When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office on January 20, he will face a world with more authoritarian momentum and greater democratic instability than at any time in the last several decades. How he responds will be one of the great challenges of his presidency. 


In the political science literature, democratization is generally thought to have occurred in waves. The largest and most recent of these, the “third wave” of global democratic expansion that began in the mid-1970s and crested in the 1990s, had already begun to subside as early as 2005. Since then, declines in freedom and political participation have come incrementally. But in the past year or two, several developments have intensified global anxieties about the health and future of democracy

The first is a trend toward authoritarianism that has popped up in several emerging democracies. In Turkey, which has been under a state of emergency since the failed military coup this July, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has arrested some 32,000 alleged coup plotters and more than 100 journalists, while purging tens of thousands of other civil servants, military personnel, and police officers from the government. In August, Thailand’s military imposed a new constitution—by way of a referendum that was closed to opposition campaigning—that obstructs democracy by giving the military enormous de facto power. Meanwhile, since President Rodrigo Duterte’s inauguration in the Philippines in June, several thousand alleged drug traffickers have been killed without due process. Duterte has also cracked down on domestic opposition. Most recently, he removed his loudest critic from the leadership of a Senate committee investigating the murderous wave of police and vigilante violence. Reacting against international criticism, Duterte even compared himself favorably to Hitler, saying that while the German dictator had “massacred three million Jews,” he, Duterte, would be “happy to slaughter” the Philippines’ three million drug addicts. 

Another worrying development is that as democracies have stumbled, authoritarian regimes have become more aggressive in projecting anti-democratic norms onto the world stage, even as they stifle political pluralism in their own countries. Russia has been particularly dangerous in this regard, using highly sophisticated social media interventions to promote confusion, division, and doubt among democratic publics and intensify cynicism about democracy. Russia is also believed by U.S. intelligence agencies to be behind a number of hacks, such as that of Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s e-mail account, designed to influence the U.S. election. At the same time, Russia and the world’s other most powerful autocracy, China, have been flexing their muscles in more conventional military, economic, and geopolitical ways. 


Perhaps the most ominous trend, however, has been the increasingly manifest problems of democracy within the advanced nations of Europe and the United States. A crucial factor in the success of the third wave of democratization was the unparalleled power of a seemingly successful U.S. democratic model—which U.S. President Ronald Reagan, channeling American colonial governor John Winthrop, called a “shining city on a hill”—to inspire admiration and emulation around the world. Of course, democracy in the United States has always had many scars and imperfections. But during the 1980s and 1990s, the world saw it as economically dynamic, politically functional, morally self-confident, and militarily supreme. The fall of the Berlin Wall and then of the Soviet Union left the United States as the lone superpower at a time when its democratic allies in the EU were attempting to unify the continent in a common market based on liberal values and institutions. In the post–Cold War era, democratic values became universal—in the sense that they appealed to large swaths of humanity in virtually every region of the world—while all ideological rivals were in retreat or, like Iran, geographically contained. With financial and political support from Europe and the United States during these two decades, freedom flourished, markets expanded, civil societies grew, representative institutions strengthened, and democracy became, for the first time in human history, the most common form of government in the world.

There is no consensus on what we are witnessing, but what is beyond dispute is that populism and illiberalism have been surging in the West.

During this third wave, democracy gained durable footholds in Africa and Asia and became pervasive in Latin America, but its high quality and unquestioned stability in the West remained the foundation of its global success. Europe and the United States provided both an end state toward which emerging democracies could move, and support to help them get there. It was thus possible to imagine the turn of the millennium as the dawn of a new democratic century.

That vision has now begun to unravel. There is no consensus on what we are witnessing, but what is beyond dispute is that populism and illiberalism have been surging in the West. Recent events in Europe have been particularly worrisome—across the continent, populist parties have sought to mobilize “the people” against allegedly corrupt elites. In Hungary and Poland, right-wing populist governments have subverted the independence of the judiciary, civil service, and media. Antidemocratic parties have won significant vote shares in Hungary and the Czech Republic, while illiberal, anti-immigrant ones, such as France’s National Front and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, have achieved impressive electoral gains in a number of West European democracies.

Donald Trump greets supporters on election night, November 2016.
Donald Trump greets supporters on election night, November 2016.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

In June, a further shock was delivered by Brexit—the stunning vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. For the 52 percent of the British electorate that voted out, the referendum was the essence of democracy: a reassertion of national sovereignty and individual dignity against elites in London and Brussels, who had grown distant from common people and unresponsive to their concerns. But for more upwardly mobile and cosmopolitan British people, as well as for the bulk of Europeans looking at the vote from the continent, Brexit was a turn away from inclusion, integration, and a liberal democratic Europe. 

On November 8—last Tuesday—voters in the United States delivered an even more stunning upset by electing the populist Trump to the presidency, in a shocking turn of events that Trump himself had correctly predicted would be “Brexit, plus, plus, plus.” In fact, the core constituencies that delivered the Brexit vote and the Trump presidency were stunningly similar: working class white voters with limited skills and education, who feel culturally displaced and economically threatened by immigration, globalization, and racial and cultural diversity. Both votes pitted culturally diverse cities against predominantly white rural areas, small towns, and decaying post-industrial rust belts. Both campaigns left their countries more polarized than before. And both have deepened worries about the future of the liberal democratic order.


Will the new Trump administration confront a gathering global crisis of democracy? A new wave of breakdowns that could sweep away the democratic gains of recent decades? It depends. If Trump is able to bring the art of the deal to Capitol Hill and fashion some bipartisan agreements that address central challenges such as economic stagnation, income inequality, and immigration, the world may see that American democracy is working again—even if many of Trump’s policies draw opposition at home and abroad. Indeed, if the new president pursues his little-noticed but progressive proposals on lobbying reform—which would make it much more difficult for former White House and congressional officials to sell influence, especially to foreign governments—the quality of U.S. democracy could improve in at least one respect (though the prospective appointments of industry lobbyists to key government roles could largely vitiate that impact). And if Trump’s pragmatic streak in foreign policy leads him to recognize the value of supporting democratic allies, his administration may be able to contain democratic backsliding. 

There is some reason to be skeptical: throughout his campaign, Trump made it clear that his would be a foreign policy of realism, pragmatism, and of putting America first—not of interventions to spread democracy. Authoritarian leaders such as Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi now likely assume that under Trump, the pressure to democratize coming from the Obama administration will vanish. Duterte, who offered warm post-election congratulations to Trump, is visibly relieved to be getting rid of Obama, whom he called a “son of a whore” after U.S. officials expressed their concerns over extrajudicial killings. Silence from a Trump administration in the face of human rights abuses by rulers such as these will exact a toll on democracy’s global prospects.

Yet previous U.S. presidents, including Obama, have made many compromises of this kind. And the world has changed since the days of Richard Nixon, the last U.S. president to be a pure realist in foreign affairs. Today, there are many, many more democracies worldwide, and thus many more opportunities to pursue common interests through democracy. For instance, not enough attention has been given in policy circles to existing, but insecure and poorly institutionalized democracies, such as those in Indonesia, Peru, Tunisia, and most of the post-Cold War African democracies. Strengthening the governing institutions and civil societies of these emerging democracies is not inconsistent with Donald Trump’s way of viewing the world, which stresses friendship with countries that want to be friendly with the United States. 

There is one further reason for hope. Part of what has made the United States a great country has been its international standing as the world’s leading democracy. Reagan understood that we cannot make America great again if we do not defend and advance our principles internationally. Whether Trump understands that will be one of the most important tests of his foreign policy. 

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  • 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.
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