The World’s Fading Democratic Moment

The World’s Fading Democratic Moment

R. Evan Ellis

Since the end of the Cold War, global commerce and the interchange of people and

ideas have been empowered by an institutional framework that is rooted in an

enforceable concept of rule of law and complimented by a general acceptance of

democracy and the protection of certain universal rights, as ideals to which aspire. The

generation in which that order has prevailed have caused those living in it to forget its


This article examines the current confluence of geopolitical dynamics to highlight a

grave emerging risk: The rules-based international order and democracy and the

defense of universal right as an aspirational norm is unraveling. The dynamics are

complex but center on four significant, interdependent phenomena: (1) global

interconnectivity and its consequences; (2) the perceived inadequacy of western

democracy in that context to address core challenges; (3) the rise of the People’s

Republic of China (PRC) and its impact on other actors, and (4) grave shortcomings in

the US response to the new panorama of strategic threats.

Globalization, ironically, is the enabler of both the current system and the dynamics that

are transforming it. The interchange of people, commerce, money, data and ideas

enabled by globalization and its supporting institutional framework was fundamental to

the transformation of the PRC, leveraging its access to global factor inputs, markets,

capital and technology.

The accelerated, global flow of information, and the “democratization” of its

dissemination through new technologies such as social media has put unprecedented

pressures on democracies, expanding the already significant breach between citizen

expectations and the performance of their governments, augmenting demands,

dissatisfaction, perceptions of “difference,” in a plural world, and polarization.

Globalization also enabled the expansion of transnational criminal flows, vulnerabilities

to global economic shocks, epidemics arising from new and expanded contact between

people, animals and plants; attacks and crimes related to cyberspace; plus terrorism,

enabled by the diffusion of radical ideas and knowledge of ways to kill and disrupt the

interdependent world.

In much of the world, interconnectivity has fueled expectations, criminality and

insecurity, discontent, polarization, and radicalization, faster than it has brought

perceived benefits and solutions, particularly in parts of the world afflicted by weak

and/or corrupt governments.

In Latin America, interconnectivity played an enabling role in transnational crime, the

spread of Covid-19, the inflationary effects of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of the

Ukraine, and the public discourse which has translated that discontent into

disillusionment and destabilizing actions in democratic political systems.

Despite conventional wisdom that discourse fuels democracy, beleaguered

democracies have proven remarkably vulnerable to the contemporary combination of

citizen disillusionment, real challenges, and an overload of imperfect, often polarizing

information. At the same time, authoritarian actors have become adept in leveraging

the new information environment to magnify and weaponize discontent, destabilize and

hijack democracies, and consolidate power, while limiting their own vulnerabilities to

information exchange.

Once in power, illiberal regimes representing a broad range of culture and agendas,

from Russia, to Iran, to Saudia Arabia, to Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua have used

control over the mean of coercion to suppress or intimidate opponents, while using

control over legislative and judicial institutions to outlaw or break non-aligned political

parties, NGOs, press, and other bases of potential opposition. New generations of

authoritarians from Honduras on the left, to El Salvador on the right are learning from

and applying the playbook.

The PRC has played a key enabling role in the survival and advance of

authoritarianism, trading with, investing in, bankrolling and otherwise supporting illiberal

regimes for its own benefit. It economically underwrites Russia’s war in the Ukraine,

simultaneously empowers the oil economy of Iran and its rival Saudia Arabia, North

Korea’s missile buildup, and the rent-seeking criminal government in Venezuela, even

while distancing itself from the bad behavior of each. Its economic engagement has

given regimes such as Venezuela, the prior Rafael Correa government in Ecuador, and

MAS governments in Bolivia resources to pay off regime supporters as they consolidate

power in ways that scare away other funding sources.

The PRC has become increasingly more sophisticated and unapologetic in advancing

such mutual self-interest between authoritarians. China’s Global Civilization Initiative

(GCI), for example, argues against an enforceable, unitary concept of democracy and

human rights, impeding coordination in the international community against those who

violate such norms and rights. The PRC has further leveraged the desire of illiberal

regimes to protect themselves from Western sanctions, by enlisting their cooperation in

moving to RNB-denominated transactions, ultimately serving long-term PRC goals to

position its currency as a key pillar of a transformed global financial system.

In the new global dynamic, the availability of the PRC as an economic and strategic

partner undercuts the ability of the US to pressure other governments to adhere to

democratic norms and human rights. As political and economic crises push an

increasing number of regimes into the illiberal camp, the impulse of those governments

to work together, despite their divergent agendas, undermines the ability of the West to

use international mechanisms to resolve legal, as well as political disputes.

On the other hand, the predominantly private-sector nature of that system limits its

ability to channel private capital into an attractive counteroffer to China’s courtship.

Finally, the US itself has fallen victim to the forces of polarization and political paralysis

of the modern information age, undercutting its ability to stand as an attractive, effective

example of democracy to others, and paralyzing its ability to formulate effective public

policy against the dual challenge of the PRC and illiberal regime.

The unraveling of the rules-based democratic order is not unescapable, but avoiding it

requires a dramatic shift in US internal cohesion and the effectiveness of public policy.

In the absence of such change, those who recognize and prepare for the mutually

reinforcing rise of the PRC and illiberalism, will be best prepared to navigate and survive


Comment by Global Review: However, the article doesn´t address the mistakes, errors, and fatal decisons of US foreign policy since George W. Bush jr. and in the aftermath and also not systemic reasons the bad other side uses for its propaganda and GDI, GSI and GCI. And the idea of American exceptionalism. As long as US Americans don´t have any selfcriticism and are learning from historical or systemic mistakes, the Trumps, Xis and Putins will prevail.

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