Democracy Will Continue to Survive the World's Political Turmoil

U.S. Marines and Sailors assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), and Sailors assigned to the USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), hold the American flag to commemorate the Fourth of July during their 2013 deployment on the flight deck of the USS Kearsarge, at sea, July 4, 2013. DoD photo by Sgt. Christopher Q. Stone, U.S. Marine Corps/Released. U.S. Department of Defense Flickr

While some view populism as a sign of rot, others argue that it reflects the strength of established democracies and their ability to weather criticism.

Nor would it be correct to presume that their interests sufficiently coincide that they represent greater threats when they try to work together. In the case of Russia and China, for example, respected China-watcher Dean Cheng points out: “Chinese and Russian leaders and their respective nations appear to be natural allies, but this is not necessarily so.” Further, by withdrawing into their own kind they only hasten the decline of their ability to compete over time, hamstrung by the corruption and autocracy that pervades their regimes.

Freedom is Resilient

For all its efforts to measure the fate of freedom in the world, one of the weaknesses of the 2017 Freedom House index is its obsession with identifying the rise of populism and nationalism as a significant threat to freedom. “With populist and nationalist forces making significant gains in democratic states,” the authors fret, “2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” Yet, this finding seems more an opinion than data-driven conclusion. The nations with the most significant ten-year decline in freedom scores are plagued by much more than just populist or nationalist pressures. Likewise, look at the bottom fifty countries in the index—their problem isn’t populism either.

Here, the index reflects the Western elites’ intense and palatable anger over the rise of populism in the West. They hit the panic button after the electoral success of Trump and Brexit. Yet their anxiety receded following a succession of elections in the Netherlands, Austria and France, which is where populists failed to gain ground. At that point, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker declared “the wind is back in Europe’s sails.” Then came the German elections, and populism once again looked like more of a head wind for the European project.

In part, the angst is understandable. The consensus over values and place of sovereignty in the management of human affairs has frayed. Transatlantic conversations are in a sorry state. I attended two major conferences in Europe that addressed the “threat” of populism, notable for the fact that there were no American or European populist or nationalist voices there to tell their side. Without question, there is a conversation among the family of the free that needs to be had.

That said, the all the anguish is a bit puzzling. The established democracies have weathered far worse. The United States, for example, has a history of successive waves of populist fever. Even in recent times, we have seen tougher times than these. The social unrest and counter-cultural forces of the 1960s made America a far more turbulent place than it is now. American politics were rubbed raw by Watergate. Arguably, even the 2007–08 financial crisis set Americans more on edge than they are now. Democracy should take a chill pill.

While some view populism as a sign of rot, others argue that it reflects the strength of established democracies and their ability to weather criticism. Populism is both the “canary in the mineshaft” demonstrating unease with the established order and a “pressure-valve” that allows for free expression, providing an alternative to more disruptive action. The established democracies are pretty resilient. A solid bet would be that they adopt and respond to current political whirlwinds.

Freedom Pays

Not only does the consent of the governed to be governed make established democracies more resilient, it makes them more competitive, more innovative and more adaptable. Democracy is a great competitive advantage for established democracies. That’s why countries struggle to become one. That determination is nowhere more apparent than in Central Europe where the preference remains to opt for the Western model over the Russian. In Asia, countries may want to do business with China, but few want to look like China. Even in the Middle East, winds of change are blowing among some of the most tradition-bound regimes, like Saudi Arabia. This may have less to do with embracing liberal values and more to do with looking for a competitive edge in an increasingly competitive globalized world, but interest or values aside—the world still recognizes the power that freedom can deliver in an established democracy.

What Comes Next?

The administration can do much to exploit the three big advantages of established democracies and help our side win the world.

Step one: Refurbish the instruments of national power. If the United States is going lead in restructuring the global order, then it needs the means to exert global influence through robust hard power and soft power. That means a strong economy, a strong military and confident foreign policy.