot up, reaching a score of 76 in 2013. Today, the average postcommunist country is exactly as free as one would expect it to be, given its income. Six receive the top score, on par with Germany and the United States.

“The postcommunist transition does not reveal the inadequacy of liberal capitalism or the dysfunctions of democracy, they contend. “Rather, it demonstrates the superiority and continuing promise of both.”


Full sources and data for this essay are available here.

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Why the Ukraine Crisis Isn’t the West’s Fault

ukrainesolidarnoscJohn Mearsheimer (“Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” September/October 2014) fails to properly consider the Ukrainian people themselves, says Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy. In his telling, the Ukrainians are passive pawns in the struggle between an aggressive West and a reactive Vladimir Putin, he writes in Foreign Affairs;

Mearsheimer targets the National Endowment for Democracy as an example of Western social engineering in Ukraine. For proof, he quotes from a Washington Post op-ed I wrote last fall in which I called Ukraine “the biggest prize.” It should be clear to any fair reader, however, what I meant: that Ukraine was the biggest prize for Russia, not for the United States or for the NED, which is publicly funded but entirely independent of the U.S. government. The NED’s objectives in Ukraine, as everywhere, have been and continue to be to support nongovernmental organizations working to strengthen democracy.


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Russia’s ‘halfway house’ on governance

russia governanceRussia is a halfway house, says Maxim Trudolyubov, the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti. It has private companies, markets and all kinds of consumer wares, but it lacks crucial institutions that help us enjoy all those material goods. There are no such things as impartial courts, honest law enforcement or respect for the rules, he writes for the New York Times:

The lack of political clout from businesspeople and civil rights groups has allowed the Kremlin to respond quickly to isolated cases of resistance while staving off comprehensive reforms of the judiciary, the police and most public services. The pressure has been low because, paradoxically, Russia’s business community has never really championed private property rights in any substantial way. Most businesses have long been registered in offshore jurisdictions, most entrepreneurs have long ago acquired foreign residency permits, and their money has been safely parked abroad. The elite have learned to use the education and healthcare systems of other nations while ignoring the deterioration of those services at home.

“The people who are the most likely to be upset by the poor quality of governance in Russia are the very same people who are the most ready and able to exit Russia,” the political scientist Ivan Krastev warned in the Journal of Democracy back in 2011. “For them, leaving the country in which they live is easier than reforming it. Why try to turn Russia into Germany, when there is no guarantee that a lifetime is long enough for that mission, and when Germany is but a short trip away?”

Relative ease of access to Western jurisdictions has prevented pressure within the Russian political system from growing. But this safety valve may soon malfunction, according to  Trudolyubo, a Wilson Center fellow in Washington, and the author of a forthcoming book on power and property in Russia:

Given the half-built state of the institutional system, isolation will make whatever legal protections Russians still possess an even more scarce resource. This, in turn, will lead to a heightened role for informal “guarantors” of property and safety — the Kremlin and the high-ranking security officials it relies on. These guarantees are always ambiguous. If Russia, helped by sanctions, closes its doors, the country will degenerate in wild infighting, the outcome of which it will be impossible to predict.


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Putin diatribe blames West for global insecurity

putinRussian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States on Friday of endangering global security by imposing a “unilateral diktat” on the rest of the world and shifted blame for the Ukraine crisis onto the West, Reuters reports:

In a 40-minute diatribe against the West that was reminiscent of the Cold War and underlined the depth of the rift between Moscow and the West, Putin also denied trying to rebuild the Soviet empire at the expense of Russia’s neighbors.

“We did not start this,” Putin told an informal group of experts on Russia that includes many Western specialists critical of him, warning that Washington was trying to “remake the whole world” based on its own interests. …..Listing a series of conflicts in which he faulted U.S. actions, including Libya, Syria and Iraq, Putin asked whether Washington’s policies had strengthened peace and democracy.

“No,” he declared. “The unilateral diktat and the imposing of schemes (on others) have exactly the opposite effect.”

“The Cold War has ended,” Putin told the Valdai Forum. “But it ended without peace being achieved, without clear and transparent agreements on the new rules and standards.”

He added that the global system of security has been weakened, and accused the United States of behaving like a “nouveau riche” world leader.

“Unilateral dictatorship and obtrusion of the patterns leads to opposite result. Instead of conflicts settlement, their escalation. Instead of sovereign, stable states, growing chaos. Instead of democracy, support for (a) very dubious public, such as neo-Nazis and Islamic extremists,” Putin said.

Paranoid style

Putin’s comments came a day after the investor and philanthropist George Soros cautioned that Russian expansionism poses an existential threat to the European Union, warning that  Putin’s mix of authoritarianism and aggressive nationalism represents an alternative model to western liberal democracy.

His comments also reflect the paranoid style that has overtaken Russian political discourse, observers suggest.

IvanKrastevIvan Krastev (right), who heads the Bulgarian think tank Centre for Liberal Strategies, said relying on conspiracy stories doesn’t provide a framework for moving forward. “Marxism was an ideology,” he said. “Conspiracy theories are not an ideology,” he told the Wall Street Journal:

Robert Skidelsky, the biographer of Keynes and a professor at the University of Warwick who is attending the conference, questioned where this promotion of an alternative reality is leading Russia.

He said that behind Russia’s narratives lie three possibilities: that Russian officials believe they are telling the truth; that they are lying; or, that they are deceiving themselves. If Russian officials are basing their actions on false premises, they are taking risks, he said. If they are lying or deceiving themselves, they are severely eroding Russia’s international credibility—as Western governments argue they have by claiming that the armed “little green men” in Ukraine haven’t been sent there by the Russian military.

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