Waves of democratization are not over?

JODIn the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy, (PDF), Marc Plattner makes the provocative claim that “the era of democratic transitions is over, and should now become the province of the historians,” notes political scientist Jay Ulfelder. By that, he seems to mean that we should not expect new waves of democratization similar in form and scale to the ones that have occurred before. I think Plattner is wrong, in part because he has defined “wave” too broadly, he writes on his Dart Throwing Chimp blog.

In his essay, Plattner implicitly adopts the definition of waves of democratization described by Samuel Huntington on p. 15 of his influential 1991 book:

A wave of democratization is a group of transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes that occur within a specified period of time and that significantly outnumber transitions in the opposite direction during that period of time.

Much of what’s been written and said about waves of democratization since that book was published accepts those terms and the three waves Huntington identifies when he applies them to the historical evidence: one in Europe from the 1820s to the 1920s; another and wider one in Europe, Latin America, and Asia from the 1940s to the early 1960s; and a third and so-far final one that began in Portugal in 1974, has been global in scope, and now appears to have stalled or ended…..

I think we can make out at least five and maybe more such waves since the early 1900s, not the three or maybe four we usually hear about.

First, as Plattner  (p. 9) points out, what Huntington describes as the “first, long” wave really includes two distinct clusters: 1) the “dozen or so European and European-settler countries that already had succeeded in establishing a fair degree of freedom and rule of law, and them moved into the democratic column by gradually extending the suffrage”; and 2) “countries that became democratic after World War I, many of them new nations born from the midst of the European empires defeated and destroyed during the war.”

The second (or now third?) wave grew out of World War II. Even though this wave was relatively short, it also included a few distinct sub-clusters: countries defeated in that war, countries born of decolonization, and a number of Latin American cases. …. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to split the so-called second wave into two clusters (war losers and newly independent states) and a clump of coincidences (Latin America), but there are enough direct linkages across those sets to see meaning in a larger wave, too.

As for the so-called third wave, I’m with Mike McFaul (here) and others who see at least two separate clusters in there. The wave of democratization that swept southern Europe and Latin America in the 1970s and early 1980s is temporally and causally distinct from the spate of transitions associated with the USSR’s reform and disintegration, so it makes no sense to talk of a coherent era spanning the past 40 years. Less clear is where to put the many democratic transitions—some successful, many others aborted or short lived—that occurred in Africa as Communist rule collapsed. Based partly on Robert Bates’ analysis (here), I am comfortable grouping them with the post-Communist cases. …

So, based on that definition and its application, I think it’s fair to say that we have seen at least five waves of democratization in the past two centuries, and perhaps as many as six or seven….

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries now have regimes that most observers would call democratic, so the pool of potential democratizers is substantially diminished. As Plattner puts it (p. 14), “The ‘low-hanging fruit’ has been picked.” Still, if we look for groups of authoritarian regimes that share enough political, economic, social, and cultural connections to allow common causes and contagion to kick in, then I think we can find some sets in which this dynamic could clearly happen again. I see three in particular.

The first and most obvious is in the Middle East and North Africa, the region that has proved most resistant to democratization to date. In fact, I think we already saw—or, arguably, are still seeing—the next wave of democratization in the form of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. So far, that cluster of popular uprisings and state collapses has only produced one persistently democratic state (Tunisia), but it has also produced a democratic interlude in Egypt; a series of competitively elected (albeit ineffective) governments in Libya; a nonviolent transfer of power between elected governments in Iraq; ongoing (albeit not particularly liberal) revolutions in Syria and Yemen; and sustained, liberal challenges to authoritarian rule in Bahrain, Kuwait, and, perhaps, Saudi Arabia. …

Beyond that, though, I also see the possibility of a wave of regime breakdowns and attempts at democracy in Asia brought on by economic or political instability in China. Many of the autocracies that remain in that region—and there are many—depend directly or indirectly on Chinese patronage and trade, so any significant disruption in China’s political economy would send shock waves through their systems as well. I happen to think that systemic instability will probably hit China in the next few years (see here, here, and here), but the timing is less relevant here than the possibility of this turbulence, and thus of the wider wave of democratization it could help to produce.


Guo Feixiong case a ‘dark verdict on China’s future’


guo feixiongDissident writer and human rights legal activist Guo Feixiong (left), was detained in August of 2013, formally arrested two months later for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place,” and finally allowed access to legal representation in November of 2013. The New York Times reports that the activist’s trial is expected to begin on Friday, and that his lawyers and family are expecting conviction and imprisonment, China Digital Times reports:

The charges against Yang Maodong and Sun Deshang stem from their involvement in organizing support for Southern Weekly staff members who protested against censorship at the paper in early 2013. The upcoming trial will be the latest in the Xi administration’s ongoing drive to stifle China’s nascent civil society.

With the trials of Gu and other rights advocates, “the Chinese government has sent a clear signal to society: For citizens to demand their rights is a form of provocation, an attack, and the state will repress such behavior without restraint. There is a zero-sum relationship between the government’s repressive system and the people’s basic rights; there is no longer flexibility,” notes Xiao Shu, the pen name of Chen Min, a researcher at the Transition Institute in Beijing.

The government is afraid of a “color revolution” and has reportedly sent agents to Russia and Central Asia to study how to prevent such events, Chen writes for the Wall Street Journal:

Beijing’s newly established National Security Commission has apparently investigated foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations in China, and several well-known NGOs are now at risk. All of which exposes one thing: The Chinese authorities are fearful. The power of civil society in China is growing. The public’s rights consciousness is awakening. Yet our civil society is still extremely weak compared with the world’s strongest ruling state.

The Chinese authorities’ overconfidence in hard power and underconfidence in soft power has rendered them incapable of assessing the situation objectively. So officials are fearful and treat the slowly growing rights movement as a mortal enemy. They probably don’t realize that this extreme policy has antagonized people on all sides, stimulating powerful counterforces.

If the government gives no space to the people, it cannot expect the people to give it space in return. If the government gives no retreat route to civil society, it cannot expect civil society to offer a retreat route in return. The government’s imagined “hostile forces” and “color revolution” will turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. If the authorities don’t change direction, they will eventually reap what they sow.


Vietnam’s pivot: netizens demand ‘right to know’

vietnamese bloggers

Bloggers across Vietnam launched an online campaign Tuesday demanding that their authoritarian government keep the people closely informed about national and foreign policies, including its dealings with giant neighbor China whose territorial disputes with Hanoi have led to riots and a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations, Radio Free Asia reports:

Vietnamese activists have become increasingly vocal over what they call China’s aggression in the disputed South China Sea and Hanoi’s reluctance to take a stronger stand against its northern neighbor. The “We Want to Know” campaign was launched by a Vietnamese bloggers’ group early Tuesday and quickly spread on the Internet through Facebook and other social media sites across the one-party communist state, Haiphong-based blogger Pham Thanh Nghien told RFA’s Vietnamese Service. “At 12:00 a.m. last night, Vietnam time, the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers began the campaign ‘We Want to Know,’” said Nghien, who was freed from prison in September 2012 after her online writings earned her a four-year term behind bars. “Our network believes that free access to information helps people exercise their rights as citizens of the country,” she said.

Vietnam’s international strategy is shifting in a dramatic fashion, notes one observer. For years, the country hoped that it could manage China’s drive for regional hegemony by showing Beijing sufficient deference. But that strategy has been upended in recent months, analyst David Brown writes for Foreign Affairs:

At the end of July, Vietnam was awash with rumors that the country’s Politburo had voted 9–5 in favor of “standing up to China.” There was also talk that an extraordinary plenum of the 200-member Party Central Committee would convene to review and confirm the Politburo’s new tilt. The rumors may simply reflect the wishful thinking of a public that’s been far more disposed to tangle with China than its leaders have been. Beijing and Hanoi are still pro forma friends; Le Hong Anh, Vietnam’s top cop and a stalwart of the pro-China faction, was correctly welcomed in Beijing in mid-August and doubtless warned against unfriendly moves.

Even so, chances are good that Vietnam will soon take two game-changing step, Brown suggests:

First, Vietnam will likely challenge China in international courts, seeking a verdict that declares Beijing’s assertion of “historic sovereignty” over nearly all of the South China Sea to beillegitimate and its tactics impermissible…..Second, Vietnam is likely to forge a more intimate diplomatic and military relationship with the United States — not a formal alliance but a partnership based on a common interest in preventing Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea.

Hanoi wants the United States to agree to lift its ban on lethal weapons sales, a step that Washington has conditioned on Hanoi’s improving its treatment of political dissidents. For both governments, it’s a matter of principle. There is a yawning gap between the United States’ insistence that the Vietnamese regime respect fundamental political rights and Vietnamese Communist leaders’ belief that tolerating agitation for democracy poses an existential threat to their system.

On this matter of political freedoms, Hanoi, Washington, or both must compromise if they are to move ahead, but neither country has much room for maneuver. Many members of Congress will be wary of embracing Hanoi, even if they acknowledge that forestalling China’s regional hegemony is in both countries’ interest. For its part, the Vietnamese Politburo’s vision of political order has limited its ability to compromise on human rights. And yet, if Hanoi cannot pledge to open up the sphere of political participation, or Washington cannot take a longer view, the long-discussed strategic relationship will still be beyond reach.


25 years on, Europe still not whole and free

estonia ilvesThis year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the annus mirabilis, 1989, the year when the Berlin Wall came down, says Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (right). That was when we dared to dream of a “Europe whole and free,” a reunited and democratic Europe…..

Also in that year, in 1989, Francis Fukuyama published what must be considered one of the seminal essays of the late twentieth century, The End of History…. Fukuyama did not say liberal democracy had won in the real world or that everyone in the world had embraced or even would embrace democracy….. Rather, he said that the contest for ideas was over, that no one could any longer make claims for the superiority of an authoritarian regime. Even that turned out to be unfortunately wrong, since the last seven months we’ve seen actually claims, made even by a prime minister of a European country, that in fact liberal democracy was over…..

But when we look around in Europe today, we see that not only is Europe not whole and free, we see the ghosts from the painful 20th century returning to our midst. ….The annexation of territory, the violation of borders, religious conservativism pairing with political authoritarianism and imperialist bravado. 80% of Russians support annexation through military aggression in Crimea, where the Anschluss – and I use that term most seriously here – the Anschluss of territory was justified by the presence of co-ethnics.

Moreover, there is widespread support for an anti-liberal attack against decadent Western “permissiveness,” be it in freedom of speech or choice of life-partners. Indeed, we see that liberal democracy has not only failed to win the battle of ideas against authoritarianism, it has failed even to prevent the resurrection of that once vanquished demon, fascism. The nationalist fervor east of us is expressed in arts in a way that makes Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will look like a liberal programme – I suggest you look at the video of the co-called “biker show” staged on August 8 this year in Sevastopol. It is on You Tube (above). It is a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk. ….

So what went wrong? Why is it that the ideals of liberal democracy fall into disregard and disrepute even in the heart of Europe and aggressive, fiercely antiliberal doctrines have massive support beyond our eastern border? Why is it that today everything seems more insecure than even in the Cold War, when at least we had agreed upon rules of international behaviour regarding what countries may or may not do?

Part of the answer lies in another essay that later became a best-selling book as well, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations, that appeared four years after Fukuyama’s essay. Huntington saw future conflicts in the post-ideological age to be ones between cultures and civilisations, that seemed to be also at the time unfortunately verified by the 9/11 attacks, motivated as they were by a religion-based antipathy toward modernity.

He also, of course, received a lot of criticism for that idea. But soon enough, we were indeed challenged on our own ground, in empirical reality, not political science theory. In New York, in Washington, in mass attacks in Madrid, London and Bombay. All those challenged the liberal order, attacking inter alia democratic elections, the equality of men and women, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, not men or God. Those attackers are the greatest Huntingtonians, just as the authoritarians who more and more boldly define themselves in opposition to our “decadent” democratic values….

As we have seen, however, we were wrong. Ideas such as territorial annexation, based on co-ethnics abroad, which we saw last in 1938 with the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the Anschluss of the Sudetenland and Austria – these were ideas we had believed were settled for good on May 8, 1945, but they have not been settled, they have been resurrected……

Thus today we find ourselves in a completely new security environment. It is not a “New Cold War”, because during the Cold War all of those agreements were followed. ….. Now, we’re back in an age described by a predecessor of Immanuel Kant a hundred years earlier, Thomas Hobbes. We are living now, in Europe, in a Hobbesian state of nature, in which, whether the bullets are flying or not, agreements don’t count and life is a war of all against all. And on top of that we are also abandoning the prospect of economic progress and enrichment, which has also been one of the strengths of liberal democracies – that you can make more money in liberal democracies (unless you get paid by Gazprom).

In this radically new situation, the liberal democratic West is still confused about what to do….

It is now in Ukraine that Europe’s meaning and identity is fought over. If some part of Europe is not free, no part of Europe is actually secure. Will Europe and the world understand this time around that Eastern Europe is Europe too – that Europe extends beyond the borders of the so-called old members of the European Union – those that were members before 2004? Will they recognize that Ukraine and each European country is entitled to respect for their sovereignty and for their territorial integrity, granted to them by international law that has been signed on to also by countries that are currently engaged in aggression, and by agreements that we have all signed?

I speak of these conundra because the liberal order is being challenged by authoritarian, illiberal, yet often successful market economies in ways we did not foresee when the Berlin Wall was torn down and history was supposed to end…….

So we must realise the we find ourselves in a Hobbesian world again – in Anno Domini 2014. …..

The key to restoring stability in Europe is a sound transatlantic relationship – the US engagement and leadership and a Europe willing to assume more of the burden of providing collective security. The unity of the liberal democratic world, within Europe and between Europe and the US, is more important than ever. ….

This extract is taken from a speech delivered by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the Europe Conference in Oslo on 2 September 2014. RTWT


Questioning Mexico’s dubious reforms

krauzeHow is it possible that the most important set of governmental reforms in decades has aroused so much enthusiasm abroad and yet so much rejection in Mexico? How is it that, while the groundbreaking reforms were approved by a two-thirds majority of Congress, ordinary Mexicans affirmed in a poll that they believe their country is moving in the wrong direction? asks historian Enrique Krauze, the author of “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America:”

Some observers have compared the scope of Mexico’s reforms with American legislation to combat monopolies initiated by Theodore Roosevelt early in the 20th century, he writes for the New York Times:

President Enrique Peña Nieto, in the 21 months he has been in office, has set limits on the state’s longstanding monopoly on the extraction, production and distribution of oil, gas and electricity by permitting private investment; he has diminished the power of the telecommunications giants Telmex and Televisa by opening the door to competition; and he has compelled the huge National Union of Education Workers to accept reforms that prohibit the sale or inheritance of teaching positions and that introduce compulsory exams to evaluate teachers.

“Although Mexico has now opened up its economy and operates under an electoral democracy, there remains one reform that could be more vital than all the others: full establishment of the rule of law,” notes Krauze. “Without sufficient judicial controls and punishment for the authors of crime and corruption, the Mexican people will never be able to believe in a better future.”