Democracy May Not Be In Decline, But It Is Moving In Reverse

When the Berlin Wall fell and democratic movements moved across Eastern Europe, some thought saw democracy as the victor, leaving other communism and socialism on the ash heap of history. But the rise of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the failure of democracy to hold its ground in Latin America and Africa and radical Islamism in the Middle East casts some doubt on the strength of that claimed victory. In fact, some believe democracy is on the wane.

Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, however, sees the lack of democracy’s influence as simply part of another wave in the ongoing clash of civilizations.

Gershman points to arguments made by the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington in his book, The Clash of Civilizations, which posit the world has experienced two waves of democratization followed by “reverse waves.” He suggests that the third reverse wave began, in part, in reaction to President George W. Bush and crystalized in the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Ironically, President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine is part of the reversal. In his recent article on the Obama doctrine, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg points out that Obama has resisted applying the “Huntington” theory to the rise of ISIS and radical Islam.

“The goal is not to force a Huntington template onto this conflict,” said John Brennan, the CIA director, to Goldber.

“When you have significant democratic expansion, it is often very difficult to consolidate the gains. And of course there are people in the world who strongly oppose and feel threatened by the spread of democratic values, and so they push back. Certainly the Orange Revolution in Ukraine alarmed Putin and his KGB friends,” he says in a recent interview.

Gershman adds that, according to Huntington, a void left by the primary advocate for democracy leaves the door open for others to fill it and when the US under President Obama chose to step away from its leadership role, the vacuum was created.

“When the only democratic superpower reduces its global presence and influence, regional adversaries will fill the vacuum. President Obama himself said as much when he told the United Nations General Assembly in 2014 that US disengagement posed a danger for the world since it would create a vacuum that no other democratic country would be able to fill. So it is no surprise that the vacuum that now exists because of US disengagement is being filled by resurgent autocracies, above all Russia, China, and Iran,” he says.

Even in so-called democratic nations, such as Turkey, real democracy has not thrived because the underlying culture has not embraced the core principles and freedoms of democratic philosophy. And while Huntington’s theory remains a matter of great debate, the arguments he made seem prescient.

“According to Huntington, despite its adoption of Western institutions such as democracy and the rule of law, Turkey remains firmly rooted in the culture of the Islamic world and is therefore experiencing a “civilizational crisis.” Since its publication, Huntington’s “clash of civilization” theory has had a very mixed reception in the West, being alternately viewed as prescient or as hopelessly reductionist. Today, Turkey is still the only secular, democratic republic in the Islamic world; sadly, under Erdoğan’s increasingly Islamist rule, it is proving Huntington right with every passing day,” writes Behlul Ozkan, an assistant professor at Marmara University. In The Huffington Post.

While the democratic movement may appear weaker than it was a decade ago, Gershman says the current global climate is a wake-up call, not a death call – if we recognize and acknowledge the need to assertive and aggressive action.

“Hopefully there is a greater realization that democracy can never be taken for granted. It requires constant outreach to all the people, especially to those who feel excluded or looked down upon by the elites. It doesn’t suffice just to decry populism. You have to find ways to let all the people know that they count, that they are equal citizens,” he says.


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