A Global Report on the Decline of Democracy

April 17, 2018

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“Centralization of power in the executive, politicization of the judiciary, attacks on indepen­dent media, the use of public office for private gain—the signs of democratic regression are well known. The only surprising thing is where they’ve turned up,” writes Editor Gideon Rose in his introduction to the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. “As a Latin American friend put it ruefully, ‘We’ve seen this movie before, just never in English.’” The issue’s lead package, “Is Democracy Dying?, puts the country’s current troubles into historical and international perspective.

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“There is now a pervasive sense of despair about American democracy,” writes Bard College Professor Walter Russell Mead. But, reflecting on the transformation, social upheaval, and political failure in the decades following the end of the U.S. Civil War, Mead notes that United States failed its way to success then, and can do so again. “Humans are problem-solving animals. We thrive on challenges,” he writes. “The good news and the bad news are perhaps the same: the American people, in common with others around the world, have the opportunity to reach unimaginable levels of affluence and freedom.”

“The long century during which Western liberal democracies dominated the globe has ended for good,” write Harvard University lecturer Yascha Mounk and University of Melbourne lecturer Roberto Stefan Foa. They argue that such governments have gotten worse at delivering economic growth, whereas authoritarian states have gotten better at doing so. “The only remaining question now is whether democracy will transcend its once firm anchoring in the West, a shift that would create the conditions for a truly global democratic century—or whether democ­racy will become, at best, the lingering form of government in an economically and demographically declining corner of the world.”

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“The immediate cause of rising support for authoritarian, xenophobic populist movements is a reaction against immigration (and, in the United States, rising racial equality),” observes University of Michigan Professor Ronald Inglehart. He warns that the world is experiencing the most severe democratic setback since the rise of fascism in the 1930s. “But all is not lost. Today’s democratic decline can be reversed,” he writes, “if rich countries address the growing inequality of recent decades and manage the transition to the automated economy.”

While most pundits argue that China has bucked the traditional path of modernization by making economic reforms but not political ones, University of Michigan Associate Professor Yuen Yuen Ang argues that “China has in fact pursued significant political reforms—just not in the manner that Western observers expected.” Describing China as an “autocracy with democratic characteristics,” she catalogues many behind-the-scenes bureaucratic reforms that have not delivered political freedom but that have made the government more responsive. She cautions, however, that “As prosperity continues to increase and demands on the bureaucracy grow, the limits of this approach are beginning to loom large.”

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“Eastern European populism is a recent phenomenon, but it has deep roots in the region’s politics and is unlikely to go away anytime soon,” writes Centre for Liberal Strategies’ Chair Ivan Krastev. He outlines how the demographic changes that followed the 1989 revolutions—namely, the departure of “the most educated and liberal eastern Europeans”—set the stage for the region’s current democratic backsliding in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere. Writing of voters’ embrace of illiberal democracy, he laments, “What makes it particularly dangerous is that it is an authoritarianism born within the framework of democracy itself.”

 

Additional highlights from the issue:

 

“Xi [Jinping] has matched the dramatic growth of his personal power with an equally dramatic intensification of the Chinese Communist Party’s power in society and the economy,” writes CFR Senior Fellow Elizabeth C. Economy, author of The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, in a detailed portrait of China’s ambitious leader. “For the foreseeable future, then, the United States will have to deal with China as it is: an illiberal state seeking to reshape the international system in its own image.”

The opioid crisis, once confined mostly to the United States, is starting to go global, raising the specter of “a global opioid epidemic,” warn Stanford University’s Keith Humphreys, Carnegie Mellon University’s Jonathan P. Caulkins, and Brookings Institution’s Vanda Felbab-Brown. “Yet in the face of this terrifying possibility, the world has remained largely complacent. Governments and international organizations urgently need to learn the lessons of the North American crisis,” they write, calling for greater regulation of the sale and marketing of opioids. A global pandemic is avoidable, “but only if the world’s governments stop sleepwalking toward disaster.”

Texas A&M University’s F. Gregory Gause III notes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “concentrated authority and evident will to shake up the system make it possible for him to do great things. But he has also removed the restraints that have made Saudi foreign and domestic policy cautious, conservative, and ultimately successful amid the crises of the modern Middle East.” Gause also asks “whether the crown prince can pull off his high-stakes gamble . . . without destabilizing his country and adding to the region’s chaos.”

“When it comes to North Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies have been whiplash inducing,” argue Georgetown University Professor Victor Cha and Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Fellow Katrin Fraser Katz, who lay out a fresh strategy to coerce Pyongyang. “Trump’s newfound enthusiasm for diplomacy has temporarily lowered the temperature on the Korean Peninsula, but it also underlines a bigger question: Does the United States have a strategy for North Korea, or are these twists and turns merely the whims of a temperamental president?”

“North Korea has all but completed its quest for nuclear weapons” and “the result is a new, more dangerous phase in the U.S.–North Korean relationship: a high-stakes nuclear standoff,” observe Columbia University’s Robert Jervis and Yale Law School’s Mira Rapp-Hooper. “Regardless of whether diplomacy proceeds or the United States turns its focus to other tools—sanctions, deterrence, even military force—the same underlying challenge will remain: the outcome of this standoff will be determined by whether and how each country can influence the other.”

 

Also in this issue—

 

A package examining the global impact of the gene-editing revolution—including an essay about the potential for gene editing to transform global development by Gates Foundation’s Bill Gates, an interview with CRISPR codiscoverer Jennifer Doudna, and essays on regulating gene editing and the next generation of bioweapons.

 

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