I spent much of my early adult life on American warships around the world defending democracy against one of its great 20th century enemies: global communism. The Cold War represented a rare kind of conflict in the span of human civilization, one not between states or princes, but between ideologies. On one side was centralized authoritarian control; on the other, democratic government of, by and for the people. Over the course of the decades-long fight, often carried out in hot proxy wars around the globe, millions of people died, tens of thousands of them Americans. Countries were wiped off the map, and new ones created. It was a high-minded fight, with very real human costs.
When I came ashore and entered the Naval War College in the fall of 1991, it felt like a struggle of historic significance finally had been won. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. It was a heady time, in which democracy seemed to be in full bloom around the world. Later, as a four-star Admiral and then as the 16th Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), I witnessed that expansion firsthand throughout Latin America, the Balkans and the former Warsaw Pact nations, as once-dictatorial nations in South America embraced increasingly free and fair elections, and former Communist-bloc countries in Eastern Europe joined Western democratic institutions.
Was it perfect? Of course not. There was civil war, and authoritarian rulers rose in many nations. But it was exhilarating to watch as millions of people who had lived in fear found greater liberty and economic opportunity.
Today, though, one could be forgiven for believing that the age of democracy has ended. Two massive nations, Russia and China, are trending toward one-man rule. The list of countries drifting into autocratic orbits is growing. In Latin America, they include Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, which had shown signs of fledgling if fragile democracy. On the other side of the Atlantic, Turkey, Hungary and Poland, still recognizable as democracies, are centralizing power, controlling the media, manipulating the courts and squelching protest. On the eastern edge of the strategically crucial South China Sea, populist strongman Rodrigo Duterte erodes freedoms in the Philippines.
Once again, it seems, democracy has a competitor. Strongmen are rising in part because elected governments are struggling to address new challenges: global migration, technological advances, transnational terrorism, international economic unrest. More and more people are willing to try, or tolerate, another approach. The yearly Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, registered 2017 as the worst year for global democracy since the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2010, with three times as many countries seeing democratic declines as showing increases. In 2006, Freedom House designated 46% of the world’s population as living in countries with open political competition, guaranteed civil liberties, strong civil society and independent media. By 2018, the proportion of those living in such free countries had dropped to 39%.
How the remaining members of the free world will respond to this challenge is one of the great questions of the moment. America’s President, Donald Trump, has just met in Brussels with the leaders of the countries of NATO, arguably the most successful military alliance in human history, and Washington’s prized partner in democracy’s 20th century victory. Throughout his campaign and his presidency, Trump has attacked NATO and America’s allies in it. From Brussels, he travels to Helsinki, where he will talk privately with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, a strongman he has flattered and suggested is to be emulated. Trump himself has shunned traditional norms: his documented falsehoods now number in the thousands, and his rhetoric seeks to chill freedom of the press and undermine the nation’s institutions of democracy.
Perhaps Trump views his embrace of America’s longtime ideological foe as a clever negotiating strategy. Others see a darker future in which political speech is punished, religions are oppressed and the rights of millions are taken away. Media coverage and recent books underscore the doomsday scenario, from David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning. Writing recently in these pages, my friend and fellow TIME contributor Ian Bremmer warns that “the greatest threat may be the strongmen yet to come.” These and other historically literate observers contemplate a future in which democracy has been bested.
But it is far too early to lose hope. This is a fight that has been won before and will be won again, even without much help from the White House. While traveling the world for NATO and America’s military, I’ve witnessed key players and movements that will help determine democracy’s success. From Colombia to Armenia to Indonesia, often overlooked countries are showing that democracy can meet the challenges of the 21st century better than authoritarianism can. Liberal democracy, in its various forms and with its inevitable imperfections, is adapting to different cultures and histories, and delivering. Human nature is not on authoritarianism’s side, nor is history.
To begin, we need to know what we’re up against. Deep forces are at work.
First, democracy is to some extent inherently inefficient. It has always been tempting for nations to avoid the group-decision messiness of parliaments, congresses and assemblies — all the more so today because of the increasing complexity of our globalized society. Mass migrations, terrorism, transnational criminal activity and international economic upheavals bring a longing for order that can play on false memories of simpler times.
That seems to be the driver of creeping authoritarianism in Hungary. During my years at NATO, I met Viktor Orban, the longtime head of that nation’s conservative Fidesz Party and a politician of evident dynamism and charisma. As Hungary’s Prime Minister, Orban has used the crisis of migration from the Middle East and Africa to Europe to amass power. He has weakened the courts, the central bank and the press. In April, he scored a landslide win in parliamentary elections.
The same desire for order can be seen driving the rise of Duterte in the Philippines. He has used a national drug crisis to launch widespread extrajudicial killings — that is, state-directed murder. Yet his popularity remains at a stunning 80%. Hunger for order is a powerful force.
Second, new technologies are proving to be double-edged swords when it comes to democratic norms. On the one hand, social media and the Internet have enabled democratic revolution. In the Arab Spring, reformers used those tools to organize protests and carry messages of change across the Middle East and North Africa. The Internet’s massive connectivity is tailor-made for the free exchange of ideas on which democratic rule is based.
But of late, it is the dictators, from Moscow to Damascus, who have been more agile and effective in using these tools, spying on opponents at home and abroad and deploying propaganda in devious new ways. Russia has invested heavily in undermining objective reality by relentlessly sowing doubts online about basic facts. China’s leadership not only strictly censors social media, but also employs hundreds of thousands of people to steer online conversation to their liking; the state co-opts political discussion and fabricates posts that extol the Communist Party.
Third, the disorienting speed of change has provided an opening for authoritarian leaders, who tout their ability to respond rapidly to shifting events. Faster communication, the ability of computers to solve problems that once took weeks or months to crack and the shrinking news cycle are changing the environment in which government does business. That can give the advantage to one strong voice over the kinds of deliberative committees and blue-ribbon panels that are a mainstay of Western government decisionmaking.
In Turkey, for example, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to use the new, wide-ranging executive powers he won in June’s elections to rein in the country’s double-digit inflation and jump-start the economy. President Trump himself has mastered the rapid-response theatrics of the strongman. He ricocheted from belittling North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as “little rocket man” to calling him “smart” and “honorable.” He wears his inconstancy as a badge of honor, arguing that changing positions allows him to outmaneuver more consistent opponents. Amid rapid change, people want speedy solutions, and democracy is often slow to deliver.
But countervailing forces are at work as well. The realities of Russia’s nuclear arms and China’s rising economic clout, and the fact that neither country has ever had a sustained period of democratic rule, make it easy to forget that the world’s dominant military and economic forces remain in the hands of committed democracies. And around the world, many often overlooked nations have been demonstrating that even imperfect democracies can prevail over this century’s new challenges.
Take India, where over 550 million people voted in the last election — a monumental number. Its democracy is hardly unblemished. Critics say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is eroding liberal institutions, and India ranks 138 out of 180 countries in press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. But in all of my contacts with senior Indian officials, including members of the military who might be expected to favor top-down order, I have always found an unwavering commitment to democracy. It has assured India decades of stability and growth in the face of terrorist attacks, economic strife and massive population shifts.
Democracy might hardly seem the most efficient response to a half-century’s disorder in Colombia. And yet despite a virulent insurgency since the mid-1960s, power continues to transfer peacefully in that nation. President Alvaro Uribe gave up the presidency at the end of his constitutionally limited second term in 2010, despite high popularity and calls for him to amend the constitution to stay on. His successor, Juan Manuel Santos, negotiated a comprehensive but controversial peace agreement with the communist-inspired guerrillas known as FARC, for their formal name’s acronym in Spanish. This year, as Santos’ second term came to an end, the nation began a heated debate over the peace deal.
Democracy provided the answer: an election on June 17 put a stark choice before the people. Iván Duque, a business-friendly pragmatist who pledged to impose harsher terms on the former rebels, defeated Gustavo Petro, who supported the peace agreement. A nation whose upheaval might easily have led to authoritarianism has again and again chosen free debate and open elections.
So it is as well in Brazil, a superpower-size nation of 200 million that, despite considerable political turmoil, has not turned back toward autocracy. Mexico has just elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador as its President — perhaps not the first choice of the U.S., given his left-leaning agenda, but another example of democracy at work as the third-largest nation in the Americas swings from right to left following free elections.
Technological developments may yet prove a net positive for democracy. I have visited the tiny former Soviet state of Armenia many times, and gotten to know the former President and Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan. Until recently, he appeared to be an unbeatable authoritarian figure. But weeks of protests, powered by the Internet, caused him to resign in April, and propelled a new leader, Nikol Pashinyan, into power.
In Tunisia, the Internet-fueled Arab Spring has persisted. The democratically elected government that replaced the 23-year dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has remained in power through recurring free and fair elections. Yes, there are worrying trends in the government’s responses to media criticism and protests. But the fact that democratic institutions have held up for seven years is cause for optimism.
Tunisia’s experience reflects another often overlooked asset democracy brings around the world: its flexibility. The U.S. too often failed to recognize this during and after the Cold War, sometimes siding with dictators rather than accepting that not all democracies look alike. Part of Tunisia’s success has come from adapting its electoral system to its own culture, through a constitution that gives Islam a role in the public sphere. Enduring democratic structures in Chile, Indonesia, South Korea and elsewhere differ significantly from the secular Western model.
Another boon for democracy is the growing role of women in governance. Powerful female champions of democracy and civil rights have emerged around the world, from Michelle Bachelet of Chile to Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the first elected female head of state in Africa. Female representation has increased in national parliaments, from 15% in 2002 to 19.8% in 2012, the most recent year available.
The rise to power of those representing 50% of the world’s population can only be good for the legitimacy and durability of democracy. Moreover, countries with higher levels of gender equality are less likely to engage in internal or external conflict, according to the World Bank. Women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution often helps ensure success; agreements that include women and civil-society groups are 64% less likely to fail than those that do not, according to a U.N.-sponsored study.
Perhaps most important, democracy remains strong in its traditional redoubts. Most of the world’s most developed countries are still highly committed democracies, including Japan, Canada, France, Australia and Germany. That’s no accident. China’s rise may seem like economic validation of authoritarianism, but it has come by liberalizing a backward agrarianism to mimic established democracies, and by stealing their intellectual property. And imitation has its limits. Few in Europe and Asia have forgotten that free-market economies were democracy’s greatest weapon in the 20th century, and the entrepreneurs and investors that drive those free markets won’t soon embrace authoritarian control.
That goes double for the U.S. Political life here has problems: money in politics, gerrymandering, rising partisanship and a President who calls the media an “enemy of the people” while musing about how “great” it must be for Chinese President Xi Jinping to amass absolute power. Finding a voice to counter that antidemocratic rhetoric is proving surprisingly hard, so far.
But does anyone seriously think we are headed toward authoritarian control of our politics or single-party rule? Speaking as someone who was interviewed for possible positions by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I don’t think so. The media remain strong and determined to tell the truth, and the courts remain rigorously independent. The Mueller investigation is clanking at the President like a Panzer tank, and whatever it reveals, the nation will deal with it through laws and politics. Accountability remains a core driver in the national debate.
We paint democracy as a utopia, but it is not. It has been called, as Churchill noted, the worst form of government except for all the others — subject to abuse and manipulation and often sclerotic. We must forgive its failings, and work to improve them, as long as its core institutions further civil rights, guarantee rule of law and are subject to the will of the people. There will be losses in all of these nations, as well as our own, corruption, misbehavior, pressure on the courts and media. Challenges will only grow as change in this century continues at a blistering pace.
But for every example of democracy fading out or finding itself under attack, there are counterexamples of democracy and democratic activists moving forward and finding solutions. Under this U.S. Administration, there is little leadership on global human rights or democratic norms. But other leaders, from Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron of Europe to Shinzo Abe of Japan to Justin Trudeau of Canada, have been outspoken in defense of democratic values. Change is happening in smaller nations as well.
And democracy will prevail not because of individual leaders but because it is better than authoritarianism at meeting the challenges of governing. Human nature abhors a boss, and politically, democracy serves as a safety valve. Look to America, even in its current rage. We cannot imagine our own nation without the ability to switch from George W. Bush, a Republican fighting unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to Barack Obama. Or, for that matter, to move from Obama to President Trump.
Those shifts may look like stark division on the surface. But they also represent democracy’s ability to allow dissenting, frustrated views an outlet. Dictators may impose order, but mounting unrest as often as not turns them out, frequently with disastrous results. Some of the worst massacres in modern history have followed the ouster of strongmen.
Sometimes democracy will not resolve complex events, or most effectively use technology, or respond speedily. But it peacefully holds accountable leaders who don’t fulfill their promises or better our lives, and rewards those who do. That has proved more valuable in the long run than more immediate urges. Two hundred years ago, there was a mere handful of pseudo democracies in the world. At the turn of the 20th century, a couple of dozen democracies existed.
Today, despite the continuation of Chinese and Russian authoritarian regimes, there are well over a hundred. Hundreds of millions have transitioned from fully authoritarian monarchies (throughout Europe, Central Asia and parts of East Asia) and pure dictatorships (Latin America, the Balkans, the Levant and parts of Africa). History has run from male-dominated tribes in the Paleolithic era through dictatorial city-states to early modern monarchies and today’s democracies.
We can all hope that the battle to defend democracy will be less costly in the 21st century than in the previous one. We can enhance our chances of winning by empowering women, boosting programs that fight economic inequality and teaching our children the critical thinking skills they need to separate truth from lies.
Democracy’s defenders can work to be clear what our cause is, why it matters and what is at stake. Sometimes people say to me that America is in a “war of ideas.” Not quite. We remain in a marketplace of ideas. That is what has made us most adaptable to new threats and resilient in the face of challenges. It is also why we must articulate our vision of the values that, while we execute them imperfectly, are right and true.
With reporting by Alejandro de la Garza
This appears in the July 23, 2018 issue of TIME.
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