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Global democracy is spiraling down. Here’s what that looks like — and what President-elect Trump should do.

In this series, FSI experts share their recommendations for President-elect Trump.

By Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and at the Hoover Institution

One of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing President-elect Trump is the deepening global recession of freedom and democracy. For most of the past decade this recession has been mild and slowly gathering. But recently it has gained significant and deeply troubling momentum.

Some of the worrisome trends have been documented by Freedom House in its annual survey of Freedom in the World. Levels of political rights and civil liberties have steadily receded from their historic highs around 2005. For each of the last 10 years, significantly more countries have declined in freedom than have improved — a striking reversal of the previous 15-year, post-Cold War trend. The rate of democratic breakdown has been steadily increasing. One out of every six democracies that has existed during this past decade has failed — twice the failure rate of the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

Generally, these democratic setbacks have not involved the old formula of a military coup or a blatant executive seizure of power, shutting down the legislature and opposition parties. Instead, democratic failure generally takes a more subtle and incremental path of decay. Democratically elected executives gradually undermine independent governmental institutions — the courts, legislature, local and regional governments, and independent agencies of accountability. They erode constraints on their power. And they shrink space for monitoring, criticism and dissent within critical arenas of civil society, such as the mass media, NGOs, think tanks and universities.

Here’s what a democracy’s downward spiral also typically involves:

  • Increasing state surveillance and censorship of the internet
  • Diffuse decay in the rule of law
  • Increasing fear and intimidation as protections for civil liberties crumble
  • Banning the receipt of financial and technical assistance by international aid agencies and democracy foundations
  • Blatant pressure on the business community to serve the ruling party
  • The cancerous spread of crony capitalism and state corruption
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This is the playbook for strangling democracy that was deftly implemented by Vladimir Putin in Russia and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in the early 2000s. In recent years Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pursued it more and more aggressively, especially after the failed military coup attempt this past July. And the newly elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is quickly treading along a similar path.

Since coming to office on June 30, Duterte has unleashed a wave of police and vigilante violence against alleged drug traffickers and drug users that has so far killed more than 3,500 people — a number of them innocent bystanders — without even a gesture toward due process. What Amnesty International has termed “state-sanctioned violence on a truly shocking scale” shows no signs of abating. Indeed, Duterte has said, “Hitler massacred three million Jews, now, there are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

Two other elements have accelerated the global democratic recession:

  1. Ascendance of new tools and strategies by the most powerful and entrenched autocracies — especially Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia — to contain democratic pressures in their own countries, undermine its spread regionally, and subvert the liberal international order by promoting authoritarian norms and institutions.
  2. Weakness of advanced democracies (especially in Europe and the United States), which have failed to respond to the authoritarian trend while struggling with growing illiberal, nativist and populist pressures of their own.

If President-elect Trump does not develop a strategy for defending and assisting troubled democracies and pushing back against the resurgence of authoritarianism, this democratic recession could morph into a very dark period for freedom in the world.