Why Western democracy is in decline – and how to defend it


The Free World Order is worth fighting for, not least because it reconciles U.S. interests and ideals, former National Security Council director Daniel Fried writes for The Washington Post.

It is necessary to “recommit to the ideals of the free world,” he adds. “We must make the case that our interests are best served when our values advance; that these values include the rule of law at home and a rules-based world, human rights and democracy; that our nations’ successes depend on the success of others; and that the nation state, and the free world itself, are not ends in themselves but earn legitimacy as they serve these higher purposes.”

Such a re-commitment was made in The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, which seeks to defend and promote liberal democratic values and institutions. Its founding statement was signed by more than sixty prominent figures, including public intellectuals and democracy advocates from around the world.

The United States can be what former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick (right) framed as “a responsible stakeholder” in the international system giving appropriate attention to both interests and ideals, notes Richard N. Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations. Such realism is often warranted, given Washington’s multiple priorities and limited leverage in such matters. But there is a danger in taking this approach too far, since prudent nonintervention can all too easily shade into active support for deeply problematic regimes, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

Careless relationships with “friendly tyrants,” as such rulers used to be called, have burned the United States often in the past, and so it is worrying to see Washington take what look like the first steps down such a path again with Egypt, the Philippines, and Turkey. Friends need to speak candidly to friends about the errors they may be making. Such communications should normally take place privately and without sanction. But they do need to occur, lest the United States tarnish its reputation, encourage even worse behavior, and set back efforts to promote more open societies and stability around the world.

Undermining U.S. institutions, including the media, the judiciary, and Congress, which “has the potential to reduce respect for the United States while encouraging leaders elsewhere to weaken the checks and balances on their rule,” Haas cautions.

There are three reasons why the US and the UK are in a worse condition than other advanced democracies, writes Edward Luce, author of The Retreat of Western Liberalism:

  • The first is that they fell for their own propaganda. No two countries have done more to broadcast their meritocracies than the US and the UK. Yet the two rival each other for the worst records of income mobility in the western world. It is astonishing that on some measures it is harder to move up the income ladder in America than in class-bound Britain. ….
  • Second, the English-speaking elites have lost confidence in half of their people. The US and Britain suffer from an illusion about the value of qualifications. They routinely confuse having a college degree with being skilled. Those without degrees are supposedly unskilled. Northern Europe has a better grasp of the distinction. …
  • Third, they lack historic memory of system failure. The US and Britain stand out among western democracies as unmarked by revolution or occupation during the 20th century. The longer a country is stable, the more complacent it becomes. Only the paranoid survive in business. The same is true of political establishments. ….

The future of the West is in Europe’s hands, argues Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who laments “any move to break away from the community of Western democracies forged after the close of World War II.” [T]he relationship between the United States and its European allies is about much more than who pays what, he writes for Foreign Policy:

The magic of the Western world is that it left behind this zero-sum, each-for-its-own world. After too many wars, the Atlantic democracies realized that escaping bloodshed meant fashioning an international community that rested on trust, consensual rules, multilateral institutions, and open trade. As a matter of course, members of this community sacrificed short-term gain in the service of long-term solidarity. The result has been an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity.

The central reason why Western democracy is in decline is that its capitalist bedfellow can no longer afford the financial demands that full-blown democracy is placing upon it, strategist Michael Power writes for The FT:

Democracy’s political demands have productively cohabited with the economics of capitalism for a century because the economic largesse that this arrangement produced was partially redistributed via the tax-the-winners and spend-on-the-falling-behinds mechanisms of social democracy. This persuaded those whose livelihoods required subsidisation to support this marriage of convenience. The rise of populism, the deepening divide between generations and the growth of anti-establishment political movements on both extremes of the political spectrum suggest this grand bargain may be losing its attraction. This cohabitation is threatened because the economic surpluses generated can no longer cover the level of political demands for subsidisation.

One prominent analyst and practitioner of national security affairs recently described the emergence of an “inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing common economic systems, forswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of governance,” RAND political scientist Michael J. Mazarr writes for Cipher Brief:

That sounds a lot like a community—and this seemingly idealistic claim comes from the uber-realist Henry Kissinger, writing in his new book, World Order. The existence of such a “cooperative order,” Kissinger explains, means that U.S. power is more legitimate, and thus effective, when deployed in service of shared goals and values.

Citizens across the world have shown an increasing distrust of politicians. Each election of late looks more like a “deselection”. The democratic political process is inherently about equity: a struggle for justice in the distribution of our collective economic pie, rather than the size of the pie itself, analyst Sébastien Thevoux-Chabuel writes for The FT:

The surge in populism, epitomised by the presidential victory of Donald Trump, the unexpected Brexit decision, and, more recently, Jeremy Corbyn’s surge in the recent UK election, has created high levels of disquiet among the political elite. The root cause for this bull market in populism is that electorates feel the system is not working for them, and maybe even against them.

Realism is the prudential calculation of probabilities, cloaking the mailed fist of power in the velvet glove of morality. FDR, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were quintessentially realists, analyst Paul Yingling writes for Foreign Policy. But, he fears, dismantling the system of mutual obligations that produced the longest period of great power peace in the nation-state era risks destroying the liberal international system that FDR and his successors created.


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