A Renewed Commitment to Democracy Promotion is Needed

Riaz Akbar

The global yearning for peace and progress in the aftermath of the destructive World War I afforded an opportunity for democracy to spread and flourish. Woodrow Wilson, the powerful patron of liberalism, threw his weight behind this cause and quickly declared that lasting peace could only be established by supporting freedom and promoting democracy around the world.  That required establishment and adherence to international norms and values. These values included, as the scholar Tony Smith summarizes, ‘…multilateralism, economic openness, multilateral organizations and moral leadership, which was provided historically by the United States in the service of liberal internationalism.’1 

These factors integrate into a virtuous cycle to create and perpetuate peace. Multilateralism, understood as the coming together of democratic nations, leads to political pluralism, economic openness and market integration, the establishment of international linkages which eventually give rise to transnational values and organizations and institutions like the World Trade Organization. All of these factors coming together in perfect measure create the zone of democratic peace.  

Influenced by these ideas, concrete and concerted global efforts to promote democracy began with the 1984 speech by US President Ronald Reagan to the British Parliament. Its aftermath saw the establishment of National Endowment for Democracy, and subsequently, four of its core institutions. The results of these efforts have been astounding during the Third Wave of democratization – a term coined by the famous political scientist Samuel Huntington to refer to the period of democratic expansion from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

When the Third Wave broke out in 1974, the number of electoral democracies according to the Freedom House was merely forty-six, but the general atmosphere was more favorable for democracy. The social, economic and political prerequisites required for democracy were predominantly present in many societies. Legitimacy crisis of authoritarian governments, rising living standards and education levels, economic growth and the concomitant expansion of the middle classes brought together all ingredients favorable to democracy. But perhaps the most consequential of all ingredients was the US leadership in pushing for democracy in the Third World countries. 

But things are no longer so rosy for democracy around the world. The Freedom in the World Report 2018 was ominously titled, ‘Democracy in Crisis.’ 2019 is the 13th consecutive year democracy has been in decline.2 The factors that facilitated democracy’s expansion during the Cold War period are today too weak and distracted to counter the authoritarian resurgence. Perhaps the most menacing of all threats is the growing appeal of the ‘China model’. 

China is a potent new ideological competitor, and the older one, Russia, is having a resurgent moment too. Other significant powers are joining the club of authoritarianism, and together they have been called ‘the authoritarian Big Five’- China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. They have shown their will and capability to undermine democracy everywhere, but particularly in its strongholds, including here in the US. Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections is a case in point. China for its part is vigorously presenting its governance model as a better alternative to liberal democracy. Together they employ, ‘Sharp Power’ which, according to its inventor Christopher Walker, ‘pierces, perforates and penetrates the political and information environments in democracies’ 3with the intention of distracting and undermining democratic systems.

During the Third Wave period democracy was up against communism represented by USSR, an unattractive and fading power, but democracy today is confronted by a vibrant and widely admired model of Chinese economic development. China’s rise has captured the imagination of nations across the developing world. Its rising global power exerts an attractive pull on developing people, just like the attractive pull the US had on others during the Third Wave.

More than anyone else, China has had the most destructive influence on democracy so far. Scholars of democracy like Thomas Ambrosio suggest such influence occurs through a process called diffusion, which he defines as, ‘…the spread of autocratic practices and ideas from dominant autocratic powers to potential takers around the world.’ Autocratic diffusion is a very powerful weapon against democracy because, according to political sociologist at Cornell, David Strang, ‘…prior adoption of a trait or practice in a population alters the probability of adoption for remaining non-adopters.’ It is ‘…an uncoordinated, unilateral, predominantly horizontal process through which political, policy or institutional innovations spread from an innovator or precedent to learners, imitators or emulators.’4

Authoritarian powers opposed to democracy have other tools at their disposal too. They engage in what is called ‘democracy resistance’ or ‘democracy prevention’.  It refers to strategies authoritarian regimes employ to counter internal calls for democracy as well as external efforts at promotion of democracy with the intention of ensuring regime survivability for themselves and others. 

However, an extreme version of opposing democracy may soon be upon us: Autocracy promotion. Unlike diffusion processes and democracy resistance, autocracy promotion is, according to scholar Oisin Tansey, ‘…clear intent on the part of an external actor to bolster autocracy as a form of the political regime as well as an underlying motivation that rests in significant part on an ideological commitment to autocracy itself.’5 In simple words, autocracy promotion refers to a missionary zeal to promote autocracy as a form of governance, and a way of life.

The march of democracy has clearly stalled, and its long-term future is uncertain. But there is no need to sound the alarm yet. Democracy still remains the most preferred mode of governance around the world. At no time in history has democracy spread so much and been desired by so many people than it is today. According to Freedom House, there are 119 electoral democracies in the world today; far greater than there were during the Third Wave. Survey after survey all over the world reveals the highest levels of support and aspiration for democracy among peoples of all places, religions and cultures. Democracy is no longer a value geographically and ideologically tied to Western Europe and the US, it has established itself as, in the words of McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia and a researcher at Stanford, a ‘world value.’ 6


While people all over the world crave democracy and are fighting authoritarians and populists, the Western world’s willingness to defend democracy is at all-time low. A clear and bold commitment on the part of the US and other democratic powers to democracy promotion is missing, just as autocrats are mounting their opposition to democracy by blocking democratic rights and freedoms with impunity. Around the world, the space for civil society is shrinking, internet freedom is curtailed, and menacing surveillance systems are watching citizens. There is confusion, and lack of coherent action plan in Western capitals. Policy makers, academics and intellectuals are looking frantically for a plan of action, but will the leaders of the democratic order listen? Or will they sacrifice a civilizational accomplishment at the altar of petty and immediate economic interest? May be a vigorous narrative is required to counter the rising appeal of authoritarian systems? May be more concrete civic action needs to be supported in countries fighting for democracy. Whatever the solution may be, it must, however, start with a renewal of commitment to furnish the resources and marshal the political will to promote democracy.


Riaz Akbar is a democracy and peace activist from Pakistan. He attended Georgetown’s Democracy and Governance MA program as a Fulbright scholar and graduated in 2019. You can follow him on Twitter @riazmda. 



  1. Smith, T. (2017). Why Wilson MattersThe Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today. Princeton: Princeton University Press. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/book/58058.


  1. Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2018 – United States, 16 January 2018, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/5a5e11f626.html %5Baccessed 11 October 2019]


  1. Walker, C. (2018). What Is “Sharp Power”? Journal of Democracy,(3), 9-23.


  1.   STRANG, D. (1991). Adding Social Structure to Diffusion Models: An Event History Framework. Sociological Methods & Research, 19(3), 324–353. 


  1.   Tansey, O., Koehler, K., & Schmotz, A. (2017). Ties to the Rest: Autocratic Linkages and Regime Survival. Comparative Political Studies, 50(9), 1221–1254. 


  1. Michael McFaul (2004) Democracy promotion as a world value, The Washington Quarterly, 28:1, 147-163.