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American democracy was dealt a severe blow on September 11, 2001, but it also achieved a resounding victory throughout the Western Hemisphere that same day. While the rubble at ground zero was still ablaze, all 34 members of the Organization of American States (OAS)—which includes every country in the Americas except Cuba—came together to sign the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a shared and unprecedented commitment to strengthening democracy and human rights protections throughout the region. “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy,” the charter begins, “and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.”
Democratic progress in the Americas had been hard fought and slow won. But at the time the charter was signed, the region seemed headed in the right direction. With the waning of the Cold War, it had ridden the so-called third wave of democratization—and it was now taking its commitment to democracy one step further by pledging to consolidate representative governance and by establishing a blueprint for collective action and mutual assistance in its defense. The Americas were full of nascent democracies brimming with confidence in the inevitable triumph of democracy—and in their capacity to sustain it throughout the region.
Twenty years on, the state of democracy in the Americas does not reflect the optimism of 2001 or the high-minded principles enshrined in the charter. To the contrary, democratic fatigue has set in: support for democracy is at a historic low in many parts of the region. The past few years have seen the resurgence of both antidemocratic leftists and right-wing populists in Latin America and the Caribbean, and what relatively healthy democracies remain are limping rather than sprinting. What went so utterly wrong?
The Inter-American Democratic Charter is the child of post–Cold War thinking that saw critical threats to democracy as coming from without: its authors designed it with dangers such as guerrilla groups, criminal nonstate actors, and authoritarian foreign governments in mind. In some cases, the charter has been successful. For instance, electoral observation teams deployed by the OAS have detected voting irregularities in time to thwart rigged elections and confirmed when they did not find any, including during the 2020 U.S. general elections. But for the most part, the charter failed to anticipate that the region’s democratic woes would stem from the rise of elected autocrats who undermined democracy from within.
An alarming number of countries throughout the Americas are now classified as “hybrid regimes,” retaining democracy’s form without its substance. Many remain only “partly free,” according to the think tank Freedom House. Most concerning, the region is home to the only two countries (Nicaragua and Venezuela) that have regressed from functioning representative democracies to fully consolidated dictatorships in recent history. Given that a cornerstone of the charter was a mutual commitment to preserve democracy, this failure does not belong exclusively to Nicaragua or Venezuela, both of which signed the document, but falls equally on democracies throughout the Americas, as well as on the OAS itself.
The United States bears some of the blame for this democratic backsliding, having underestimated the allure and historic roots of populism throughout Latin American and the Caribbean—and having made critical mistakes in its effort to buttress democracy in the region. Washington overemphasized the importance of regular elections and underemphasized the creation and consolidation of key democratic institutions that could undergird those elections and execute the policy choices that they reflected. In other words, Washington thought that building a culture of competitive elections would be sufficient to consolidate democracies. As long as the polls ran on time, U.S. officials often turned a blind eye to other concerning political dynamics, including the circumvention of term limits by leaders such as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Honduras’s Juan Orlando Hernández, blatant corruption, and waning trust in institutions. But democratic consolidation is a nonlinear and difficult process—punctuated by episodic regressions and vulnerable low points—that requires regular maneuvering to keep it on track. Elections alone are not a quick fix.
The lack of regional institutional cohesion has also hobbled Latin America’s ability to establish a lasting democratic order. Rather than devoting resources to strengthening existing institutions such as the OAS, leaders throughout the Americas have cooked up an alphabet soup of regional organizations. This proliferation of organizations has served to divide rather than unite the hemisphere. The 2010 Community of Latin American and Caribbean States excluded Canada and the United States, and the 2004 Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America originally had only two member states: Cuba and Venezuela, which then proceeded to hand select other like-minded members. The 2008 Union of South American Nations fell apart when many countries defected from it to found the Forum for the Progress and Development of South America, this time without Venezuela’s participation. As the international relations scholar Christopher Sabatini has shown, this overabundance of regional organizations has encouraged national sovereignty at the expense of the collective values articulated in the charter. It has also impaired the ability of genuinely important regional institutions, such as the OAS, to lead with authority and credibility—and to respond effectively when democracy is most at risk.
The region’s democratic woes mainly stem from the rise of elected autocrats who undermine democracy from within.
The results have been disastrous. It was under the OAS’s watch, for instance, that Nicaragua and Venezuela both decayed through various forms of semi-authoritarianism before eventually arriving at brutal dictatorships. The fallout from these political cataclysms has spread throughout the region: nearly six million Venezuelans have fled the country as the economy has imploded in the worst nonwartime economic collapse in modern history. Both countries have effectively descended into lawlessness and have become sanctuaries for transnational criminal organizations and designated terrorist groups. And both countries have spun webs of corruption and illegal activity to buttress their authoritarian regimes.
Elsewhere in the hemisphere, democratic countries have regressed to a more familiar undemocratic norm in the caudillo, or the strongman leader with autocratic tendencies, as other relatively healthy democracies have twiddled their thumbs. Throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century—a period known as the “pink tide” due to the perceived turn toward left-wing populism throughout Latin America—countries including Bolivia and Ecuador fed China’s insatiable appetite for commodities and used the resulting cash influx to spend lavishly on popular social programs while simultaneously eroding political institutions, manipulating elections, and stifling civil society. Much of the region remained silent in the face of these antidemocratic maneuvers under the specious idea that solidarity with pueblos hermanos, or sibling republics, means not only barring interference but also moderating criticism. Argentina and Mexico, for instance, recently abstained from an OAS resolution condemning Ortega’s crackdown on the political opposition in Nicaragua out of this misguided sense of solidarity.
And it is not just leftists who are eroding democratic norms and practices: the emergence of several leaders on the populist right poses a grave threat to democratic governance in the region. El Salvadorian President Nayib Bukele has semi-jokingly cast himself as “the coolest dictator in the world” and has marched members of the armed forces into the legislative assembly to coerce lawmakers into following his agenda. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has likewise openly challenged the authority of the country’s judicial branch over his administration and has threatened to reject the result of next year’s general election if he loses. Both Bukele and Bolsonaro, among others, have welcomed deeper engagement with illiberal foreign governments such as China, particularly in exchange for COVID-19 vaccines.
The United States should not count itself out of the process of democratic improvement.
While democracies in the Western Hemisphere face their biggest threats from within, they are confronting mounting external antidemocratic pressure as authoritarian states such as China and Russia step up their political and economic presence in Latin America and the Caribbean. Authoritarians and would-be authoritarians can count on China and Russia to shore up their beleaguered regimes, giving them the resources and political capital to withstand pressure from the democratic world. Deepened engagement with China and Russia is also helping spread antidemocratic norms throughout the hemisphere.
Not even the United States is immune to the democratic corrosion that has swept the region of late. Although the United States is sometimes seen as an outsider by Latin American and Caribbean countries, it is very much a part of the hemisphere. This is even more true now than it was before the events of January 6, when an antidemocratic riot at the U.S. Capitol thrust the United States’ own democratic woes into the spotlight. This illiberal spectacle may have made the United States less of a “shining city upon a hill,” but what Washington has lost in credibility it may well make up for in relatability—a sense among other countries in the Americas that the United States is not just in the business of policing democracy but is also constantly working to build its own. The project of democracy is a shared one, and the United States should not count itself out of the process of democratic improvement—at home or abroad.
As the United States rolls back some of its global commitments, which it has already done in Afghanistan, it should prepare for a homecoming of sorts, a political reengagement with its hemispheric neighborhood that is deeper and less episodic. Although not everyone throughout the Americas may welcome deeper U.S. involvement, a U.S. return to Latin America and the Caribbean could accelerate the region’s economic, social, and political recovery from the ravages of COVID-19 and prevent its other capitals from striking Faustian bargains with Beijing. In the days before the Mexican-American War, it was common for the Spanish republics to think of the United States as a “sister republic,” a notion that has since unraveled. Now, as the United States is reassessing its core interests, there is an opportunity to breathe new life into a twenty-first-century order of sister republics dotting the Western Hemisphere that could collaborate to effectively smother authoritarian challenges to the regional democratic order. This would require a realignment of U.S. grand strategy in which the Americas feature prominently, consonant with the region’s outsize contribution to American prosperity and security, encouraging regional alignment through trade, diplomacy, exchange, and values.
To that end, the United States should devise a pro-democracy strategy that is specific to the region and its particular challenges—and that urges the other signatories to the Inter-American Democratic Charter to take their commitment to democracy seriously. Washington should organize a regional democratic roundtable with the aim of committing its partners to a shared set of measures in support of democracy. These measures could include carrots, such as preferential trade and migration policies, as well as sticks, such as diplomatic isolation and carefully crafted economic sanctions aimed at states and leaders that subvert democratic norms and processes.
The United States should devise a pro-democracy strategy that is specific to the region and its particular challenges.
The United States will also have to supplant the dictator’s playbook with strategies and support for democratic leaders. To that end, it should fund efforts to reduce the polarization, conflict, and violence that have tilted the playing field toward authoritarians. It should also help the region install alarm bells within the inter-American system that can sound powerful warnings before it is too late to rebuild unraveling democratic norms and institutions—for instance, by monitoring the rapidly evolving social media landscape for political red flags; tomorrow’s antidemocratic agenda is circulating as disinformation on Facebook and WhatsApp today.
Another priority must be to deepen inter-American cooperation on all fronts and to collaborate to address dysfunction within the OAS. The United States will have an opportunity to spearhead such an effort when it hosts the next Summit of the Americas in 2022. It should openly acknowledge that the region is slipping toward the rule of the few and, at the same time, drive collective efforts to buttress the rule of the many. These are the building blocks of a new hemispheric strategy that repurposes the rubble of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to erect a fortress of democracy—not just in the United States but throughout the Americas.
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