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Five Questions on Growing Global Pessimism about Democracy

April 17, 2024
David Samuels

David Samuels

Broad-based international support for democracy has eroded over the last decade. Authoritarian great powers Russia and China are on the rise, while a number of once-consolidated democracies are backsliding. These challenges may arise from inattention on the part of the prodemocracy camp itself, whether in the United States, the European Union, or even the Vatican. In this interview, IGCC research director Stephan Haggard talks with David Samuels, distinguished McKnight university professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and a UC San Diego alumnus, about his new article, “The International Context of Democratic Backsliding: Rethinking the Role of Third Wave “Prodemocracy” Global Actors.”

Much of IGCC’s work on illiberal regimes and international organizations assumes that advanced industrial democracies are seeking to “do the right thing”—that is, promote democracy and human rights globally. Your piece challenges that. Can you lay out the argument?

Thirty years ago, when I started studying democratization, there was great optimism that the world was heading in the “right” direction, towards greater political and civil rights. Times have changed. Today, pessimism about the future of democracy is pervasive. How did we get here?

One of the most important studies of regime change in the late-20th century was Samuel Huntington’s book The Third Wave. “Too many dissimilar countries are going through similar processes of political change around same time for domestic factors to explain everything,” said Huntington, and therefore “transnational factors must also be at work.” Huntington was not talking about the material balance of power between democracies and dictatorships—what mattered more was the ideational balance of power, the relative strength, coherence, and appeal of different ideologies and the key actors promoting those ideologies.

During the Cold War, the United States, the European Union (EU), and the Vatican were strong and united in promoting democracy, and they had powerful strategic incentives to do so as part of an ideological competition against communism. Key nondemocratic actors, such as the Soviet Union, were collapsing, and China was not the powerhouse that it is today. By the end of the Cold War, democracy stood triumphant over its rivals. No other form of government had any real appeal.

I suggest that pessimism today is rooted in how the reconfiguration of global politics after the Cold War and the War on Terror has filtered through domestic politics in the West to weaken incentives to support democracy. It’s not an either-or proposition, but the prodemocracy winds are not blowing as consistently and powerfully as they were during the Third Wave of democratization.

Let’s break this down by each of the actors that you identify, starting with the United States. Clearly the presidency of Donald Trump and the prospect of a second term raise questions about the U.S. commitment to democracy abroad. But you note a longer arc including the Bush-era War on Terror. How, exactly, do developments in the United States have an impact abroad?

During the Cold War, political pressure to stand up to communism abroad was intimately connected to a demand to deepen democracy at home. To highlight the faults of Soviet totalitarianism, the United States had to prove its democratic bona fides to the world. After World War II, the United States had to deal with the hypocrisy of having “fought for democracy” while not being fully democratic itself. The Soviets exploited U.S. racism in the battle to win hearts and minds in developing countries. The United States could not win that battle unless it enacted domestic political reforms. Both U.S. political parties had incentives to fight communism, even though both were split over supporting equal rights at home. We can’t understand U.S. democratization in the late-20th century without the Cold War geopolitical context.

Once the Cold War was over, there was no external enemy to unite the two parties in foreign policy. Neither Russia nor China represent an existential threat to the United States. Russia can’t even defeat a weaker, smaller, poorer country on its own border. Putinism does not inspire worldwide movements as Marxism-Leninism did. Nobody sees Russia as a model to emulate.

Although China’s 1949 revolution helped spread the “domino theory”—the idea that if one country came under the influence of communism, it would spread to other countries—and drove fear of communism in the United States, its rise to superpower status does not inspire existential dread in the West. In an effort to “engage” China and bring it into the global economic system, the West has deliberately ignored China’s human rights abuses for decades, from Tiananmen Square to Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. When U.S. officials call attention to the “China threat,” the alarms are not about China’s system of government. The lack of ideological content to global competition is a key source of U.S. complacency about democracy.

Domestic political incentives to defend democracy abroad have also eroded in the United States. With 9/11 and the War on Terror, it’s pretty simple to understand that it’s impossible to hunt down and imprison or kill terrorists and advance democracy in the same breath. It’s also clear that Republicans have, since the 1990s, realigned their platform around white backlash against Cold War-era democratizing reforms, such as civil and voting rights reforms. Trump has successfully exploited this deeply illiberal strain in the U.S. electorate and today, core elements of the party even support Putin’s war in Ukraine and his efforts to fight liberalism in Russia and elsewhere.

The bottom line is that the collapse of the Soviet Union shifted U.S. priorities. The 1990s was the era of globalization and the Washington Consensus. Democracy promotion was part of this agenda, but it wasn’t top of the list, and was gradually deprioritized and then put on a permanent back burner by the War on Terror. Today, unlike during the Cold War, there’s no pressure to defend democracy against an existential threat coming from an alternative system. It’s therefore unlikely that Democrats and Republicans will unite to defend democracy in the name of competing with Russia or China. Ongoing pressure to pursue terrorists continues to conflict with the United States’ ostensible goal of promoting democracy and human rights abroad.

Your observations on the EU track with what we have found in our research (see here, here, and here). You describe some of the factors that make it difficult for the EU to address democratic backsliding among its members. Do you think Europe can reverse its relative passivity on this issue?

I don’t. Democracy in the EU depends on domestic-level commitments to democracy, not on anything the EU itself can do. It’s paradoxical. As it expanded in 1980s into formerly authoritarian regions of Europe, the EU imposed the Copenhagen criteria, which say that to become an EU member, states have to adopt democracy. Yet today the EU seems unable to prevent backsliding within its own ranks. EU enlargement, once the incubator of European democracy, now incubates illiberalism. But why?

The problem lies with the EU’s internal structure. The EU’s lack of transparency in terms of citizens’ (in)ability to obtain information about public policies and difficulty holding EU elected and unelected officials to accounts—its well-known “democracy deficit”—tends to foster populist anti-EU reactions, of which Brexit is the most successful example. More importantly, in terms of enlargement, prospective EU member states have incentives to tell Brussels what it wants to hear, but then do the opposite once inside the bloc. To compound this problem, the EU’s norm of noninterference in domestic politics conflicts with its requirement that members adhere to democratic rules.

The EU has no ability to sanction backsliders and zero incentives to expel members who refuse to comply with democratic principles, meaning that its threats have no teeth. The EU is great at enforcing economic liberalism, but not political liberalism. The EU’s complacency has yet to be factored into broader sources of pessimism about democracy’s global prospects.

I found your arguments about the Vatican to be particularly interesting. We think of the Vatican as standing up for democracy, especially during the Cold War. What happened?

The Vatican’s impact on backsliding is less well-known than the EU’s, particularly given the prominent pro-democracy role the pope played during the Third Wave. But it’s crucial to remember that for centuries, the Catholic Church was explicitly antidemocratic. Even after World War II, it took 20 more years for the Vatican to come to grips with fascism with the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). Doing so gave it a chance to take a stand in the Cold War battle against communism.

Pope John Paul II’s advocacy of democracy was instrumental, a means of defeating “godless communism” and freeing “captive nations” with large Catholic populations. The church has always been more antitotalitarian than prodemocracy. For centuries it opposed anything associated with Enlightenment liberalism, especially the idea of freedom of conscience. Yet in the 20th century, the church saw that antiliberal totalitarianism on both the left and the right threatened the church more than liberalism, since liberals allowed for freedom of worship, unlike totalitarian regimes.

World War II eliminated right-wing totalitarianism as a threat, which let the church focus on the left-wing totalitarianism. In the 1960s, the Catholic Church aligned its doctrine to some degree with liberal principles. In this regard, the election of John Paul II—who was Polish—in 1978 was no accident. The church was deliberately sticking a thumb in eye of communist regimes.

However, the Soviet collapse never eliminated the church’s centuries-old ambivalence about democracy. Despite Vatican II, the Cold War fight against communism did not reverse centuries of organizational, doctrinal, and political conservativism within the Vatican. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the rationale for alliances with liberal forces disintegrated, but the church’s ambivalence toward democracy remained.

The Vatican is now facing its own internal battles over the central challenge it faces from contemporary liberalism: progressive policies about gender, sexuality, and reproductive freedom. I’m not saying the Vatican today opposes democracy, but the energies of some national dioceses have shifted towards ideas that are often deeply at odds with liberalism.

Your piece reaches pessimistic conclusions. Much will hinge on the U.S. election this year, but are there other avenues through which these issues might be addressed? Is there a role for international organizations to fill some of the voids you have identified?

We really have to think about international factors when considering democracy’s future. We can appreciate the degree to which the spread of democracy in the late-20th century was contingent on ideological competition. Today, changes in the international context since 1990 have weakened the incentives of these same powerful actors to advance democracy.

The key change is the disappearance of communism as an existential threat to capitalist democracy and the Catholic Church, but we can’t discount how the War on Terror has undermined incentives for the United States and EU to support democracy around world. Today, internal political divides about democracy and liberalism within each major Third Wave prodemocracy actor help explain contemporary pessimism about the possibilities for consolidating democracy around the world.

Thumbnail credit: U.S. Department of State