Democracy still holds promise globally, though in retreat for now, Stanford expert says

Stanford scholar Larry Diamond says that it was probably inevitable that freedom and democracy would level off after roughly 30 years of nearly continuous expansion.

Iraqi woman casts ballot in 2005 parliamentary election

An Iraqi woman casts her ballot during the country’s first parliamentary election in 2005. As Iraq unraveled, says Stanford scholar Larry Diamond, many people began to question the wisdom of trying to advance democracy in other countries. (Image credit: Shane S. Keller)

Democracy has faltered around the world due to an inevitable slowdown, the lack of democratic conditions in some countries, and autocrats who seek to neutralize the liberating effects of technology, a Stanford expert says.

But the future looks bright in places that invest in human capital, the rule of law and smart economic policies, said Stanford’s Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Diamond said it was predictable that democracy globally would level off or ebb after roughly 30 years of expansion. At the same time, not all countries have an equal opportunity at achieving democracy, he said.

“As democracy has spread to more and more countries, some of the new democracies in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eurasia lack the classic facilitating conditions for democracy – a sizable middle class, high levels of education, an effective state, a prior history of democracy” and other democratic countries in the region, said Diamond.

The key factors in democratic failure, he said, are political polarization (typically along ethnic, religious or ideological lines), corrupt governance, and incompetent or autocratic behavior by elected leaders.

‘Democracy promotion’

Diamond pointed out that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 came to be associated with “democracy promotion.” But as Iraq unraveled, many people began to question the wisdom of trying to advance democracy in other countries.

In recent years, the older, wealthier democracies of the United States, Japan and several European countries have been beset by political dysfunction, cynicism and polarization, he said. As a result, democracy has lost its “global allure” and momentum.

On top of this, he added, authoritarian regimes such as found in Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia have been more assertive and effective in clamping down on freedoms typically associated with civil society, especially on the Internet.

Diamond said the minimum requirement for democracy is that citizens can choose and replace their leaders in truly free and fair elections. However, while many democracies hold reasonably free and fair elections, some still restrict civil society, abuse human rights, disrespect the rule of law and do not deliver adequate social services.

So, a healthy democracy will control corruption, implement policies and programs for the public good, and protect individual and group rights under a credible rule of law, Diamond said.

This type of liberal or high-quality democracy offers the best prospect for human dignity and empowerment – “because the more shallow and illiberal the democracy, the more it will be at risk of breaking down,” he said.

Gaining ground globally

Diamond said promoting democracy worldwide also depends on the many organizations and institutions dedicated to this mission – such as the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, foundations, development assistance agencies in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia that work with local nongovernmental organizations, grassroots networks, human rights groups, think tanks, trade unions, business chambers and political parties.

They can strengthen representative institutions and professionalize state agencies that should deliver public goods and services to citizens like justice, health and education, he said.

But if no political will exists to control corruption through the rule of law, then these efforts may be fruitless, Diamond said. This is one of the lessons of the last three decades.

Also, it is very hard to predict when an authoritarian regime will undergo a crisis that creates an opportunity for democratic change. “At a minimum, we can help societies to prepare for that opening,” he said.

Democracy and China’s growth

Some experts point out that China has grown its economy rapidly without democratic institutions. But Diamond said it is too difficult to generalize across a global landscape about such a dynamic.

“For a time, many experts thought that authoritarianism was the clearer path to rapid economic development, given the East Asian growth-oriented dictatorships like Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, and then the experience of China since 1978,” he said.

However, since the mid-1990s, the democracies and nascent democracies of Africa have generally performed better on economic and human development yardsticks than the autocracies, Diamond said.

“Democracy can be a resource in helping to control corruption. The key ingredients for economic development are smart economic policies that invest in human capital, technological improvements, physical infrastructure and efficient markets,” he said.

Technology and culture

Diamond said that while information and communication technology has helped to facilitate many key aspects of democratization and democracy – such as organizing political protests – it is ultimately only a tool.

“Technology can also be used to inspire and recruit terrorists, and to monitor and suppress civil society,” said Diamond, adding that autocrats are increasingly adept at neutralizing the liberating potential of technology – at least for now.

“In the long run, I think the impact will still be more for human empowerment and liberation than for the defense of autocracy and prejudice,” he said.

Not every country is positioned to achieve democracy at any given moment, Diamond said. Though some cultures may exhibit strong illiberal and undemocratic currents, change can occur over time.

“The more unfavorable the conditions, the more gradual may need to be the movement toward democracy, but surprises happen in history as a result of leadership and innovation, and no country is permanently barred from democracy by its culture or history,” he said.

Pressure for democratic change is better if it is multilateral rather than unilateral American-style, according to Diamond.

“I don’t think the U.S. should ever use force, and certainly not unilaterally, as in the case of Iraq, purely for the purpose of trying to impose or ‘promote’ democracy, but sometimes regime crises emerge and the United States has a unique capacity to act quickly,” he said.

Diamond suggests that the Community of Democracies – which the United States will lead for the next two years – represents a multilateral framework for supporting democratic change around the world.

Media Contacts

Larry Diamond, Hoover Institution: (650) 725-3420, ldiamond@stanford.edu
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu