Snap Judgments on Snap Elections in the UK

As Europe digests the results of last Sunday’s referendum in Turkey and prepares for this weekend’s first round of presidential elections in France, Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom has added a further electoral entrée to the Continental smorgasbord. This morning, the PM announced her decision to call for an early parliamentary election, proposing that parliament dissolve on 3 May and that new elections take place on 8 June.

This announcement is not the first time that a British Prime Minister has called for a “snap” election before Parliament’s formal term expires, but it is the first time since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act tightened the regulations of such a decision. According to that law, parliamentary terms are set for five years (meaning the next scheduled general election would have been in 2020), unless a 2/3 supermajority in the House of Commons votes in favor of early dissolution. With PM May’s Conservatives and the main opposition Labour party each signaling support for the decision, that vote appears to be a foregone conclusion.

Why did May choose this course of action? In some ways, her motivations are the same as for other prime ministers who have called snap elections in the past. After winning the 2015 general election, the Conservatives have held a narrow majority in the house of Commons (330 of 650 seats), but since then, the Labour Party appears to be in such disarray that polls suggest an early election offers a real opportunity to widen their lead. Furthermore, Prime Minister May gained office not through that general election victory, but through intra-party maneuvering after her predecessor David Cameron’s decision to resign last year in the wake of the Brexit referendum. So, she has an interest in claiming an independent mandate as she attempts to guide the UK through the process of turning the vote for Brexit into reality.

Brexit is the issue which gives her decision a significantly different cast from previous snap elections. The May government formally triggered the two-year process of leaving the European Union on March 29, which means that by the end of March 2019, the UK will no longer be a member of the EU. The concrete shape of a post-EU United Kingdom—its relations with its former partners, and with the rest of the world, not to mention whether the UK, facing secessionist rumblings in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, will be united at all—will depend on the deals that Her Majesty’s Government is able to negotiate. Initially, hoping to avoid instability, May had declared her intention to work out those deals with her current majority, and then frame her 2020 re-election campaign as a referendum on her handling of Brexit. After several months of turbulent debates in both Houses of Parliament over the strategy of Brexit, however, May has apparently decided that she needs a clearer mandate from the British electorate to weaken opposition forces in all parties and perhaps even to send a message to frustrated “Remain” voters that she has the country behind her and that they should give up hopes of reversing the relatively narrow result of last years’ Brexit vote.

Political cynics would also mention that an electoral mandate would also make it easier for Prime Minister May to reshuffle her government. Mounting criticism of Foreign Minister Boris Johnson in particular has become a problem, especially because of the Foreign Office’s central role in Brexit talks. May put Johnson in Whitehall in the name of party unity during the maneuvers that brought her into No. 10 Downing Street. Firing the bumptious Brexiteer would thus be politically awkward. A strengthened, post-election May, however, could announce a Cabinet reorganization, putting people more loyal to her personally into key positions and clarifying the lines of responsibility.

So it is not difficult to see why calling an early election makes sense for the prime minister, even if critics such as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accuse her of “one of the most extraordinary U-turns in recent political history” and  “once again putting the interests of her party ahead of those of the country.”

There is the risk that a poor performance by the Tories could mean that May comes out weaker rather than stronger, but she has several factors in her favor. Most importantly, the Labour Party remains a disaster. Jeremy Corbyn’s weak and ambivalent role in last year’s Brexit referendum exposed deep divisions. Although he won re-election as party leader thanks to his popularity with the left-wing rank and file, many traditional Labour constituencies (working class voters in small towns as well as educated professionals in the big cities) are disillusioned. Polls indicate Labour is facing a debacle on the scale of Thatcher-era drubbings of 1983 and 1987.

Pro-EU voters may dream of using this election to re-run the Brexit referendum, but the British electoral system offers them little opportunity to do so. Conservative Remainers are likely to be wooed back into the fold by the desire to secure their party’s majority. Labour, worried about losing working class voters to the hard core Euroskeptics of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), are unlikely to make remaining in the EU part of their campaign. With the two major parties apparently focused on negotiating the terms of Brexit rather than rethinking it, the only party likely to stand up for remaining in the EU are the Liberal Democrats, who claim a surge in members over the past year but who are still smarting from their disappointing showing in 2015 and the criticism they earned for their coalition with Cameron and the Tories from 2010-2015. It will be worth watching to see if the LibDems rise in enough cosmopolitan boroughs to challenge May’s majority, but that is a long shot.

One party whose fate may depend on this election is the aforementioned UKIP. As the most enthusiastic Brexiteers, UKIP claimed victory in last year’s referendum, but since then, the party has been struggling to decide what it stands for. Should it simply count their winnings in shillings and pence and head off to the pub for a few pints (NOT half-liters) and a couple of appropriately curved bananas, assuming its work is done? Or should it attempt to position itself as a permanent fixture on the British political spectrum, a populist alternative to both major parties? Current poll numbers indicate the party’s future is unclear. The results of this election will tell us more about its future.

The last wild card in this discussion is the question of Scottish or Northern Irish secession, which deserves its own essay. Both of those regions voted to Remain in the EU, and in both, one hears a rising chorus speculating about exiting the UK. Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish Nationalist Party have announced plans to push for a new independence referendum, but the result there is far from certain. If this general election follows the pattern set in 2015—Tory victories south of Hadrian’s Wall, SNP dominance in Scotland, and Labour gravely weakened—divisions between Westminster and Holyrood will only get deeper, no matter how big Theresa May’s majority in the House of Commons may be.

All of these moving parts remind us that these elections will not happen in a vacuum. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that electoral results can always surprise the most confident analysts, and results in one place can influence what happens in the next. The mere fact that the British will vote after the French have selected a new president, for example, may seal the fate of the EU even before the Germans go to the polls this fall. Or maybe not. We are still working through a substantial period of uncertainty, as weakened political establishments struggle to respond to populist challenges. Now that British voters will add their voices to the cacophony, harmony continues to recede into the distance.

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President Trump on NATO—Never Mind?

While watching President Trump’s April 12 press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, I was reminded of a famous quotation often (though probably erroneously) attributed to Mark Twain:

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

That quote maintains its popularity despite its dubious provenance because of its deft jab at the arrogance and solipsism of youth, but it can also be used as a metaphor for “outsider” presidential candidates. When one is relatively innocent of specific knowledge, it is easy to imagine that those with whom one disagrees are either ignorant or malevolent. Only as one grows in wisdom through experience can one begin to understand the reasoning behind decisions, and to see that those allegedly ignorant oldsters or insiders may actually be more sensible than one thought.

Thus has it been with Donald Trump and NATO. During the presidential campaign, Candidate Trump repeatedly denounced NATO as “obsolete” and attacked our European allies for failing to “pay their fair share” for their defense by meeting NATO’s defense budget target of two percent of GDP. After about three months in office, and a morning’s discussion with the alliance’s suave Norwegian civilian leader, President Trump declared, “I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete.”

What changed? According to President Trump, the alliance responded to his criticisms by devoting more attention to fighting terrorism and by discussing ways they could live up to their budgetary responsibilities, and thus (re-)gained his confidence. Secretary General Stoltenberg, like other European leaders, was polite enough not to quibble, preferring to welcome the president’s new sentiments rather than question his motivations. That’s the kind of tact that has allowed Stoltenberg to have such a successful career in international relations.

Policy analysts (and bloggers, of course) are less constrained by diplomatic niceties. So, it has to be said that President Trump’s praise of NATO’s alleged maturation is on par with Twain’s praise of his old man. Even while President Trump was demanding that NATO pay more attention to terrorism over the past year, people with actual knowledge of NATO operations had been discussing the alliance’s declarations and practical steps in that direction for over a decade. Stoltenberg himself had described those efforts in January 2016, and the alliance has been involved in combating extremism in Afghanistan since 2002. NATO has not changed overnight, but the president’s level of knowledge about the alliance’s work, and its importance to the United States’s global strategy, certainly has.

The last few weeks have seen President Trump make many discoveries about how much more complex the world is than he imagined during the campaign—from China’s currency policies to the proper responses to Syria and North Korea; from health care to the interest rate policies of the Federal Reserve. On China’s role in North Korea, the president declared that it only took a ten-minute discussion with Xi Jinping to make him realize his previous lack of understanding. It may have taken Jens Stoltenberg longer. Further reassessments of campaign assertions are no doubt on the horizon as the president settles into the responsibilities of governing.

This is not to say that NATO is perfect, nor even to say that Trump’s criticisms of the alliance were baseless, even if they were expressed in unusually hostile terms. Europeans and Americans have debated the proper sharing of strategic, budgetary, and leadership burdens for about as long as the alliance has existed, and with greater intensity since the end of the Cold War appeared to remove the alliance’s original raison d’être. Presidents and Secretaries of State and Defense have hectored NATO allies for years to be more active in advancing the alliance’s strategic goals and to be less parsimonious with their defense spending. Those debates will and should continue, just as we should hope that the president’s recognition of NATO’s value will lead to better intra-alliance negotiations about future alliance goals and policies.

A president being forced by circumstance to walk back confident campaign declarations is not unprecedented—consider Bill Clinton’s denunciations of the “Butchers of Beijing,” George W. Bush’s disdain for nation building, or even Barack Obama’s rejection of the individual mandate for health insurance. In the case of President Trump, the phenomenon is so notable both because the original statements were so categorical and because the pirouettes have come in such rapid succession so early in his term.

Being willing to learn and change positions based on new information is certainly better than closing one’s eyes to reality. The challenge comes when the president has to stop swinging between extremes and settle down to the steady realities of governing. Then, we will see whether the new positions are built on a firmer foundation of understanding than the old.

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Meet the New Boss – Same as the Old Boss: Still Unchained in Ankara

I recently returned from Istanbul, traveling there so that I could get a read on the upcoming April 16 constitutional referendum that could change the foundations of Turkey’s political system. My first inclination is to describe this great city’s atmosphere simply as “tense.” Yet, this characterization seems too subjective. I’ll qualify it with some observations:

  • Since June 2015, there have been by one count at least 20 terrorist incidents in Turkey, the bulk occurring in Ankara, Istanbul, and Diyarbakir. They have involved bombings, assassinations, as well as one mass shooting.
  • Not unrelated, a recent poll of 14,000 women indicated that 72% feel that the streets are not safe.
  • In my meetings with business leaders, academics, journalists, and activists, not a single one was confident about an upward economic trend in the future. Even Turks of comparatively modest means are keeping their savings in accounts abroad or as hard currency in safety deposit boxes.
  • Equally telling is the dripping brain drain of Turkey’s leading academics, causing graduates of Turkey’s top high schools to seek their college education in foreign lands. As one professor explained, “It’s not enough to be neutral. You have to show your support [for the ruling AK Party].”
  • Unsurprisingly, the streets are rife with conspiracy theories. My favorite so far is a poorly worded television ad for a chocolate bar, whose April Fools’ Day intentions were promptly denounced as foreshadowing another possible coup attempt.

In sum, high anxiety rules the day.

Against this backdrop, Turks will go to the polls this coming Sunday to vote up-or-down a set of 18 proposed constitutional amendments that, if approved, would shift the Republic’s 94-year-old parliamentary system to a presidential one. Polls—as much as still reliable—indicate that the victorious side will win by a small margin. Regardless, the short-term consequences of a “yes” or a “no” result are likely limited; however, what a hyper-executive branch may entail for Turkey’s once-consolidating democracy is anything but encouraging.

The Proposed Amendments

Efforts at constitutional reform have been underway for the past few years, spurred onward by the shortcomings of the current version (borne of the 1982 coup d’état) and President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic ambitions. The proposed amendments include the following changes:

  • The president becomes both the head of state and government with powers to appoint and remove ministers and vice-presidents. The prime minister position would be abolished. Moreover, the president may remain as head of his related political party while in office (amended art. 104).
  • The president may call for renewed presidential elections, which under an amended constitution, would be held concurrently with parliamentary ones (amended art. 77 and 116).
  • The power of parliament to hold the government to account via ministerial oversight and scrutiny would be removed (amended art. 87).
  • The president would receive increased executive authority over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, whose function is to oversee the admission of judges and public prosecutors and to investigate alleged wrongdoings. Under the proposed changes, the president would, in effect, appoint almost one-half of its 13 members (amended art. 159).

These examples (and others unlisted) bode poorly for any purportedly democratic state. Taken as a whole, the above amendments grant the president the ability to determine his cabinet unfettered, dissolve parliament on the pretext of a needed presidential election, and stock the judiciary with a leadership whom the executive could arguably call upon to pursue perceived “enemies” within the court system. No wonder the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) issued in March its disapproving opinion of these amendments, as adopted by the Grand National Assembly.

“Yea” or “Nay,” More of the Same – For Now

Indeed, this amendment package is far reaching, the operative term being “far.” In multiple discussions with various Turkey hands here and abroad, no one with whom I spoke saw the amendments as bearing great significance on Turkey’s governance in the short term, i.e. between now and the next round of elections in 2019.

Regardless of the outcome, Turkey still will face a number of challenges domestically and internationally. No feasible economic strategy to chart the choppy waters ahead is forthcoming, only a continued rise in public debt. Regarding Syria, Ankara will find itself increasingly at the margins as presently beholden to Russia (e.g. negotiating table, tactical maneuverability, energy, and trade concerns) and with limited leverage in Washington beyond its continued use of Incirlik airbase for anti-ISIS sorties. And while a securely ensconced Erdoğan may moderate vis-à-vis the ongoing live war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), too great would be the risk of losing the nationalist bloc represented by fellow “yes” campaigners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Yet, a “no” outcome could have a certain immediate effect on the political scene; namely, certain damage and possibly an end to MHP leader Devlet Bahceli’s nearly 20-year reign as party leader. Bahceli tied his political fortune to Erdoğan’s hopeful “yes” vote as payback for Erdoğan rescuing him from an attempted MHP inner-party putsch last summer. Despite the party’s official support for the proposed package, deep splits within MHP rank-and-file reportedly remain. A failed “deal with the devil” would likely give Bahceli’s enemies just the ammunition needed to oust him. Consequently, a more moderate MHP free of indebtedness to Erdoğan would grant it a freer hand to deal, provided they can maintain the 10% needed to clear the electoral threshold to have seats in parliament.

Clashes with police during protests in Ankara in 2013. (Source: Mstyslav Chernov)

Unlike his newfound friend’s career, Erdoğan’s political career isn’t quite on the line. Turks are currently living under a de facto presidential system; a “yes” win would simply serve to secure powers now exercised through constitutional legitimization. More important to the president is his survival and that of his family. The corruption scandals that rocked Erdoğan’s inner circle in December 2013 exposed the president to an intolerable level of vulnerability. Taken in conjunction with rising public dissatisfaction towards Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rule as witnessed in the Gezi Park protests that year and the ruling party’s poor showing in June 2015 parliamentary elections, Erdoğan concluded that a presidential system with him at the head—potentially until 2029 if “yes”—would ensure the necessary security for him and his agenda.

Accordingly, a “no” result will leave the presidential palace uneasy. Policy calculations increasingly will be made out of personal rather than national interests, the former to be witnessed in the field of electoral politics. Any potential window for negotiations to end the fighting with PKK will remain shuttered. The state will continue to persecute perceived enemies while ginning up new ones most likely in the West should the recent dust-up with the Dutch and Germans be any indicator. Substantive talk of greatly needed reforms for rule of law and economic growth will remain on the shelf.

Beyond 2019

“Yes” campaigners and proponents maintain that increased executive powers will afford greater predictability and thus stability for Turkey’s future. This stance’s basic argument is as follows: the current president, feeling empowered and so emboldened, will probably act with the nation’s concerns ahead of his own. Hardly a winning argument for a presidency designed to predominate the citizens’ judiciary and legislature.

Once enacted, it is difficult to see when and from where an attempted rollback of executive authority will arise. Given the proposed simultaneity of parliamentary and presidential elections, there is a greater likelihood that both institutions will represent the same party, sapping the political will to diminish executive powers. The future impact on the judiciary is also worrying. To equitably and effectively adjudicate, a judge needs years of education and experience at the bench. As a well poisoned with politics, the judiciary cannot be replenished overnight, thereby inhibiting any potential reforms facing staunch political opposition.

Most worrying are the social repercussions of this concentration of power in a single person. Erdoğan’s and the AK Party’s eventual demise won’t leave Turkish society any less divided than it is now, which some argue is more so than ever before. In this atmosphere of distrust and fear, where identity supplants genuine political discourse, personalities tend to prevail over institutional integrity—hardly an environment for hopes of lasting democratic reform.

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Can We Break the “Cycle of Horror” over Syria?

Recent reports of a sarin gas attack against the Syrian civilian population in the rebel-held province of Idlib has the world, rightfully, horrified. With political leaders around the world loudly condemning the targeting of civilians and the reliance on internationally proscribed weapons, the international debate echoes the tones of the aftermath of the brutal August 2013 sarin attack against the opposition-controlled Ghouta suburb, in the outskirts of Damascus.

In addition to eliciting international condemnation over the use of chemical weapons, these two episodes represent moments of collective outrage in a war where systematic and brutal violations of international humanitarian law have been met with reactions ranging from mild indifference to embarrassed resignation.

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, the international community has gone through a number of these moments of indignation in response to atrocities committed against the civilian population. These include, among others, the expression of outrage over the siege of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk—aptly described as the “deepest circle of hell;” the horror elicited by reports of mass executions and systematic torture in the Syrian regime’s prisons; and the more recent horror sparked by the enclosure of eastern Aleppo and the humanitarian crisis that ensued. These are all moments of collective outrage in Syria’s recurrent “cycles of horror:” gruesome atrocities that are met by collective shock; followed by a feeble international response; and then by prolonged times of relative silence, until news of the next large-scale atrocity breaks out.

But these high-profile, highly visible and horrifying violations of international humanitarian law should not be regarded or analyzed as exceptions, but rather understood as integral expressions of a long and brutal war that has often been deliberately waged against the civilian population. Many of these tactics have been adopted by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in the context of a broader counterinsurgency strategy aimed at separating the insurgents from the civilian population and at simultaneously preventing the rise of an alternative political order. To do so, civilians and civilian infrastructure have time and time again been targeted—often through air power—forcing civilians to flee rebel-held areas and, in turn, leading to the forced displacement of millions of Syrians. In addition, the regime relies upon the tactic of laying siege on opposition-held areas to force rebel factions into surrendering, while punishing the civilian population. Mass-based repression of opponents, through systematic and mass-scale incarceration for example, has also been employed to further weaken the rebellion. Of course, the regime is not the sole culprit here: as the conflict evolved, the list of perpetrators grew and the deliberate targeting of civilians became more and more widespread. Still, in terms of number, scale, and degree of systematic targeting, it is clear that to understand the process of erosion of basic norms with respect to the protection of civilians in conflict, one must focus attention to the Syrian government.

So, while collective indignation over especially heinous atrocities, such as the recently reported chemical weapons attack, is appropriate. it cannot be separated from a broader understanding that deliberately punishing civilians and slowly bleeding them into submission has been a core strategy of the regime throughout the war. That strategy should be considered as worthy of outrage and condemnation as the individual atrocities committed within its framework.

In this context, it is then appropriate to wonder: is the selective attention of the international community even helpful to the protection of civilians in conflict?

On the one hand, the answer could be, sadly, negative: with the international community only focusing their condemnation on the most visible violations against the civilian population, it is possible to argue that a dangerous and de facto erosion of international humanitarian law is occurring globally, linked to the abysmal record emerging from Syria. For example, the aftermath of the August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta led to the brokering of an American-Russian agreement culminating in UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which established provisions for Syria’s elimination of its chemical weapons arsenal. The agreement was welcomed at the international level, but within Syria, more than one observer shared the grim view that the international community had de facto sanctioned the targeting of civilians by most means, including deadly barrel bombs, but excluding chemical weapons.

On the other hand, selective international condemnation can still have an important effect: for example, preserving the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons in the context of armed conflict is important at both the regional and global level and failing to respond to identified chemical attacks would send a terrible message and further erode the laws of war. By that same token, if the response is halfhearted or feeble—from a vaguely worded UN resolution to a one-off military strike on a tactical military target—then it may fall short of both upholding basic international law principles at the global level as well as deterring real violations on the ground.

Simply put, the Syrian civil war has not just been terrible for the civilian population in the war-torn country, but it has also poked deep holes in basic principles of civilian protection from the prohibition of deliberate targeting of civilians to the need for the preservation of a humanitarian space where international humanitarian assistance can be delivered to those in need. If the international community decides that these principles and norms are worth upholding, then concerted, coherent, and credible responses are needed, beyond the “cycle of horror.”

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How Can the West Combat the Global Democratic Recession?

Earlier this month, Freedom House released its annual “Nations in Transit” (NIT) report,[1] which painted a disheartening picture for democracy in Eurasia. “Populists’ stunning electoral victories in Europe and the United States have shaken the post–Cold War order in Europe and Eurasia,” wrote the democracy watchdog in the report’s summary. The results of this research project—which focuses on democracy and the democratization of the 29 formerly communist countries that comprised the former Soviet Union and its satellite states—have been published annually since 1995. The 2017 report is grim, and the findings show that democracy continues to be on the defensive in Eurasia. According to the report’s key findings, 18 of the 29 countries experienced declines in their democracy scores, and, for the first time since 1995, there are now more Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes than Consolidated Democracies. “This is the second biggest decline in the survey’s history, almost as large as the drop following the 2008 global financial crisis,” Freedom House concluded.

Those of us who follow the work of Freedom House closely and who keep an eye on the post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia (CEEE) region aren’t surprised by this continued regression. Two years ago, in her presentation of the NIT 2015 report, entitled “Democracy on the Defensive in Europe and Eurasia,” then-NIT project director Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczowska called this regression “demoralizing” to watch. And, continuing the trend, the 2016 NIT report was entitled “Europe and Eurasia Brace for Impact.” These reports have experienced quite the about face, especially since the days of encouraging NIT report titles, like 2005’s “Outlook for a New Democratic Spring.”

What is shocking about this year’s NIT report, and its launch event on April 4, is the fact that concerns over Western liberal democracies are now taking priority over core CEEE issues. Even at discussions that are meant to be solely dedicated to issues like Ukraine’s war with Russia, Georgia’s EU membership aspirations, or Russia’s and Azerbaijan’s complete consolidation of authoritarianism, experts cannot help but express alarm over Brexit, the upcoming French national elections, and the dangerous trends of rising populism and nationalism within the EU.

No wonder the democratic backsliding in CEEE continues, despite all the warnings from democracy watchdogs like Freedom House: Western states have been busy suffering the deterioration of their own democracies. How could they have helped to prevent the same from happening elsewhere? The current wave of democratic backsliding has moved from the East to the West, and now that it’s here, we cannot keep ignoring it.

The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) has paid particular attention to the issues of democratization for over a decade now. Through its Project on Democratic Transitions, which was launched in 2005, dozens of scholars and experts have conducted long-term research on the issues of post-authoritarian democratization and transformation in the CEEE region and beyond. One of the final products of this 12 year exercise was recently released against this grim backdrop of (now qualitatively substantiated) global democratic recession. FPRI’s new book, Does Democracy Matter? The United States and Global Democracy Support (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), examines the available knowledge as well as new research that will help the world better understand both democratization efforts and authoritarian pushback in today’s context.

The ideas featured in this edited volume, made up of contributions by 11 democracy scholars and experts, ring true now more than ever. The volume begins by acknowledging that the West is no longer doing a good job leading the rest of the world by example. “A crisis of political polarization and governmental dysfunction in the United States and other leading democracies” is on the list of global challenges to democracy for Carl Gershman, the president of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. In this volume, he argues that “the United States needs to return to a policy of real engagement and get over the fear of getting bogged down in distant wars.”

One of the most eminent scholars of the study of democracy, Larry Diamond, goes even further by urging “the physician to heal himself:”

The first imperative is to address the manifest ills of our own democracy in the United States, and in other Western democracies. . . . The accelerating trend toward hyperpolarization and institutional gridlock has not only damaged our own national strength but has challenged the appeal of democracy and the credibility of the United States in promoting it. And the surge of illiberal, nativist, anti-immigrant appeals in the electoral politics of the United States, France, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, and other European democracies has done even more damage to the image of democracy as a universalistic value.

The volume’s contributors represent widely different backgrounds and perspectives. Yet, they all agree on one major point which is eloquently captured in a question posed by Diamond:

If we do not mobilize institutional reforms and operational innovations to reduce partisan polarization, encourage moderation and compromise, energize executive functioning, and reduce the outsized influence of money and special interests in our own politics, how are we going to be effective in helping other countries to tackle these challenges?

The authors also agree that American strategic interests are better served in the long term by the spread of democracy abroad. However, they differ on the question of exactly how support for democracy should be integrated into the U.S. national security calculus and how such support should be administered.

Several authors believe that the core national security interests of the United States and of our key allies not only permit, but also very much require, continued efforts to reinforce democracy abroad. They believe that the failure to counter the serious erosion of democracy that has been evident over the past decade would be to ignore an existential threat to the liberal international order – the essential framework that has made the United States secure and prosperous over the last 70 years.  However, the contributors also see the need for a thorough review of how U.S. policies and programs in support of democracy abroad are designed and delivered. How they factor into overall U.S. global strategy and specific bilateral agendas must also be reviewed.

In the concluding chapter, Amb. Adrian Basora and Amb. Ken Yalowitz argue that while the U.S. should indeed favor the spread of democracy abroad as a general objective, factoring this goal into specific relations with individual countries must be done on a case-by-case basis. Realistically, the fostering of democracy cannot “always and everywhere” be a top short-term priority in every bilateral relationship. Thus, careful triage is needed.

In some highly authoritarian countries such as Russia, democracy-promotion initiatives can in practice prove futile or even counterproductive. In other cases, such as in hybrid or “competitive authoritarian” states, there may be opportunities to plant the seeds of eventual democratization, or even the possibility to respond actively in support of an unexpected breakthrough by reformist forces, but these countries must be dealt with cautiously and with a long-term perspective.

Thus, the challenge America faces today is daunting and can induce fear even among the most hopeful observers. Can the United States “heal” its own democracy? Can it inspire the rest of the Western liberal democracies to safeguard their own democratic institutions? Can it unite the West to lead the rest of the world by example? And can it encourage and support a renewed effort to continue the global spread of democracy? Not-so-distant history shows that the United States has overcome obstacles even more insurmountable than this current challenge. The authors of this book are convinced that the global democratic recession is a problem the United States can effectively address, and they are far from giving up on Western liberal democracy.

[1] In the map above, there are 5 regime types in Eurasia: green is Consolidated Democracy; yellow is Semi-Consolidated Democracy; orange is Transitional Government or Hybrid Regime; blue is Semi-Consolidated Authoritarian Regime; and purple is Consolidated Authoritarian Regime.

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