In the West, it is difficult to escape the pessimism that pervades current discussions of global affairs. From Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the never-ending crises of the European Union, to the Syrian catastrophe and the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), the world appears to be tearing at the seams. Meanwhile, democracy itself appears to be unraveling—helped along by resurgent authoritarianism, weakened liberal democratic values, rising populism, and contagious illiberalism.
Democracy has unquestionably lost its global momentum. According to Freedom House, there are only a handful more electoral democracies in the world today than there were at the start of this century. Dozens of newer democracies in the developing world are struggling to put down roots, and many older democracies—including, of course, the United States—are troubled. The theory that democratic transitions naturally move in a positive direction and that established democracies don’t tumble backward no longer holds water.
The gloom has become so thick, however, that it obscures reality. A number of politicians, journalists, and analysts are overstating or oversimplifying negative trends and overlooking positive developments. They too easily cast U.S. President Donald Trump’s rise, the Brexit vote, and the mainstreaming of populism in many parts of Europe as part of an all-embracing, global counterrevolution against liberal norms. Although the state of democracy around the world is indeed very troubled, it is not uniformly dire, especially outside the West.
IDEALIZING THE PAST AND FOCUSING ON THE NEGATIVE
Today’s intensifying apprehension is infused with nostalgia for the 1990s and early 2000s as a period of strong global commitment to liberal norms. Yet even then, illiberal forces were asserting themselves. In 1997, for example, the political commentator Fareed Zakaria famously warned in Foreign Affairs of the “rise of illiberal democracy,” arguing that “half of the ‘democratizing’ countries in the world today are illiberal democracies.” Earlier that year, also in Foreign Affairs, one of the authors of this article (Thomas Carothers) gave a