A sliding of democracy
When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved, a new era of democratic expansionism was heralded, as Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history, optimistically assuming human ideological evolution had ended and liberal democracy ultimately triumphed over the authoritarianism of communism and fascism as the final form of human government.
There was reasonable ground for such optimism, and the number of democracies in the world has significantly increased since then, reaching to more than half of the countries in the world.
This has been closely related with the impact of the third wave of democratic transition in the world, which started in the mid-1970s and continued until the early 1990s, and was related to U.S. global strategy as much as to the evolution of human understanding of good governance.
In fact, the increasing importance of human rights after the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975 triggered a shift in U.S. foreign policy, which started to promote democracy and human rights around the world, using diverse tools ranging from military intervention to foreign aid and operating Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Various U.S. institutions, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and others developed expertise in democracy promotion activities.
President Ronald Reagan boosted these initiatives in the 1980s against the “red menace,” that is the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, President Bill Clinton, in 1994, declared the global promotion of democracy as one of the strategic priorities of American foreign policy. By then, new U.S. institutions, such as National Democratic Institution, the International Republican Institute, the Open Society Foundation, Freedom House and others joined the fray, and the State Department supported these efforts with various programs, first in eastern Europe, later in Eurasia, and finally, after 9/11, in the Middle East.
Several ways of measuring the quality of democracy have been developed. The most widely used is the Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which measures democracy with “free and fair elections and civil freedoms” as minimums, and “transparent and efficient government, adequate political participation and a supportive democratic culture” as sufficient conditions for a full and consolidated democracy. These are also in parallel with the method used by Freedom House.
According to Freedom House’s 2014 report, the number of countries qualifying as “free” was 89 out of 195, representing 24 percent of the world’s population, while the number of countries that were “partly free” was 55 and 40 percent of the population. On the other hand, more than one-third of the world’s population, 36 percent in 51 countries, lived under “not free” conditions.
The most striking finding of the report is a trend of weakening freedoms and the rule of law across the world since 2005. The trend is unmistakable in every region of the world, even in Europe. Although the outbreak of the Arab Spring in late 2010 through popular movements momentarily raised hopes regarding the advancement of human rights, the rule of law and freedoms once again, the region has since been engulfed in turmoil, carnage, and further repression.
The main question now is whether democracy has reached its natural limits and whether the promotion of democracy with outside intervention and support could prevent a rolling back of freedoms. Ironically, promoting democracy globally through international institutions has been weakening its cause, since a stable democracy depends on sovereignty, security and stability. Imposing democratic ideals from outside does not help its consolidation and paves the way for disillusionment.