In the year since Egypt's Tahrir Square uprising, some of the world's longest-surviving dictators have fallen from power, men who once seemed likely to die in their (very plush) beds. The Arab Spring that spread from Tunisia to Egypt claimed Yemen's Ali Saleh and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and is now gunning for Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Closed societies and quasi-autocracies from Myanmar to Russia to Singapore have also witnessed stirrings of democratic change. Carl Gershman, head of the National Endowment for Democracy, the leading American democracy promotion organization, wrote that we may be entering "a Fourth Wave of democratization, which could extend democracy's reach into other regions of the world that have been most resistant to democratic change."
Don't count on it. Despite the Arab Spring, democracy actually retreated around the globe in 2011, as has been true for the last five years. For every country that has made the transition to democracy, there are numerous others—from Hungary to Pakistan, Nigeria to Thailand—that have gone backward. And public opinion surveys reveal increasing skepticism among people everywhere about whether democracy is the form of government that can best improve their lives.
The decline of democracy is a story of dashed hopes, as elected leaders have failed to deliver on their promises to boost growth while using state institutions to destroy their opponents. The economic crisis that has battered Europe, North America, and parts of Asia is also placing more stress on fragile democracies, creating a vicious cycle: The development record of dictatorships is abysmal, and they are much more likely to stumble into destabilizing conflicts. Should more countries regress into authoritarian rule, instability will increase, darkening the world economy's recovery prospects.
So what can be done? Restoring the world's commitment to democracy would bolster growth and improve the quality of life for billions. But doing so requires those in the developed world to fix what ails their democracies, too.