Democracy in decline: how to reverse the tide


Although democracy promotion may have fallen out of favor with the U.S. public [see poll data below], such efforts very much remain in the national interest, argues Larry Diamond, a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The United States still has the tools to promote democracy, even if it lacks the will, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

As Thomas Carothers, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has shown, over the past quarter century, U.S. electoral assistance has evolved from superficial, in-and-out jobs to deeper partnerships with domestic organizations. Support for civil society has spread beyond simply aiding elites in national capitals. Efforts to promote the rule of law have expanded beyond the short-term technical training of judges and lawyers to focus on broader issues of accountability and human rights.

These efforts appear to have paid off. A 2006 study of the effects of U.S. foreign assistance on democracy found that $10 million of additional USAID spending produced a roughly fivefold increase in the amount of democratic change a country could be expected to achieve based on the Freedom House scale….

Washington has continued to support some nongovernmental efforts, adds Diamond, founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and the co-chair of the Research Council of the International Forum for Democratic Studies:

Congress increased its appropriation for the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit that funds pro-democracy groups abroad, from $115 million in 2009 to $170 million in 2016. For the most part, however, as public support for democracy promotion has declined, funding for it has stagnated. During this same period, U.S. government spending on democracy, human rights, and governance programs (mainly through the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID) fell by nearly $400 million. Even excluding the decline in funding for Afghanistan and Iraq, funding for such programs in other countries stayed flat….Although some European countries, such as Sweden and the United Kingdom, have continued to support significant bilateral programs to promote democracy and improve governance, the budget of the European Endowment for Democracy, established in 2013, reached just over $11 million last year.

“Authoritarian leaders have capitalized on this vacuum by exporting their illiberal values and repressive technologies,” adds Diamond, citing trends detailed in a recent book (left):

Where an authoritarian regime is powerful, confident, and sitting tight, as in China today, it may seem as though such efforts are hopeless. But most authoritarian regimes have moderate and pragmatic elements who may see the need for political opening. China is no different. The marginal moderates of today could well become the rulers of tomorrow.

“But the United States can and should do more. The next president should make democracy promotion a pillar of his or her foreign policy. Washington could do so peacefully, multilaterally, and without significant new spending,” Diamond contends:

  • taking care to avoid legitimizing authoritarian rule;
  • seize opportunities to reaffirm the country’s commitment to democracy abroad, notably when the United States assumes leadership of the Community of Democracies, which holds its next biennial meeting in Washington in 2017;
  • increase financial support to fragile democracies, especially states undergoing political transitions—such as Myanmar, Tunisia, and Ukraine;
  • promote bolder, smarter efforts to fight corruption, which sustains most authoritarian regimes;
  • encourage U.S. diplomats to make support for democracy a major priority in their work on the ground.


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