Is there a global decline in democracy? Round table with Larry Diamond

May 11, 2017

“A quality democracy should blend and balance three main elements: popular sovereignty or majority rule, protection of freedom for everyone and for minority rights, and the permanent reaffirmation of values such as moderation, civic responsibility and tolerance.”

Larry Diamond, professor of political science and sociology at Stanford University — is one of the founders of the Journal of Democracy

After an “impressive third wave of democratization” in the 1980s and 1990s, in the last decade this process has stagnated, with a decline in freedom, human rights, the transparency and efficiency of the state, justice and equality, among other pillars of democracy, in diverse countries and regions, aggravated by the paralysis of institutions of global cooperation and by a counter-attack on the part of autocratic regimes, in particular Russia.

These were the central ideas in the round table discussion held in the Fundação Fernando Henrique Cardoso with the North American political scientist Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and coordinator of the democracy program at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, at Stanford University. Larry also spoke about the importance of educating the young in democratic values (read more about this subject at the end of this text).

“The third wave of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s was unprecedented and resulted in a great expansion in democratic values and institutions, in Latin America, Southeastern and Eastern Asia, as well in the former communist block (Eastern Europe and the republics of the extinct Soviet Union). Some kind of reflux was inevitable”, he stated.

At the same time, authoritarian countries such as Russia, China and Iran, principally, have invested significant amounts to increase their influence around the world. “They have not only censored internet access by their own populations but have also invested heavily in technology, media, communication and infrastructure to project a kind of ‘soft power’”, said Larry.

Read the article “The Authoritarian Threat: The Hijacking of “Soft Power”, by Christopher Walker, in the Journal of Democracy.

The most recent example of this counter attack was Russia’s cybernetic espionage during the recent North American presidential election, which may have been a decisive factor in the victory of Republican Donald Trump, considered close to the Russian president Vladimir Putin. “(This episode) was just the beginning of what will become an ever more sophisticated intrusion by a foreign state into the democratic processes of other nations. The Russians also tried to influence the election in France, this time unsuccessfully”, said Diamond.

According to Larry, the Russian government has also sought to “mix true and false information in the most diverse media, from TV to the internet, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish what is false from what is true”. On this subject, he suggested reading the article “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Countering Democratic Norms”.

Five factors that explain the stagnation of democracy worldwide

The stagnation or reflux of the third wave of democracy; however, is not explained just by the counter-offensive from autocratic regimes. According to the speaker, a numerous set of factors must be considered:

1. September 11 and the War on Terror
After the attacks on the twin towers in New York in 2001, the USA and its allies started a world war was against the Al Qaeda terrorists and the regimes supporting them, with mixed results that are difficult to measure. Diverse extremist groups have taken the place of Al Qaeda in Asia and Africa, and Islamic terrorism has not been defeated until today.

2. The invasion of Iraq and the destabilization of the Middle East
In 2003, the then North American president George W. Bush, with support from the United Kingdom, invaded Iraq based on the later unproven argument that the dictator Saddam Hussein was concealing chemical weapons. Since then, the Arab country has faced internal conflicts and new threats, including the emergence and strengthening of the Islamic State, also present in Syria with active cells in diverse countries.

3. The failure of the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria
In 2011, important countries in the Middle East such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya experienced waves of protests that overturned authoritarian regimes, but to date democracy has only survived in the former of these. Syria has been engaged in civil war for six years, with hundreds of thousands dead, and waves of refugees fleeing to Europe, with no end in sight.

4. The adverse effects of globalization and automation on employment
Although economic globalization has enabled many countries to improve living conditions for their populations, it has had the effect of shifting jobs and is today perceived as something negative mainly by a significant part of North Americans and Europeans. The technological revolution has brought great advances in mobility, communication and access to information, but has extinguished many jobs, a phenomenon that will continue to grow.

5. The 2008 financial crisis and Europe in check
From 2008, the United States suffered a crisis, practically dragging the whole world down along with it. Europe was hard hit, putting the entire European Union (EU) integration process in check, culminating in the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the block (Brexit).

‘Nothing is guaranteed’

Even in countries that have overcome authoritarian experiences in the recent past and since then have reached a certain level of social and economic development there is no guarantee that democracy has been consolidated. “In the 2000s, I believed that Thailand would not have another military coup, and I had great hopes for Turkey. No longer”, said the North American, currently one of the major authors of comparative studies on democracy.

Diamond even expressed concern about North American democracy:

“In response to Trump’s election, American scholars have created a monitoring group called Bright Line Watch, to identify signs and milestones in the deterioration in democracy in the United States”, he said. The group will organize a conference at Yale University (Connecticut) this coming October.

‘Electoral’ versus ‘liberal’ democracy

At the beginning of his talk, Larry Diamond made a distinction between what he calls “electoral democracies”, in which citizens choose who will govern them in (relatively) free and fair elections, and “liberal democracies”, which do in fact achieve a higher standard of respect for principles such as freedom of expression and participation, guarantees for human rights and respect for minorities, control over the government, free initiative, free competition, and entitlement to property, among others.

“According to the essay on the quality of democracy written in partnership with the Italian political scientist Leonardo Morlino, a good democracy needs the ongoing and loyal support of the majority of the population”, he claimed.

Democratic recession

From the Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the end of the Soviet Union (1990) and the Cold War (1947–1991), there was progress towards strengthening the Rule of Law and collective and individual freedom in most countries in the world, but this trend has recently been reversed in significant heavily populated countries such as Russia, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, Nigeria and Venezuela, the speaker stated.

“When people lose hope in democracy, generally it is due to fragile Rule of Law, which is manifest (or results) in corruption and abuse of power, an inefficient justice system and impunity, violence, criminality, poverty and inequality”, he said.

Read the 2017 Freedom House report, entitled Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to World Democracy.

“In Latin America and in the Caribbean, 85% of the states are considered to be ‘electoral democracies’, but only 48% may also considered ‘liberal’”, said Diamond. “I would not include Paraguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru or even Colombia among the latter”, said the researcher, for whom “Venezuela is certainly no longer a democracy”. He also expressed concern about Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico, the latter due to violence related to drug trafficking.

Brazil ‘must not retreat’

During the round table, the Brazil-based North American journalist and analyst Norman Gall, director of the Fernand Braudel Institute of World Economics, in Sao Paulo, questioned the speaker about the situation in Brazil, which, according to Gall, “is experiencing a profound political crisis, endemic corruption, with no new leaders emerging or new ideas being generated”.

In response, the North American specialist argued that Brazil must maintain its incessant fight against corruption. “I don’t see how (Brazilian) democracy can evolve, if society, the political world, the courts and the media take a step backwards in the implacable investigation into the nature and extension of corruption. If Brazil is to have a democratic future, there is no room for cynicism and prevarication”, he affirmed.

Nationalism and xenophobia

In Europe, the persistence of the economic crisis and unemployment, recent terrorist attacks, a number of which undertaken by young Europeans from Muslim families who have immigrated to the old continent in the past decades, and the fear provoked by the waves of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa have resulted in an upsurge in nationalism, in xenophobia and growing mistrust regarding the EU.

All of these processes, compounded by internal problems specific to each country, have contributed to the reversal of the advance of democracy in some Eastern European countries that had freed themselves from the yoke of communism and authoritarianism and been integrated into the EU. This is the case of Hungary, ruled by nationalist leader Viktor Orban since 2010, and Poland, where the eurosceptic nationalists of the Law and Justice Party won the elections in 2015.

But it was Brexit, in July 2016, that sent out a warning signal due to the fear that it could unleash a wave of victories of anti-European and even xenophobic candidates in other European countries. For the time being, this wave has been contained with the re-election of the current prime minister Mark Rutte (right-wing liberal) of Holland, defeating the nationalist Geert Wilders, and the victory of the centrist Emmanuel Macron in France, against the far rightist Marine Le Pen.

Trump’s populism

Meanwhile, all eyes are on the United States, where the Republican Donald Trump was elected in 2016 with a discourse based on putting “America first”. “Even the United States, historically open to immigration, has been manipulated by Trump with an anti-immigration discourse, criticisms of international commercial treaties and agreements and the appeal of right-wing authoritarian populism”, said Diamond.

“Consolidated democracies such as those in North America and Western Europe do not die from one minute to the other, but undoubtedly we are experiencing a deterioration of their liberal characteristics”, said the Stanford lecturer. In global institutions, the main liberal-democratic powers have had difficulty in acting in concert.

Diamond also criticized the American president’s attacks against the Judiciary and the media, his attempts at self-victimization and the demonization of his adversaries and the recent dismissal of James Comey, the FBI director who was investigating the suspected involvement of the Republican candidate with Russia.

Why Beijing is increasingly important

For Larry Diamond, the most pressing international issue of the moment is the possibility of North Korea successfully testing a ballistic missile with the capacity to launch a nuclear warhead against a North American city. “One way or another, the USA will prevent this threat from materializing”, he said, making it clear that the military alternative is on the table. “Trump retreated from his threats against China (made during the election campaign) when he realized how important Beijing is in finding a solution for the North Korean problem before a catastrophe happens”, he continued.

Political ‘Outsiders’

Larry said that it is natural at a time when democracy is facing difficulties worldwide that people elect newcomers or even outsiders from the political world. “President (Barack) Obama himself was a novelty (when he was elected in 2008) and performed reasonably well in office. Lack of experience is not desirable, but it is preferable to other alternatives (non-democratic and radical)”, he stated.

“Just now in France, for example, it was better that the French chose someone who presented himself as an ‘outsider’, although he has some experience and is committed to governing responsibly and respecting everyone”, he said, referring to the election of Macron (ex-minister of the Economy, who in addition to beating Le Pen, defeated the most traditional parties in French politics).

Educating people about democratic values

Upon ending his talk, the Harvard professor answered a question posed by the educator Beatriz Cardoso about what a country’s main investment should be to develop and maintain its democracy. “I think it is education, but what do you recommend?”, Beatriz asked.

“Each country has its specificities and its priorities at a given moment in time. But there is something that is always a priority: educating young people about the values of democracy. This is even more essential these days, because of the social media, where so much false news, cynicism and distortion circulate. Civic education is an essential instrument in ensuring that young people become socialized respecting democratic values”, he concluded.

Otávio Dias is a journalist specialized in international affairs. He was correspondent of the Folha in London, editor of the website estadão.com.br and chief editor of the Brasil Post, a partnership between the Huffington Post and the Abril group.