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What's Behind the Worldwide Decline of Democracy?

From Donald Trump, Hungary's xenophobic prime minister Viktor Orbán, post-coup Turkey, and Africa's "third-term problem" of leaders clinging to power, the past few months haven't exactly looked good for democracy.

by Philip Kleinfeld
Oct 18 2016, 5:30pm

Photo by Henry Langston

From Donald Trump, Hungary's xenophobic prime minister Viktor Orbán, post-coup Turkey, and Africa's "third-term problem" of leaders clinging to power, the past few months haven't exactly looked good for democracy. For some, it's just a temporary blip, but according to Brian Klass, author of a new book, The Despot's Accomplice, it all fits into a pattern.

"After the Soviet Union fell, democracy expanded at an unprecedented rate," he says in the book's introduction. "Today, global democracy has receded slightly every year since 2006; in other words, there has been no democratic forward progress for the last decade."

In his book, Klass argues that as authoritarians roll back democracy or refuse to embrace change, the West is acting as a willing accomplice. "Western governments in London, Paris, Brussels, and most of all Washington, have directly and indirectly aided and abetted the decline of democracy around the globe," he says.

During the Cold War, that meant toppling democratically elected governments—such as the US-sponsored assassinations of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba and democratically Chilean president Alvador Allende. Today it means cozying up to regimes like Saudi Arabia and authoritarian leaders like Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al Sisi.

What can be done to stop this? And how can the West promote democracy without dropping bombs? I called Klass for a chat.

VICE: The central theme of your book is that democracy is in decline around the world. Why do you think this is happening?
Brian Klaas: There are a couple of things that we can claim as the smoking gun. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were falsely packaged as efforts to democratize countries and ended up giving authoritarian regimes political cover to claim that any democracy promotion activity the West undertakes is secretly about regime change.

The other aspect is that Western governments don't really have the stomach for democracy promotion any longer. Diplomats look at the Arab Spring or the democratization effort in Ukraine, see the destabilization and conflict that has resulted, and they start to feel that the dictatorial devil they know is better than the democratic devil they don't.

I talk to people in Thailand and they say if Donald Trump is democracy, we don't want democracy

You say the West often supports dictatorships to further its own self-interest. Can you give some examples of this happening?
There are two that I highlight in the book. One is the Saudi Arabia effect—the idea that Western governments face difficult decisions in trying to simultaneously chase economic and security objectives and democracy. As a result, they end up cozying up to regimes like Saudi Arabia and achieving none of the above. Saudi Arabia's government is brutal and ruthless, and at some point, the regime is not going to survive. The question is: Do we want to be the force that propped it up? Because we saw what happened when we did that in Iran—a lot of Iranians still blame the US for toppling a democratically elected leader in the 1950s. The more the West is on the wrong side of despotism, the more it hurts us in the long-term.

The second aspect is what I call the curse of low expectations. From my field research, I've consistently found that many regimes package themselves as democracies when they are nothing of the sort. Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, is one of the best at doing this. He is governing in ways that are despotic and authoritarian, but he's extremely good at packaging himself as a darling of the West.

You mention Pakistan after 9/11 as an example of the West sometimes being forced to work with a despot. Can you expand on that?
Sometimes governments face difficult choices, and I think the US navigating the situation with Pakistan after 9/11 is a good example of that. When Pervez Musharraf came to power in a coup in 1999, the US was critical. But as soon as we needed Pakistan to hunt down terrorists that had committed 9/11, politicians were obligated by voter opinion to disregard democracy in Pakistan to pursue something that everyone wanted—to capture and kill those who carried out 9/11. The paradox of democracy is that sometimes voters' preferences in the West are for the pursuit of an objective that runs counter to democracy elsewhere.

You say Western democracy is a model to aspire toward, but many believe that globalization, privatization, and the blurring of corporations and the state has led to a situation that could be described as "post-democratic." Why aspire to that?
I'm the first to say that the West is extremely problematic when it comes to how democracies operate. The question is what other model do we have to aspire to? Of course, Western democracies are in crisis and trying to mimic them in every way is a mistake, but I think there are many ways to revitalize Western democracy—by tackling inequality and by providing real solutions rather than divisive rhetoric to those that have been left behind by globalization.

With the rise of Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, and authoritarian populism elsewhere, is it not becoming increasingly difficult for the West to promote liberal democracy as something to legitimately aspire toward?
I think the example the West is setting at the moment is emboldening leaders around the world to be more despotic. I talk to people in Thailand and they say, "If Donald Trump is democracy, we don't want democracy." The more that our democracies struggle and produce essentially bad outcomes the more rival models like China and Russia start to seem appealing and provide despots with cover... You can't lecture others until you have fixed your own problems.

At the same time, while people say Donald Trump shows democracy is a bad system, you have to ask: Would you rather have a President Trump that came to power in a coup or a President Trump that came to power in an election? The answer is an election because at least there you have recourse. If the US makes a huge mistake and elects Donald Trump, there is a way to block him in a lot of domestic-policy decisions through the democratic process, and there is a way to fire him. None of those things exist in non-democratic systems.

The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy is out now, published by Hurst Publishers.