How to address the crisis of democracy


danielpatrickmoynihanDemocracy today is facing greater challenges than at any time since the fall of communism a quarter of a century ago; greater than at any time, in fact, since the dark days of the 1970s when Daniel Patrick Moynihan (left) said that “democracy is where the world was, not where the world is going,” according to the National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman.

This crisis has three dimensions, he told today’s Annual Conference of the World Affairs Councils of America:

  • The first is the radical weakening of the position of the United States and its democratic allies at the level of geopolitical power, and the corresponding increase in the influence and assertiveness – and sometimes the aggressive behavior – of authoritarian countries like Russia, China, and Iran. ….
  • AUTHORITARIANISM GOES GLOBALThe second dimension of the crisis is that the weakening of our geopolitical “hard power” has been paralleled by a deterioration at the level of soft power as well. The NED-published Authoritarianism Goes Global describes how Russia, China, and other authoritarian countries are using sophisticated soft-power techniques and multilateral coalitions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to subvert the global norms contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to replace them with the norm of unlimited state sovereignty. …
  • Of greatest concern is the third dimension of the problem, which is the crisis of democratic values and will in the established democracies of the West. …. More recently it has taken the form of a backlash against globalization, the rise of populism and illiberal politics in Europe and the United States, and the emergence of what Ivan Krastev, in the current issue of the Journal of Democracy, calls “counterrevolutionary democracy,” which he links to “a world of vast inequalities and open borders, [where] migration becomes the new form of revolution.”

carl g ukraineThere’s obviously no short or simple way to address a crisis of such profound scope and depth, but let me offer a few thoughts by way of conclusion, added Gershman (right):

  • The first priority is to create a new bi-partisan consensus in defense of American security in a dangerous world. We need to have a serious discussion about the reasons for our weakened geopolitical position that is so tempting to our opponents, and about how the U.S. retreat is connected to our internal divisions and the drastic swings that have occurred in our foreign policy between over-reaching and unilateralism on the one hand, and radical retrenchment on the other. We’ve always had swings between global engagement and retrenchment, as Steve Sestanovich explained in his important book called Maximalist. In the past decade-and-a-half, however, such swings have been more drastic, and we need to understand how damaging this is to our national interest.
  • sestanovichmaximalistSecond, we need to recognize that the defense of our national security requires the exercise of power, and that diplomacy will be feckless and ineffective if it is not backed up by credible military deterrence. This is the nature of the world in which we live and an inevitable aspect of inter-state relations. I have often been asked to explain why supporting democracy abroad helps our national security, and I can do that. But I also believe that defending our national security and using our power to help preserve world order and stability is absolutely essential for democratic progress.
  • Maintaining and strengthening our alliances is also critical. It may be hoping for too much to call upon the new administration to prioritize repairing the liberal world order, which has eroded so dangerously. But it is not unrealistic to hope that it will reassure our allies in Europe and elsewhere about our reliability and commitment to the common defense.
  • We also need to recognize that while engagement with dictatorial regimes is necessary, we should never conflate a regime that rules without popular consent with the people of a country, or fall into the mirror-image trap of thinking that dictators act according to the same moral and strategic calculus as democratically-elected leaders. Nor should we assume that engagement by itself will produce liberal change if it is not accompanied by significant human-rights pressure and conditionality. This certainly doesn’t mean that that the United States should try to impose its values, export its democracy, or remake the world in its own image. But it means that we should support people who share our values and need our help.
  • soft-power-resourcesTo do that, we will need to rediscover the art and importance of soft power. The potential of soft power is rooted in the fact that there are people around the world who want to live in societies that are not ruled by fear and force, and who have the will and capacity to build the institutions and processes of democracy. …. The National Endowment for Democracy and its core political, labor, and business institutes are among the most important of such instruments, and there are others in government and the private sector. They are a low-cost but effective way to strengthen people who offer an alternative to nationalist and populist fragmentation. RTWT

The rise of “post-truth” and identity politics threatens to undermine the West’s key advantage vis-à-vis a rising China, argues Oliver Della Costa Stuenkel, an Assistant Professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in Brazil. While soft power is hard to measure and depends on many things other than the government, one initial consequence will be a greater difficulty to make the case for democracy elsewhere in the world, he contends:

Democracies are now seen as creating more unpredictability than authoritarian regimes. The longer such a scenario prevails, the more difficult it will be to convince other countries that defending democratic governance around the world is both morally and strategically advantageous. In the same way, the stronger anti-Islam currents become in Western democracies, the harder it will be to claim the moral high ground and criticize governments in China, Myanmar and elsewhere for the way they treat their religious minorities.

The Chinese regime of course has many socio-economic contradictions to overcome before it is in a position to assume a hegemonic status in world affairs, notes one analyst. The intensification of internal strife over democratization will also hamper the emergence of a Chinese-led world order; in other words, liberalism may yet have the last laugh.

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