Earlier this month, Freedom House released its annual “Nations in Transit” (NIT) report, 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.
 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.