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A User's Guide to Democratic Transitions

Authors: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program, and Terra Lawson-Remer
June 18, 2013
Foreign Policy


Let's face it: Democracy is struggling. Sure, it surged after the fall of the Berlin Wall, reaching a high-water mark in the first years of the 21st century with various inspirational "colored" revolutions. But then democratic gains in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America stalled, or even deteriorated, as fragile democracies struggled under the enormous challenge of governance. The expensive U.S. failures to impose democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan haven't helped. Today, many countries that once seemed budding with democratic promise now appear mired in political infighting, beset by power grabs by ousted elites, or trapped in downward spirals of poverty and unemployment. And the seemingly inexorable rise of autocratic China, in sharp contrast with gridlocked western democracies, has some wondering whether democracy is even worth pursuing.

While many people have enjoyed rising wealth and stability under autocracy (most of them in China), we remain convinced that democracy is the least bad form of government out there, to paraphrase Churchill. And thankfully, there's some statistical evidence to back up our belief that democracy is still the best way to realize both freedom and prosperity. Although economists for more than 50 years have debated whether democracy or autocracy is better for growth, more recent studies tip toward democracy.

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