Political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, that “mankind’s ideological evolution” was complete in Western liberal democracy, a form of democracy which is now “the final form of human government.” So much for a theory that lasted for less than a half of one generation.
Joshua Kurlantzick, in his book Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government (Yale, 2013), says the last decade is best characterized by a broad swath of nations embroiled in internal strife and the decline of democracy.
Kurlantzick describes protests in Thailand that led to the fall of its elected government in 2006 followed by an almost continuous violence between the middle classes and the poor ever since. He tells of social and electoral chaos in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malawi, Kenya, Venezuela, and in various countries in Eastern Europe and, of course, in the Middle East. The aborted “Arab Spring” has done little to fundamentally change the region. As economic problems arise globally far more people become distrusting of their governments, even governments that were elected by the people. If you need basic necessities to survive you soon understand why this is true.
Very simply put, we’ve come a long way from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But why does Kurlantzick believe that the post-Cold War world, which spawned so many new democracies, now suffer from the retreat of democracy? His answer is worth considering. He believes that newly independent nations, along with developing countries in the Middle East and Africa, have not built the necessary institutions that will make “government by the people” work well. What is needed is independent judicatories, the rule of law, free and fair elections, etc. What we have, all too often, is gang wars that are put down by autocrats and dictators. People then desire peace and prosperity more than they desire Western-style freedom.
Kurlantzick criticizes American diplomats and leaders for backing expedient, but corrupt, dictators rather than nurturing deeper ties with diverse people groups. One of the cases that he cites is our backing of President Hamid Karzi in Afghanistan rather than working to nurture diverse groups that better represent the nation as a whole. In an appendix the author shows how the same experiment is failing in Egypt at the present moment.
But Joshua Kurklantzick is not a defeatist about the prospects of democracy in the world. He urges U.S. leaders to support the building of institutions for democracy in various nations that will prevent the stagnation of economic development. He counsels that we “keep middle classes on board” if we want to foster economic growth and build strong nations. His prescription is one that American leaders especially need right now: “Show some humility.”
Besides our promotion of bad economic policies in the developing world we also fail to understand the powerful role that religion has in these different regions. I have repeatedly said, in various settings, that our U.S. State Department seems tone deaf when it comes to understanding the key role that religion has in the lives of peoples and nations. Perhaps our secular way of dealing with the world is a much bigger problem than just the one it presents to us at home right now. That’s at least worth thinking about. If I was Secretary of State I would create a department on world religions and staff it with people who understand the faith and practice of various people groups so that we can relate to these people by listening and cooperating in partnership, not by simple promoting our way as the superior way to think and live.