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The end of democracy?

Freedom diminished around the world in 2016 for the 11th consecutive year, according to Freedom House. These years saw the devastating failure of the “Arab Spring” and the sad turn of Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union back to dictatorship. Russia, China and Iran are increasingly assertive in their regions. And illiberal populist parties — nearly four dozen of various stripes — are on the rise in Europe in parallel with a new angry nationalism in the United States. Taken together, it’s hard not to at least contemplate whether democracy might be an endangered species.

To Americans, democracy is a given. But to the rest of the world, it’s a fairly recent invention — a creature of the past two centuries. This is a relatively narrow slice of recorded history, briefer than the Ming or Song dynasties in China or various other dynasties elsewhere that appear as mere blips in historical memory. Maybe this democratic moment is just another phase.

The original experiments with democracy in ancient Greece and Rome disappeared, and this form of government meaningfully returned only two millennia later with the birth of the American republic. Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the Civil War would determine whether “any nation so conceived … can long endure.” In the 20th century, Communism, Nazism and fascism presented powerful challenges to the democratic world not only on the battlefield but also in the realm of ideas, offering models for how societies should be organized that many believed were superior to democracy.

With the serial defeat of those enemies, democracy’s ascent seemed assured. Francis Fukuyama said the West’s victory in the Cold War amounted to “the end of history,” meaning that debate about the best form of society was resolved for all time. All countries that had not already adopted liberal democracy were nonetheless headed in that direction, he wrote.

Another political scientist, Samuel Huntington, took another approach in “The Third Wave.” He argued that democracy did not roll steadily forward, but rose and fell in waves. The first wave had begun in the United States when it was a young country, crested at the conclusion of World War I with the transformation of empires in Europe into independent, democratic states, and then crashed in the 1920s as most of those states devolved into dictatorships. The second wave began after World War II, with the liberation of Asian and African colonies, but it too crashed as these newborn democracies fell, one after another, under strongman rule. The third wave began in 1974, with the democratization of Portugal followed by other countries in Southern Europe, then Latin America, then, most dramatically, the Soviet bloc. This wave had not yet crested when Huntington wrote, but it did so early in the 21st century, when Freedom House found that nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries were “electoral democracies” while a record 45 percent fulfilled the group’s more demanding criteria for being labeled a “free country.”

Since then, democracy and freedom have been in gradual recession. The falloff has been modest, but a constellation of recent events and trends suggests that an all-out crash could follow. Each of the first two crashes left the world with a radically reduced number of democratic states. How many democracies might disappear and how many might remain after a third crash? Since the crest of the third wave was higher than the first two, more might be left intact, but by the same token, a crash from this high crest might prove to be all the more momentous, darkening the lives of hundreds of millions of people and reshaping international relations and America’s place in the world.

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What makes this even seem possible? First, the new century has witnessed some major disappointments for democrats. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 promised for a moment to bring a large measure of democracy to the region that has been most resistant to it. But only one small country, Tunisia, emerged more democratic, while a handful moved in the opposite direction, either because wary regimes (in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and others) tightened the screws or because countries collapsed into warring military factions (as in Syria, Libya and Yemen). Another bitter disappointment has been the former Soviet Union, which devolved into 15 independent states in 1991, each holding elections and adopting democratic institutions. Today, only six remain as democracies, of which half are none too stable; the rest are once again ruled by dictators, including some of the world’s most repressive ones.

Elsewhere, democratic reverses have occurred in pivotal countries that seem likely to influence others around them. Turkey, for example, has been for decades a leading example of democracy in the Muslim world, especially in its Middle Eastern core, notwithstanding the imperfections of its democratic institutions. Now, the grasp of Recep Tayyip Erdogan for dictatorial power will convince many that democracy is incompatible with Islam. In Hungary, the peeling away of freedoms is inspiring imitation in the other countries of the former Eastern bloc. Unless reversed, recent moves by the government of Viktor Orban to close the Central European University in Budapest — since its founding in 1991 a symbol of democratic transition and Western-style academic study — are likely to have a chilling effect in the region. Hugo Chávez destroyed democracy in Venezuela and inspired imitators, who have weakened, albeit not eliminated, democracy in several other Latin nations. Other mercurial strongmen who have come to power through elections, in the Philippines and South Africa, could wield a similar impact within their regions as well as their own countries.

Influence is sometimes exerted more forcefully than merely by setting an example. Three aggressive dictatorships — Russia, China and Iran — are exercising increasing sway over the areas around them. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, having stamped out the last embers of post-Communist democratization and imposed one-man rule, has invaded two of the former republics of the Soviet Union — Georgia and Ukraine — and uses economic leverage and dirty tricks to ensure the elimination of democracy in others. He no doubt aims to do the same in those that remain democratic, but he is not stopping there. He is nurturing anti-democratic forces in former states of the Soviet bloc (Russian influence in media and politics is on the rise in the Czech Republic, once a model of Central European democratic development), as well as of Western Europe (France’s presidential front-runner, Marine Le Pen, recently made a pilgrimage to Moscow that reportedly bankrolls her party and others of its ilk). Putin is even beginning to reassert Russian influence in the Middle East, hoping to make his country once again a global power. Likewise, China’s Xi Jinping, having reversed a four-decade trend of liberalization, pushes forward an intimidating military buildup while flexing China’s muscles in the surrounding seas. And Iran, having smothered the pro-democracy Green Movement that arose after the disputed 2009 presidential elections, has achieved dominance in Lebanon and much of Syria and wields great weight in Iraq and Yemen, all steps on the way to its self-proclaimed goal of regional dominance.

These deleterious actions weigh the more heavily in view of the abdication of American efforts in the opposite direction. The United States has been the modern world’s most influential country and has promoted democracy passively by serving as a model and actively through its diplomatic efforts, aid, and even military and covert action practices. But President Barack Obama came to office aiming to correct the overreach of President George W. Bush, who aspired to impose democracy on Iraq and perhaps the whole Middle East. Obama believed America should practice greater self-restraint and exercise extreme caution about saddling others with our beliefs. Wary of neo-imperialism, he resisted calls to more forcefully counteract Iranian and Russian assertions of power.

President Trump’s policies go in the same direction as Obama’s, only further. This week, he congratulated Turkey’s president for eliminating the parliament and consolidating power against the opposition. His “America first” nationalism focuses on what we can extract from the world rather than how we can influence it. His moral relativism toward Russia implies utter indifference to the behavior of foreign governments, unless commercial interests are at stake. Recently, he has added a couple further exceptions: Other countries mustn’t “gas babies” or threaten America with intercontinental nuclear missiles. The list still falls dramatically short of America’s issues of interest and realm of influence. In a February interview, when confronted with the assertion that Putin is a killer, Trump replied, “there are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” The foreign policy thinkers who have gathered under Trump’s banner have gone out of their way to de-emphasize or disparage America’s role in promoting democracy.

Notwithstanding a recent about-face — the alliance is “no longer obsolete,” he said this month — Trump has denigrated NATO, applauded Brexit, and embraced European politicians who seek to weaken or abolish the European Union. Given that economics and trade seem to be the centerpieces of his international interests and given his apparent view that international relations constitute a zero-sum game, one that America has been losing, it makes sense to welcome the disintegration of the E.U.

Yet it is precisely there that the dangers of a democratic crash weigh most heavily. The countries of Western Europe have not only been America’s principal allies in the Cold War and the war against terrorism, they also, as stable, advanced and successful countries, constitute the other main cornerstone of the democratic world. The young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe were seen two decades ago as a source of inspiration for the older, more established West. Today, there is reason to fear for the solidity of Europe’s democracies (both East and West).

Many of these nations are being whipsawed between, on the one hand, burgeoning immigrant-and-refugee populations from predominantly Muslim lands that sometimes show little attachment to their new countries or democratic institutions, and, on the other hand, populist parties channeling anti-immigrant feelings — parties that are themselves equivocal in their commitment to democratic values and institutions. Conditions vary from country to country, but a variety of additional factors also lie at the root of European populism, including low growth and high youth unemployment in the south; voter frustration with Brussels over regulations and matters of sovereignty; anxiety about terrorism; and dissatisfaction with globalization and free trade. The central problem is not that citizens speak out and voice concern in a number of areas, of course. The threat is what populist leaders do with all this. “Populists see themselves as sole moral representatives of the ‘true people,’ Princeton University’s Jan-Werner Mueller says. “Media, courts, even universities can be viewed as ‘enemies of the people.’ ”

None of this will go away easily, or soon. In French elections, Marine Le Pen may end up losing in second-round voting in May. But her populist National Front would almost certainly gain more support than last time. Germany’s Alternative for Germany party is down to 8 percent in polls compared with 15 percent earlier this year. The right-wing populists nevertheless now hold seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments and will almost certainly enter the Bundestag through national elections in September.

The sky is not falling yet. But were today’s E.U. to break apart, expect a surge of protectionism, illiberal nationalism and anti-American sentiment in pockets across the continent. Count on even greater Russian assertiveness in Europe in backing anti-democratic forces. Moscow is the source of none of these unfortunate trends, but it has shown itself eager to support and promote all of them.

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Scholars Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk have recently challenged the established view in political science that democracy in economically developed countries cannot be reversed. In academic jargon, countries that have alternated power peacefully through elections a couple of times or more and have surpassed a certain income level are deemed to be “consolidated” democracies. Never has such a country slid back to authoritarianism. But Foa and Mounk have adduced a range of surveys showing that publics in Europe and the United States are registering an unprecedented  loss of attachment to, even disillusionment with, democratic norms. They ask whether democracy in some of these countries might be in the process of becoming “deconsolidated.”

In our eyes, American democracy is sturdy enough to withstand this trend and even the rise of an erratic, megalomaniacal president. The question that troubles us more is whether the global anti-democratic trends of the past decade will be accelerated by America’s abandonment of its historic role as model and champion of democracy. Already Trump’s egregious behavior has weakened America’s impact as an exemplar. At this moment, much of the world looks at us astonished or aghast rather than in admiration. The further issue is whether our actions in the realms of diplomacy, commerce and foreign aid will count democracy as an important value — or will they all be guided by the pursuit of the deal and of ego gratification. The president’s impulses to destabilize Mexico, appease Russia and congratulate Turkey do not bode well in this regard.

The withdrawal of American support for democracy could compound the various anti-democratic trends we have described and lead to the fall of Huntington’s “third wave.” That crash might carry away many of the newly minted democracies of the developing world and of the former Soviet empire and might even send tremors through other parts of Europe.

So what? Trump says he wants to put “only America first.” So why care how democracy is faring elsewhere? The answer is that a less democratic world will be a less stable world, more rife with conflict, more fertile with terrorism and less friendly to the United States. The members of Team Trump are not the first Americans to dream of avoiding “foreign wars,” but time and again we have found ourselves drawn in, however reluctantly.

A range of developments make this a dangerous time. America’s abdication of leadership, of its devotion to ideals and practice of generosity in favor of a policy of narrow and short-term self-interest will only make this time more dangerous, not least for America itself.

Joshua Muravchik and Jeffrey Gedmin