Contemporary Geopolitical Changes and Democratic Transitions

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (via Kremlin)

By Avram Reisman

At a time when democracy is in recession and facing new challenges, it is worth looking back on essential literature written when democratic change was similarly challenged by authoritarian powers. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, by Guillermo O’Donnell and Phillippe Schmitter, was a paradigmatic publication that set parameters and expectations for democratic transitions in U.S. policy and for democratic opposition groups in many parts of the world. Looking with a contemporary critical lens, it’s clear the sands of time have eroded the model’s validity. However, with some adaptation, the model provides some direction for new international landscape.

O’Donnell and Schmitter’s model for transition to political democracy involves the processes of liberalization and democratization. These processes begin through agreements (pacts) struck by members of the ruling bloc and the opposition. For this to happen, “soft-liners” must arise in the ruling bloc, those who recognize the need for future legitimation through elections and seek reforms. As Adam Przeworski argues in an accompanying essay, this is due to a risk-averse mindset whereas “hard-liners”, who oppose reform, are risk immune. Hard-liners are either ideologically committed to the regime or benefit too much from the current regime. The soft-liners, on the other hand, recognize that the need for some degree of electoral legitimation to replace legitimacy based on coercion or social peace and economic development. Without some transition, they face the risk of violent revolution or civil war.

O’Donnell and Schmitter make at least two crucial assumptions. First, that the alternative to democracy is unsustainable in the long run or at least there exists the conditions that will convince the soft-liners that this is the case. This may have been true at the time O’Donnell and Schmitter were writing. In 1986, the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse and the US and broader democratic international community was moving away from supporting authoritarian regimes out of necessity of the strategy of Soviet containment. As a result, democracy was more necessary for international foreign aid and the ideological hegemony of democracy could accelerate opposition mobilization. Finally, access to foreign aid bolstered domestic legitimacy by funding development and state policies. In short, long-term regime and personal survival would require democratic reform. Today, however, new avenues have arisen for the risk averse to rely on for security, legitimacy, and foreign aid.

The world is no longer run by a unipolar democratic hegemonic order; a multipolar world is emerging. Authoritarians can rely on nondemocratic global actors such as Russia and China as well as regional actors such as Venezuela in Latin America and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East for the support they once needed from the U.S. and the West. One major cause of the end of democratic hegemony is the apparent success of the “Beijing Consensus”: the idea that sustainable economic growth can be promoted by an authoritarian government. Another is the perceived threat strong authoritarian actors see from regional democratization. There is a rise of both supply and demand for undemocratic regime types. In the developing “client” regimes, the ruling bloc faces diminished ideological pressure and alternative options for foreign aid.

As Tom Carothers pointed out, there is a “New Global Marketplace” for political regimes. Like a marketplace, democratic regimes are in competition with nondemocratic regime types. The potential alternatives are seen as viable by ruling blocs and even the populace because of the perceived success of similar autocracies. Because one does not require difficult compromises or significant change due to these factors, being a soft-liner is naturally less appealing in this climate for minimizing personal risk.

Today, then, the prospects for pacted liberalization-democratization seem grim. Nevertheless, there is some reason to be hopeful. An additional consequence of a multipolar world is the rise of additional consolidating democratic powers such as South Africa, Brazil, India, and Indonesia. Even though these countries face their own challenges in consolidating their democracies, their size and relative wealth means they could become essential allies in a future democracy alliance. Such an alliance could use its collective resources to encourage democratic transitions through the promise of access to foreign aid and through mutually beneficial cooperation which demonstrates the appeal of democracy.

This brings me to the second major assumption: legitimacy lost through a crisis, as the result of an exogenous demonstration of the state’s inability to perform its duties, perhaps, can be regained by a change to the “input-side” of legitimacy, i.e. elections. Small-d democrats from affluent nations must reckon with the fact that this kind of legitimacy matters much less to people living in poverty, facing existential threats, or seeking recognition. During the Arab Spring, people were driven into the street because of corruption and unemployment, an output of the system, not because they wanted the vote. In addition, input-side legitimacy matters less and less in a world where the Beijing Consensus and other undemocratic models demonstrate the economic and social potential of an undemocratic regime.

Performance issues are not unique to undemocratic regimes. While democratic transitions could bolster output legitimacy significantly through access to foreign aid, democracies can also suffer from failures in performance. In a world with an increasing democratic recession and viable undemocratic options, it seems plausible that output legitimacy will overrule input legitimacy in democracies that are facing chronic economic or social issues.

Democracies must demonstrate that they are a better regime type for sustainable economic growth and general welfare in order to maintain ideological appeal. Pooling the resources of democratic regimes could enhance the potential economic and social benefits of democratic regime types. Such an alliance is not without its challenges. The rising democratic powers need to be persuaded of the benefits from supporting democracy outside their borders. At the same time, these democratic regimes are facing their own internal challenges: for example, populist Brazilian Presidential Candidate Jair Bolsonaro and nationalist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Democracies tend to stay democratic which suggests democratic legitimacy through elections is valuable. However, to prove their regime’s superiority to authoritarian regimes, democracies must demonstrate that they can substantially improve citizens’ lives, maintain security, and address critical problems including climate change. To do this, democracies should work together, enhance their ideological appeal, and outcompete the autocracy promoters.

Avram Reisman is an editor of Democracy & Society and a M.A. candidate in Georgetown University’s Democracy & Governance Program. Before Georgetown, he advocated for a more diplomatic, human rights-centered U.S. foreign policy at Amnesty International USA and Just Foreign Policy.