In the decade following the Cold War, democracy flourished around the world as never before. In recent years, however, much of this progress has steadily eroded. Between 2000 and 2015, democracy broke down in 27 countries, among them Kenya, Russia, Thailand, and Turkey. Around the same time, several other global “swing states”—countries that, thanks to their large populations and economies, could have an outsize impact on the future of global democracy—also took a turn for the worse. In nearly half of them, political liberties, as measured by the U.S. nonprofit Freedom House, contracted.

Meanwhile, many existing authoritarian regimes have become even less open, transparent, and responsive to their citizens. They are silencing online dissent by censoring, regulating, and arresting those they perceive as threats. Many of them are attempting to control the Internet by passing laws, for example, that require foreign companies to store citizens’ data within the home country’s borders. Offline, states are also constraining civil society by restricting the ability of organizations to operate, communicate, and fundraise. Since 2012, governments across the globe have proposed or enacted more than 90 laws restricting freedom of association or assembly.

Adding to the problem, democracy itself seems to have lost its appeal. Many emerging democracies have failed to meet their citizens’ hopes for freedom, security, and economic growth, just as the world’s established democracies, including the United States, have grown increasingly dysfunctional. In China, meanwhile, decades of economic growth have proved that a state need not liberalize to generate prosperity.

Not all the trends are bad. Optimists can point to Nigeria, which in May 2015 experienced the first truly democratic transfer of power—from a defeated ruling party to the opposition—in its history, or to Sri Lanka, which returned to electoral democracy in January 2015 after five years of electoral autocracy. The first Arab democracy in decades has emerged in Tunisia, and in Myanmar (also called Burma), a democratically elected government now shares significant power with the military. The authoritarian model of capitalism has also lost some of its shine, as China’s growth has slowed markedly and the plunge in oil prices has weakened Russia and other petrostates.

Proponents of democracy should act energetically to capitalize on these and other opportunities. The right kind of support from the United States and its allies could unleash a new wave of freedom across the globe, particularly in Asia’s swing states. Without that support, however, autocracies will continue to proliferate, leading to more instability and less freedom.


One of the biggest challenges facing democracy today is that its biggest champion—the United States—has lost interest in promoting it. In a 2013 Pew survey, 80 percent of Americans polled agreed with the idea that their country should “not think so much in international terms” and instead “concentrate more on [its] national problems.” Just 18 percent expressed the belief that democracy promotion should be a top foreign policy priority. It should thus come as no surprise that none of the current presidential candidates has made democracy promotion a cornerstone of his or her campaign.

Between 2000 and 2015, democracy broke down in 27 countries.

Washington has continued to support some nongovernmental efforts. Congress increased its appropriation for the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit that funds pro-democracy groups abroad, from $115 million in 2009 to $170 million in 2016. For the most part, however, as public support for democracy promotion has declined, funding for it has stagnated. During this same period, U.S. government spending on democracy, human rights, and governance programs (mainly through the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID) fell by nearly $400 million. Even excluding the decline in funding for Afghanistan and Iraq, funding for such programs in other countries stayed flat.

Supporters of presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressive Congress party celebrate in Kano, March 2015. Three decades after seizing power in a military coup, Buhari became the first Nigerian to oust a president through the ballot box.
Supporters of presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressive Congress party celebrate in Kano, March 2015. Three decades after seizing power in a military coup, Buhari became the first Nigerian to oust a president through the ballot box.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

As the United States has lagged behind, few other countries have stepped in. The most ambitious intergovernmental attempt to promote democracy—the Community of Democracies, a coalition established in 2000—lacks the resources and visibility to have much impact. Regional organizations are not doing much better. The EU, for example, has largely stood by as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has flouted democratic norms. And the union was so desperate to secure Turkey’s help in stemming the flow of Syrian refugees that it agreed to revive membership talks with Ankara, even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accelerated his efforts to suppress dissent.

Although some European countries, such as Sweden and the United Kingdom, have continued to support significant bilateral programs to promote democracy and improve governance, the budget of the European Endowment for Democracy, established in 2013, reached just over $11 million last year. The United Kingdom’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy currently has a public budget of just $5 mil­lion. Canada’s International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development shut down in 2012. And developing democracies such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia have hesitated to contribute much, focusing instead on their own many problems.

Authoritarian leaders have capitalized on this vacuum by exporting their illiberal values and repressive technologies. Iran has been using its financial, political, and military influence to shape or destabilize govern­ments in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Russia has used violence and intimidation and has funneled money to support separatist move­ments and to prop up pro-Russian, antireform political forces in Georgia and Ukraine. Moreover, Russia has built what the Internet freedom organization Access Now has termed a “commonwealth of surveillance states,” exporting sophisticated electronic surveillance technologies throughout Central Asia. China, too, has reportedly supplied Ethiopia, Iran, and several Central Asian dictatorships—Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—with Internet and telecommunications surveillance technology to help them repress and spy on their citizens.


Although democracy promotion may have fallen out of favor with the U.S. public, such efforts very much remain in the national interest. Democracies are less violent toward their citizens and more protective of human rights. They do not go to war with one another. They are more likely to develop market economies, and those economies are more likely to be stable and prosperous. Their citizens enjoy higher life expectancies and lower levels of infant and maternal mortality than people living under other forms of government. Democracies also make good allies. As Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, has written, “Not every democracy in the world was or is a close ally of the United States, but no democracy in the world has been or is an American enemy. And all of America’s most enduring allies have been and remain democracies.”

Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, are inherently unstable, since they face a central dilemma. If an autocracy is successful—if it produces a wealthy and educated population—that population will construct a civil society that will sooner or later demand political change. But if an autocracy is unsuccessful—if it fails to generate economic growth and raise living standards—it is liable to collapse.

The United States still has the tools to promote democracy, even if it lacks the will. As Thomas Carothers, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has shown, over the past quarter century, U.S. electoral assistance has evolved from superficial, in-and-out jobs to deeper partnerships with domestic organizations. Support for civil society has spread beyond simply aiding elites in national capitals. Efforts to promote the rule of law have expanded beyond the short-term technical training of judges and lawyers to focus on broader issues of accountability and human rights.

These efforts appear to have paid off. A 2006 study of the effects of U.S. foreign assistance on democracy found that $10 million of additional USAID spending produced a roughly fivefold increase in the amount of democratic change a country could be expected to achieve based on the Freedom House scale.


But the United States can and should do more. The next president should make democracy promotion a pillar of his or her foreign policy. Washington could do so peacefully, multilaterally, and without signifi­cant new spending.

Pursuing such a policy requires, first of all, taking care to avoid legitimizing authoritarian rule. President Barack Obama did just the opposite during a July 2015 visit to Ethiopia, when he twice called its government “democratically elected,” even though it had held sham elections earlier that same year. When he visited Kenya on the same trip, Obama expressed the hope that its corrupt and semiauthoritarian regime would keep “continuing down the path of a strong, more inclusive, more accountable and transparent democracy.” Regimes pounce on such language, using implicit U.S. endorsements to stifle free speech and activism at home. In 1981, George H. W. Bush, then vice president, visited Manila and said to the country’s dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, “We love your adherence to democratic principle.” Within the next few years, Marcos’ abuses intensified, and his principal rival in the democratic opposition, Benigno Aquino, Jr., was assassinated.

Washington should also seize opportunities to reaffirm the country’s commitment to democracy abroad. In 2015, the United States assumed leadership of the Community of Democracies, which will hold its next biennial meeting in Washington in 2017, a few months after the next president is inaugurated. He or she should speak at the meeting to emphasize the organization’s importance and to endorse the values for which it stands.

The next president should also increase financial support to fragile democracies. States undergoing political transitions—such as Myanmar, Tunisia, and Ukraine—are particularly vulnerable to outside influence. So U.S. support can have an outsize impact in such places. Congress has already increased assistance to Tunisia, from $61 million in 2015 to $142 million this year, and to Ukraine, from $88 million in 2014 to $659 million today. It could and should do still more for these countries, and for other emerging and fragile democracies both small (Senegal, for example) and large (such as Indonesia). But part of the bargain for increased economic aid has to be a serious commitment by the leaders of those countries to fight corruption and improve the quality of governance.

Countries bordered by democracies tend to evolve in a democratic direction, while those bordered by authoritarian regimes tend toward autocracy. Washington should thus develop a comprehensive strategy for targeting states where democratic progress could affect the entire region. Populous countries tend to be more influential, so the next president should find ways to nudge states such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and South Africa toward more effective, accountable, and democratic governance. At the same time, he or she should not neglect smaller democracies such as Georgia, Senegal, and Tunisia. In the post-Soviet sphere, in West Africa, and in the Arab world, civic and political actors are closely watching these three high-profile experiments. In each case, success could generate significant spillover effects. The United States should also focus on places on the cusp of a breakthrough. Venezuela, for instance, has been poised for a democratic transition since late 2015, when the opposition trounced the governing party in legislative elections, undermining roughly two decades of socialist rule. And Vietnam represents an intriguing opportunity, due to its emerging civil society, membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and clear desire to draw closer to the United States in order to counter the threat from China.

Any policy to promote democracy must include bolder, smarter efforts to fight corruption, which sustains most authoritarian regimes. In the past decade, Washington has made progress in identifying, tracking, and seizing ill-gotten wealth—a crucial step in the wars against terrorism and drug trafficking that can also advance democracy and human rights. But the United States must do more to identify the international assets of venal dictators and their cronies, prosecute them for money laundering, and return their vast fortunes to their neglected citizens. The next administration should direct USAID to prioritize programs that help countries build professional bureaucracies and autonomous agencies capable of auditing government accounts and prosecuting corruption. And it should aid civil society groups and the media in their efforts to track stolen funds and hold public servants accountable.

As part of a push to discourage corruption, the next president should accelerate the use of legal strategies and tools to seize the U.S.-based assets of venal dictators. Since the United States launched the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative in 2010, lawyers and investigators from the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI have brought 25 legal cases against 20 foreign officials, seeking to recover $1.5 billion in ill-gotten gains, including from the estate of the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and from Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the Uzbek president. Washington has also been stepping up efforts to halt the flow of illicit money into U.S. banks. The next president should dramatically increase the resources and political capital for such efforts, both nationally and globally, to ensure that kleptocrats can find no safe haven.

Democracy itself seems to have lost its appeal.

He or she should also encourage U.S. diplomats to make support for democracy a major priority in their work on the ground. These envoys can use their diplomatic immunity to shield activists from arrest or to make it more difficult for a regime to target them, as has been the case with U.S. and European diplomatic support for Las Damas de Blanco (the Ladies in White), the opposition movement that wives of jailed dissidents and other women founded in Cuba. In extreme circumstances, they can and should shelter dissidents in their embassies and consulates, as the U.S. embassy did for the Chinese scientist and dissident Fang Lizhi after the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters. Diplomats also have unparalleled access to local leaders, which gives them a unique opportunity to nudge autocrats toward reform. In a country transitioning to democracy, such as South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, or Myanmar today, such engagement can help foster and sustain the resolve for democratic change. Where an authoritarian regime is powerful, confident, and sitting tight, as in China today, it may seem as though such efforts are hopeless. But most authoritarian regimes have moderate and pragmatic elements who may see the need for political opening. China is no different. The marginal moderates of today could well become the rulers of tomorrow.

Obama talks about presidential term limits during remarks at the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 2015.
Obama talks about presidential term limits during remarks at the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 2015.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Meanwhile, the next administration ought to support Internet freedom and digital rights—an especially important effort in light of what the Edward Snowden leaks revealing U.S. government surveillance of Internet and phone communications did to U.S. credibility. In this vein, the government should start by refining its economic sanctions. In 2014, Washington exempted the export of software for “personal communications over the Internet, such as instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging” from its sanctions against Iran. Such exemptions, as well as the free distribution of software to circumvent Internet censorship and allow dissidents to communicate securely, should become a standard part of any U.S. sanctions effort, including that against North Korea. Authoritarian regimes need to filter information and control communications to sustain their rule, and undermining that control is one of the best ways the United States can foster democratic change.

The next president can also use trade agreements to advance democracy. Academic studies confirm that when free-trade agreements are conditional on governments taking specific measures to protect human rights, meaningful improvements follow. The White House has reported that the mere process of negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership induced Brunei to sign and Vietnam to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture, while also encouraging other human rights improvements in these two countries and in Malaysia. Embedding strong guarantees for human rights (including labor rights) into future trade agreements offers a dual benefit: it can nurture democratic reform in partner countries and help undermine the charge that U.S. trade pacts establish an unfair playing field for American workers and companies. Needless to say, the success of such provisions will depend on whether Washington is willing to bring legal action against member states that violate them.


Above all, any push for democracy abroad should begin at home. The sad fact is that American democracy no longer inspires admiration or emulation. The U.S. presidential election has revealed deep currents of alienation and anger among the public—currents Washington appears unable to calm. The gerrymandering of congressional districts, the flood of so-called dark money into election campaigns, and the ever-growing power of special-interest lobbies have polarized politics to an unprecedented degree, resulting in the passing of fewer bills, a breakdown in bipartisan foreign-policy making, and regular govern­ment shutdowns.

These political failings have given ammunition to democracy’s enemies. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, has claimed that “there is no true democracy” in the United States, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran, has criticized U.S. elections as “a battleground for capitalists.”

The next administration could take a number of steps to counter such charges and restore people’s confidence in American democracy. Working with Congress, it should reform campaign finance laws and require the rapid and full disclosure of all campaign contri­butions, even to so-called independent committees. It should also encourage state governments to invigorate political competition—for example, by ending gerrymandering, introducing ranked-choice voting for Congress and state offices, and removing sore-loser laws, which prevent defeated primary candidates from running as indepen­dents in the general election.

Together, these steps could improve democracy in the United States and abroad at little to no financial cost. They could help restore the United States’ leadership role in the world. And they could tip the world out of its persistent democratic recession and into a new period of progress.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • LARRY DIAMOND is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter @LarryDiamond.
  • More By Larry Diamond