With democracies around the world beleaguered by rising inequality, economic stagnation, and political gridlock, a book on the decline of democracy might seem more timely than this one. Yet Hobson’s sweeping narrative of the rise and spread of modern democracy provides a useful corrective to the unrealistic euphoria of the 1990s, when many saw the spread of democracy as an unstoppable force, and serves to dispel today’s unwarranted pessimism about democracy’s future. Hobson shows that World War I was the great turning point, as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson managed to frame the conflict as a fight to establish democracy as the global standard for legitimate political rule. The ideological stakes were even higher during World War II and the Cold War, which pitted liberal democratic ideals against fascist and communist alternatives. Struggles to create democratic governments were not just internal dramas; they played out on a global stage, where the rules and norms of the emerging international order were still up for grabs. Hobson’s emphasis on the contingent and contested spread of democracy contradicts idealists’ narratives about the triumph of democracy, but the book also reminds skeptics of democracy’s future of just how deeply entrenched democratic norms are in international society.
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