Democracy in Retreat: Joshua Kurlantzick paints a picture of global decline

Though we may be uncertain of when or how it will come about, there exists a common assumption amongst Western leaders that democracy will eventually triumph worldwide. It is an idea which has dominated Western political discourse since the end of the Cold War and one which continues to dictate foreign policy, particularly in the United States. Indeed, recent events in the Middle East and the emergence of powerful new democracies such as Brazil and South Africa seem to confirm the ‘inevitability’ of democracy. However, according to Joshua Kurlantzick these developments hide a disturbing decline in democracy over the past decade, one from which he argues, the world might never recover.

The starting point for Kurlantzick’s remarkable new book, Democracy in Retreat, is the breakdown of democracy in Thailand, once a role model for emerging democracies in South East Asia. As Kurlantzick points out, rather than being an isolated case this deterioration of democratic values is actually evidence of a wider trend. Indeed, an international survey carried out by Freedom House, an independent organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world, found that in 2010 global freedom fell for the fifth year in a row, the longest continuous decline for nearly forty years. More shockingly perhaps, twenty-five nations went backward, in terms of freedom in 2010 alone. Interestingly, it is not just the failure of democratization in developing countries which seems to have resulted in these ‘gloomy conclusions’, but rather the wholesale deterioration of existing democratic systems and even the complete reversal in some countries to military rule or autocracy.

 From this rather dramatic appraisal of the current state of democracy in the world today, Kurlantzick quickly goes on to trace the many reasons for this decline. Perhaps most striking amongst these is his assertion that at the heart of many of the world’s struggling or failed democracies lies an increasingly hostile middle class, one which far from being a ‘linchpin to successful democratization’ is in fact a new threat to reform in many developing nations. Development theorists such as Samuel Huntington have long linked economic change with political change, with economic growth seen as bringing about a more sizeable middle class and the development of education, political institutions and cultural values and ultimately democratic change. For a while this certainly seemed to be the case, with urban middle class men and women playing a major role in the democratization of countries like Chile, Taiwan and South Korea.

 However, with the onset of a fourth wave of democratization at the end of the 1990s, Kurlantzick claims a worrying trend has begun to emerge. These countries, frequently isolated, poor and conflict ridden, often suffered weak growth in the initial years of democracy and, coupled with the high expectations of increasing prosperity for all, led many to feel increasing dissatisfaction with democracy. With high levels of corruption and political instability, the reality for many emerging democracies, large numbers of former advocates of democracy have begun to distrust the system they had previously fought so hard to put in place. In his detailed analysis of this phenomenon Kurlantzick offers up some startling examples of this trend. In particular, his examination of the revolt of the middle classes in the Philippines is fascinating, not least in his comparison with Singapore, essentially a one-party state, which enjoys a GDP per capita more than ten times that of the Philippines, prompting its leader, Lee Kuan Yew to deliver up his own views on development strategy thus; ‘I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development… The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions’.

 Such stark assessments of the failures of democracy not only illustrate Kurlantzick’s theoretical arguments, but also offer an interesting insight into the declining state of democracy in the modern world, something which is too often overlooked as a glitch in democracy’s onward march towards worldwide triumph. Given his authoritative knowledge of the subject, Kurlantzick makes for an articulate and engaging guide to this complex, and at times difficult, subject. However, Democracy in Retreat is ultimately much more than a rigorous analysis of democracy’s recent decline; it is an important book which raises questions about the future of our most treasured political institution, with Kurlantzick offering up his own thoughts and concerns on a trend which could have severe ‘international consequences’. The result is a though-provoking and at times alarming book, a must-read for all those interested in political theory and international relations, and for anyone concerned about the long-term future of democracy.    

– by Alice Winborn 

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