When the Cold War ended in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there emerged a new order of international liberalism led by the United States and its Western allies. American Political philosopher Francis Fukuyama hypothesized in his controversial book, “The End of History,” that humankind had reached its ideological evolution. Fukuyama argued that the world would soon see the universalization of Western-style liberal democracy. This argument was one of the underlying rationales for the United States’ mission to spread democracy and freedom around the world.
However, the rise of authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Donald Trump in the US, populist leader Narendra Modi in India, and Xi Jinping of China shed a lot of doubt on Fukuyama’s central argument. Many analysts and scholars are quite anxious about the winds of authoritarianism sweeping across many parts of the world, especially western countries.
While the media has put the spotlight on Trump, one must not forget the growing authoritarian political atmosphere that existed before him both domestically and globally, which allowed for his ascendancy as US president. Contrary to what Fukuyama theorized, a Harvard Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Norris Pappia, contends that “there has been an increase in populist figures throughout the West over the past two decades.”
It might sound distasteful to Fukuyama and many pro-democracy advocates, but the rise of populist authoritarianism around the world has led many to argue that democracy is dying or in a significant decline. Indeed, the United States’ most influential foreign policy magazine, Foreign Affairs, published “A Global Report on the Decline of Democracy,” which details how democracy is on the retreat around the globe.
Regionally, this is evident when one examines the Middle East where the Arab Spring, which initially brought hopes of democratization, failed miserably, leading to the rise of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the further entrenchment of the military’s domination in Egypt, and the destabilization of Libya among many other countries in the region.
Moreover, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi amid the rise of a new Saudi crown prince, Bashar al-Assad’s growing power despite years of civil war in Syria, the escalation of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)-Iraq tension following the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum, the manipulation of elections and the destruction of democratic institutions along with the purging of Kurdish activists and politicians by President Recep Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party are clear indicators that authoritarianism continues to have the upper hand in this part of the world.
Globally, the trend has been somewhat similar. While the world experienced an increase in freedom following the Cold War, this has not been the case in the past decade. According to Freedom House, the share of “Not Free” countries rose to 26 percent, while the percentage of “Free” countries declined to 44 percent. Additionally, of the 41 countries that have ranked free consistently, 22 have registered net score declines in the last five years.
What these developments demonstrate is that many countries around the world struggle to manage the political swings and controversial debates that are so intrinsic to the democratic process. Nonetheless, this makes evident that democracy is, by nature, unstable and constantly challenged. In fact, a democracy without strong disagreement and deliberation on the many issues that can inflict a society is not a democracy at all.
The backsliding of democracy in many countries and the rise of populist authoritarian parties and figures does not mean the erosion of democracy, but rather a challenge that can only strengthen it if overcome. Furthermore, it is erroneous to look at all democracies around the world as if they are all homogeneous—they clearly are not. For instance, there are varying explanations for why democracy is under attack in Turkey versus why it is on the decline in America.
This decline of democracy in the West and many other parts of the world is indicative of two important developments. First, it illustrates the failure of the US’ post-Cold War mission of spreading democratization around the world as a means to secure its interests and ensure international peace. Secondly, Socrates cautions against the dangers of expecting democracy to flourish without ensuring that educational systems are up to par with the standards necessary to ensure a well-informed citizenry.
However, what is perhaps most significant about the decline of democracy globally is that it coincides with the fall of American hegemony and leadership on the world stage. In essence, the US’ need to return to its old foreign policy mantra of promoting the proliferation of democracy around the world is one critical way to address this decline of democracy and rise of populist authoritarianism.
Halmat Palani is an English teacher and political science graduate from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany