Democracy and the post-war world order are under siege as populist and nationalist forces gain ground around the world. We must wake up and act.
In retrospect, the patterns that shape world history are unmistakable. Yesterday’s shifts in the international order unfold clearly in our global consciousness.
But today, the arc of history bends in chaotic directions. As distinct patterns fade, our historical perspective yields to confusion and uncertainty.
For democracy, the prevailing global climate is alarming. In the United States and Europe, citizens have expressed growing disenchantment and even hostility toward liberal institutions.
An article published in the Journal of Democracy in 2016 concluded that among millennials, only about 30 percent of Americans and 45 percent of Europeans believe living in a democratic nation is “essential.” Millennials are far less attached to democracy than older generations.
Within liberal nations, declining voter participation and fraying party loyalties have eroded trust in conventional democratic practices. Fallout from these trends has significant implications, casting a shadow of doubt on the future of democracy around the world.
Keep in mind that democracy is relatively young. It was only after World War Two that representative self-governance became the norm in the international order. The defeat of anti-democratic forces in Germany, Italy and Japan legitimized liberalism and allowed it to bloom within a rising European Union.
With the Cold War, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 strengthened democracy’s global footing by providing a sturdy alliance structure within which liberalism could prosper. From the 1970’s until the turn of the 20th century, democracy’s ascendancy appeared irreversible.
In only half a century, democracy had become the dominant political model.
Daunting challenges for democracy in the Middle East
But developments over the past two decades have challenged its dominance, revealing a sobering reality: What is built within short order can be undone just as easily.
Take the Middle East, where hopes for democracy surged at the start of the Arab Spring, which began as a movement promoting civil liberties. Those hopes have now largely fizzled out.
Syria and Libya have spiraled into chaos as popular tensions boiled over into civil wars. Yemen has suffered a similar fate since 2015 following catastrophic ruptures between revolutionaries and state forces.
Egypt, with erratic leadership, has been thrown into political upheaval as citizens struggle to resist oppressive state control. While representative democracy seems stronger in Tunisia, most Middle Eastern countries swept up by the Arab Spring have failed to reconcile authoritarian tradition with their conceptions of freedom.
Given the autocratic history of the region, the fits and starts of liberalism in the Middle East are often overlooked by Western democratic powers. Turmoil in Arab countries, however, undermines the international community’s longstanding confidence that democracy is inevitable.
The frustrations associated with the Arab Spring parallel startling breakdowns within Western democracies themselves. The year 2016 was particularly upsetting in Europe.
In Britain, France, Poland and Germany, fringe parties garnered substantial support, rising to prominence on platforms of anti-immigration fears and nationalism. These parties, buoyed by populist energies, have broken with liberal customs, taking aim at media independence, judicial powers and free speech.
Anti-pluralist forces have eroded faith in the European Union with a series of referendums — think BREXIT — to chip away at the diplomatic framework that has promoted integration on the continent for more than half a century.
The world has slid further from democratic traditions.
The greatest blow to liberalism may have come from the bastion of freedom itself: the United States. Donald Trump’s presidency has been disquieting not solely for its bluster but also for its rejection of constitutional norms.
Trump has threatened journalists, derided NATO, applauded torture and embraced disinformation. He voiced support for BREXIT and has appointed ambassadors ambivalent to the misconduct of dictators abroad.
As the United States grapples to live up to its own vision of freedom, its role as democracy’s champion has started to crumble.
Global currents in the Middle East, Europe and America are noteworthy on their own. But they reflect only a slice of the world. In 2016, 67 countries saw declines in civil liberties, according to Freedom House. The watchdog organization found that the world has slid further from democratic traditions for the 11th year in a row.
As global citizens, we cannot regard democracy with apathy. It is our responsibility to recognize history’s current trajectory and to respond. We cannot act passively, but must shore up the democratic institutions that anchor our own lives.
Democracy is facing a critical test. And should we choose to ignore the tangle of problems imperiling its future, we guarantee a world prone to dislocation, anxiety and hostility.
Ricardo López is in his final year at the Thacher School in Ojai, California. He is the editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, The Notes, and a leader of his school’s writing center. He enjoys studying and writing on issues of race, socio-economics and foreign policy.