Democracy is on the ropes. So what are we going to do about it?

By Nicholas Wapshott
June 17, 2014

child holds her father's hand at a polling station in Kabul

Democracy is taking a bashing. On almost every continent, attempts to extend the right of people to choose their own government is running into deep trouble. In Iraq, Egypt, Ukraine, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many other countries, democracy is being overwhelmed by despotism and despair.

A commonly heard response is that Western democracy is not for everyone, that what works in our society does not automatically work elsewhere. Another is to suggest that we should not try to spread democracy to the rest of the world; it is none of our business.

Both views are mean and short-sighted. If the United States abandons democracy in the rest of the world, not only is the rest of the world sunk but tyranny will soon be heading our way as voting laws here become more restrictive.

It was 25 years ago, prompted by the collapse of Soviet communism, that Francis Fukuyama, now a Stanford professor, argued that the world had reached “the end of history” and that liberal democracy and free market capitalism was its final phase. It was now only a matter of time, he said, before the rest of the world caught up with the U.S. and Western Europe and ran their affairs along democratic lines.

At first he appeared to be right. Under the final Communist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia abandoned Marxism-Leninism and the Eastern European vassal states it had oppressed since World War Two liberated themselves. For the first time, countries like Poland and Ukraine voted freely. The onward rush toward democracy soon spread, culminating in a great wave of democratization in the Arab nations of North Africa and the Middle East.

Now that grand vision looks hopelessly naïve. Russia soon reverted to its default position: rule by despot, whether it be Peter the Great or Josef Stalin. Under the pretext he needed to restore order to a gangster nation, Vladimir Putin imposed a regime both oppressive and xenophobic. Human rights have been abandoned, Putin’s opponents are arbitrarily jailed, and elections have become a farce.

The old Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe fared better for a while, but even there true democracy often proved elusive. As a condition of joining the European Union, former Soviet vassal states had to hold free elections, guarantee the rule of law and safeguard individual human rights. Some countries did not need prompting; others found that old ways die hard.

As soon as they were EU members, some governments – of both left and right — reneged on their commitments and retreated into “managed democracies” or “electoral autocracies.” Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Romania, among others, abandoned true democracy and returned to a form of dictatorship. Despite efforts by the EU to promote democracy, many Eastern European leaders have played the West off against Russia.

What happened in Ukraine is typical. Having struggled for years to become democratic, the regime in Kiev was told it could not join the EU until it had set up a system of justice that would free political prisoners, among them former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko. It was during this hard bargaining with the EU that Putin made a counter-offer larded with rubles that the then Ukrainian premier, Viktor Yanukovich, quickly accepted, setting off the coup and the country’s present troubles.

Elsewhere, the Arab Spring has sprung. Egypt set the tone for its Arab neighbors by in 2011 ousting its dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and electing Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, who dismantled democratic safeguards and imposed Islamist restrictions on the country’s Western-leaning population. Egypt’s failed experiment in democracy was overturned by the military under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who earlier this month was elected president in Morsi’s place. Events in Libya and elsewhere echo this trend.

In the West, there is endless hand-wringing over the failure of Iraq’s democratically elected prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to keep his splintered nation together. Those being singled out for blame are: President Barack Obama, for not pressing Maliki to permanently station U.S. troops in the country and for not prodding him hard enough to involve the Sunni minority; President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for overthrowing the murderous tyrant Saddam Hussein; and even François Georges-Picot, Mark Sykes, and Gertrude Bell, who drew the borders of Iraq a century ago.

Voters have gone to the polls in Afghanistan to elect a new president, but there is little hope that once American and Allied troops leave the country that it will not be torn apart by the Taliban and the warring tribal chiefs who run the territory beyond the capital. Again, Western attempts to introduce democracy appear to have been a waste of lives and money.

A woman holds balloon with al-Sisi picture as Egyptians celebrate after the swearing-in ceremony of President elect Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, in  front of the Presidential Palace in CairoBeyond those who are using the current turmoil in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Ukraine for domestic political purposes, there is a general feeling among Americans that, having fought two wars for 10 years, it is time for the U.S. to pull back from the world. Neo-isolationism – the modern iteration of the popular movement that kept America out of World War Two for three years – is on the rise and leaders on both right and left are happy to ride the wave.

If only those abandoning the quest for democracy abroad would spend as much energy ensuring that democracy here is in good shape. Instead, it is often the very people who are calling for America to withdraw behind its borders and let the rest of the world hang who are helping the retreat of democracy at home.

One of the best gauges of democracy is how many citizens take part. In the 2012 presidential election, only three out of five Americans could bring themselves to vote. Why? Democracy in America is under attack.

The gerrymandering of constituency boundaries to ensure one-party rule; widespread attempts to alter rules governing who can vote and when on the pretext of non-existent voter fraud; and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United to allow corporations to give vast amounts of money to the campaigns of those who will do their bidding on Capitol Hill — all make a mockery of American democracy.

It was not always so. Brave American and Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago this month to free Europe and the world from Nazism. They did not flinch from promoting democracy, restoring it to those who had lost it through Axis occupation and annexation, and trying to extend it to the colonies of their fellow Allies.

With the very notion of democracy at risk, even in America, it is worth recalling the words of Winston Churchill, who for six long years urged free people to rise up against tyranny. “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise,” he said. “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government — except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Democracy, like a marriage, takes work if it is to survive and prosper. Amid the clamor to abandon our efforts to help democracy flourish around the world, it must be constantly nurtured both at home and abroad. There is nothing more likely to inspire democracy elsewhere than the example of democracy making a difference to ordinary Americans’ lives here at home.

With polls showing Americans reluctant to intervene to help struggling democracies, it would be easiest for politicians, particularly prospective presidential candidates, to fall in with the public mood. But, with memories of D-Day anniversary celebrations fresh in our minds this month, it is worth recalling that 75 years ago it was bold and ingenious leadership inspired by the noblest of motives that encouraged the Greatest Generation to put their personal self-interest aside and hurl themselves in to what would undoubtedly be their finest hour in freeing the world from tyranny.

TOP PHOTO: A child holds her father’s hand at a polling station in Kabul June 14, 2014. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail 

PHOTO: A woman holds a balloon with a picture of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as Egyptians celebrate after his swearing-in ceremony on June 8, 2014. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

14 comments

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Hey Nicholas – you are a nut. It wasn’t bold inspirational leadership – it was pearl harbor and a direct threat to the USA that lead to D-Day. War should be avoided at all cost – for sure we should not wage war to see that cultures buried in tribal rivalry might try the charade of democracy to rule themselves…

When the people if the USA realize that our way of life is threatened by political parties – that’s when the true bold inspirational leadership will rise and the people will take back our democracy and go back to working together to make things better.

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive

Democracy is rule of the Majority with the consent of the Minority. That second part gets lost in translation. In Egypt, Morsi was not even considering the majority but the Minority Muslim Brotherhood. There is no democracy where minorities are victimized. Iraq was working toward Democracy but never got there. Afghanistan is even further back in their attempt at representative government.
As for the bashing of the American system. The present Governemnt is also failing to address the consent of the minority. Those wanting fiscal responsibility and Governemnt brought under control are ridiculed as was those who predicted that Russia would take advantage of any geopolitical opertunity to retake territory they agreed to cede to Ukraine. No other Democracy has the absurd system where anyone can vote without effective anti fraud measures. Our antifraud measures are based on willful ignorance and intentional obfuscation. Fighting every effort that might bring voter fraud to light. Gerrymandering has been used by both sides and is only a hot topic because it is in opposition to the authors obvious bend.

Posted by DennisVictor223 | Report as abusive

This author has drunk the koolaid, in fact guzzled it.

WE are in favour of democracy? Not for others, if our history has anything to do with it! WE favour democracy if the uotcome looks to upset a rival of ours. Ask the people of Latin America what democracy promotion means by the united states of shame.

Disappearances, death squads, torture and military juntas, all installed and supported on the taxpayer dime. That the author can write this and keep a serious face is indeed an achievement

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

Democracy is dead. We are now ruled by corporations who purchase politicians. Your vote is which corporation you work for. Corporations provide your income, your healthcare (or not) etc. Corporations are taking over the world. Democracy is dead.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

“UScitizentoo: Democracy is dead in the USA. We are 100% controlled by corporations who purchase politicians. Democracy is dead. The world is going to be taken over entirely by corporations, your vote will be who you work for.”

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Democracy certainly is not dead, but it’s taking a major beating, and mainly from people like the person above. The US has not suffered from true hardship, for a very long time now. People don’t have any clue what real suffering is now. The market takes a little dip, or there’s a little war somewhere, and they think it’s the end of the world. Then it doesn’t help that the media force-feeds them doom and gloom every single day. So next thing you know, you have millions of people content to just sit around and complain about everything, endlessly. The people who keep whining about not having any power, are just using that as an excuse. Those people are typically the people who do the LEAST to make a difference. By claiming that they have no power, they can then look themselves in the mirror every night, and sleep well… because in their mind, that means that they don’t have to be accountable. “Nope, not my fault… It’s the big evil corporations and rich people’

Most problems can be fixed quite easily. The masses have the real power… They’re just too lazy to use it. Think there’s not enough jobs and pay is bad? Stop buying cheap Chinese stuff at Walmart, and only buy US made stuff. That would quickly force retailers to carry more US made products, which in turn would create more jobs and better pay. But the public won’t do that… The biggest complainers of all will keep buying the cheap Chinese stuff, then make up some ridiculous excuse for not being accountable, like claiming the price of US made stuff is a “ripoff”.

Same with banks… Don’t like the way a bank treats you? You don’t have to picket in front of city hall for months… Just take your money out of the bank, and bring it to a smaller bank that would be happy to treat you better. Problem solved. But once again, most people would prefer to whine and complain, and blame somebody else. Changing banks is too much work.

Don’t like how politicians do their job? How about voting for somebody that has an actual realistic plan… A plan that, god forbid, might actually make you compromise, or make a sacrifice. But no… People will vote for some loser, because he stands up there and makes a bunch of empty promises that can never happen, or they’ll vote for somebody, simply because they’re just the opposite of the other people they hate.

The public can make all kinds of differences, but it takes effort. Something that most Americans are way too spoiled to do at this point. People want America to be some socialist heaven, like Denmark or something. Are they going to pay the same taxes as a Denmark? No, of course not. They want everything to happen by magic.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Mr. Wapshott, how could you possible write a piece on international democracy and not mention India? The world largest democracy? Shame on you.

Every country has a version or piece of democracy in its government. Even those that do not proclaim democracy but decry it. The US version of democracy, a representative republic is a fairly good one. The problem with all of them is the people in them. They generally start out pretty well but eventually collapse, as all human organizations do. I think it was Thomas Jefferson that indicated that governments should restart themselves every 20 years. This would probably lengthen any of them and severely limit corruption.
The US, as other commenters have said, is no longer even a republic. We are an oligarchy controlled via corporations. As I’ve said many times, it’s the USCA: The United States of Corporate America.

China is doing a fine job of mixing democracy with socialism. The economic outcome proves this well and the fact that 1.4 billion people are basically content and getting happier as there economy grows.
I have great hope that they will provide the leadership this world needs as the USCA crumbles.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Interesting that the comment says our “way of life” is threatened by political parties” and that “true bold inspirational leadership will rise” sounds like a citizen perhaps many ready for a dictator to “inspire” the population to work together (for the dear leader). America needs a lot less “inspirational leaders” and a lot less government and regulation and taxes and public union leaches so they can get back to spending their own money and creating new businesses. We need a lot less of government if we want to get “better”!!!

Posted by gregio | Report as abusive

“Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United to allow corporations to give vast amounts of money to the campaigns of those who will do their bidding on Capitol Hill — all make a mockery of American democracy”

The single greatest reason for the loss of true democracy. The American government no longer repsents the people, but a small wealthy minority. Anyone that tells you different is a sheep jamming to the media tune

Posted by gjdm | Report as abusive

The writer neglects to mention that Fascism is the preferred form of governance for the corporate state. And one other massive inaccuracy; in the USA we do not wage war for the sake of spreading democracy.
No we are about spreading anarchy in which our corporations can operate without check or hindrance from state regulations.

Posted by ChrisHerz | Report as abusive

unfortunately this is what passes for journalism nowadays. even if this wapshott guy honestly believes what he is writing, which i have no reason to doubt, shouldn’t the editor have thrown it in the bin? Journalism, information in general, is our only safeguard, the measure of journalism is the condition we find society.

Posted by iwonderwho | Report as abusive

This is not rocket science, it is the wealthy all over the world and here in the US who interfere, support militants to do their bidding to satisfy their greedy interests. This is the same greed and avarice that has plagued the world since time began. The people who do the work and pay all the taxes need to rise up and demand some rights and benefits for the money they pay out each year. The men of that class who sell their soul to military service need to be sure what they are fighting for. They should be fighting for the rights of their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, to live a relatively free and happpy life, to live, work, feed a family, and have some time for rest. It is not so complicated.

Posted by tpvero | Report as abusive

“Democracy, like a marriage, takes work if it is to survive and prosper. Amid the clamor to abandon our efforts to help democracy flourish around the world, it must be constantly nurtured both at home and abroad.”

Absolutely, totally agree. Those who say democracy is dead are passively participating in its demise.

Posted by KVM342 | Report as abusive

Democracy requires that members of a group/tribe/nation co-operate for the common good. Our instinct for co-operation is now however overshadowed by the equally (more?) powerful greed, selfishness instinct.
Democracy cannot endure under the current conditions that human nature finds itself.

What to do? We at home must practice real Democracy, voluntarily supporting the co-operation instinct, which will gradually replace the selfish instinct by evolutionary pressures.

If we want Democracy to survive, we must show the rest of the world how good it can be for everyone. Right now we are not practicing Democracy and it shows. Others are trying more autocratic systems, seeing how we have screwed up Democracy.

Posted by Al100 | Report as abusive

Cold war fought to a “standstill”? In what universe was that?

Posted by Livonia | Report as abusive

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