Image from article, with caption: Police detain a demonstrator during a protest in Moscow, March 26
Freedom rests on wings of butterflies—and the moral confidence of America.
This week marks the centenary of America’s entry into World War I, when Woodrow Wilson vowed that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” He and his fellow statesmen failed to do so in their day. We are failing in ours.
Snapshots from a week in the news: In Russia, opposition leader Alexei Navalny is in jail for leading last month’s anticorruption protests. In Venezuela, the Supreme Court stepped back from seizing the powers of the legislature but handed President Nicolás Maduro broad control over the country’s oil revenues. In Ecuador, a candidate with the telling name of Lenín Moreno claimed victory in a runoff vote Sunday with pledges to carry forward the populist-authoritarian policies of outgoing President Rafael Correa.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is campaigning for constitutional changes that would extend his lease of office till 2029. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has promised to pardon and promote 19 police officers implicated in murdering a politician while jailing the former head of the country’s human rights commission.
In Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, Beijing’s favored candidate, was “elected” as chief executive with the votes of 0.03% of the territory’s population; nine democracy activists were arrested the next day. In France, presidential front-runner Marine Le Pen sought to boost her appeal among voters by paying a flattering visit to Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
These stories aren’t just a string of anecdotes. The year 2016 “marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom,” reports Freedom House in its latest annual survey. “A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains.” Just 39% of the world’s people live in free countries today, down from 46% a decade earlier.
How did the world become unsafe for democracy?
The striking finding in the Freedom House report is that the global erosion of political liberty is largely taking place in the democracies. People are losing faith in freedoms that no longer seem to deliver on the promise of a safer, richer, fuller, fairer life.
In some cases, long-term political polarization leads to ineffectual governance, which in turn whets the public appetite for leaders promising fast results irrespective of legal niceties. In others, a stale form of consensus politics leads to ideological polarization as mainstream parties fail to address mainstream concerns.
And sometimes people fall under the sway of charismatic demagogues, discovering only too late the direction in which they are being steered. That was the tragedy of Venezuela under the late Hugo Chávez and of Russia under Vladimir Putin. In both cases it helped to have an oil boom grease the way.
In 1991 the late political scientist Samuel Huntington proposed the thesis that democracy advanced and retreated in waves—a long “Jacksonian” wave that began in the early 19th century and only collapsed after Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922; a brief postwar wave that crashed in the 1960s as postcolonial states fell prey to dictatorship; and then a “Third Wave” that began with the restoration of democracy in Portugal in 1974 and crested with the Soviet collapse 17 years later.
Huntington’s thesis suggests that what is happening today is inevitable: that democracy has a way of overextending itself before it later succeeds in sinking deep roots. It also offers the comfort that the current trend can’t last forever: that most dictatorships will eventually be undermined by their internal contradictions, while most democracies will bounce back thanks to their ability to correct mistakes through elections.
Maybe. Or maybe the cause of democracy just got lucky in 1931 when Winston Churchill wasn’t killed by a New York City cab, and lucky again in 1942 when American pilots hit their targets at Midway, and lucky a third time in 1985 when the Soviet Union chose a leader foolish enough to think communism could be reformed. The march of freedom rests on wings of butterflies.
It also rests on the moral example and ideological confidence of the strongest democratic powers. The U.S. now has as a president a man who explicitly renounces the concept of American exceptionalism, shows no interest in denouncing authoritarian crackdowns or championing democratic dissidents, draws parallels between the practices of the Putin regime and those of the U.S. government, and has fanned conspiracy theories about a “deep state” that pulls the strings in D.C.
If Americans can’t be persuaded of the merits and decency of our system, why should anyone else? If the winner of a U.S. presidential election is a man who embarrasses—or terrifies—much of the free world, how do we make the case to ordinary Russians or Chinese that the road of democracy isn’t simply the way of the buffoon?
Americans used to care deeply about the future of freedom in the world. Lose the care, risk the freedom.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. He has taught courses for many years at Georgetown University pertaining to propaganda and public diplomacy. He currently shares ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" to Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.