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Western democracy needs humility to step beyond its own shadow

Others might be more inspired by American democracy if the US were widely seen to be a just and tolerant society and its leading politicians were not loudmouthed xenophobes. Justin Lane/EPA

Western democracy needs humility to step beyond its own shadow

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century. This is part two of an essay on humility’s value for democracy in dark times. Read part one here.


Joshua Kurlantzick’s provocative book Democracy in Retreat paints a pessimistic picture of the prospects for democracy in much of the world. Echoing Thomas Carothers’ influential observations, Kurlantzick strongly suggests political transitions can no longer be expected to lead to liberal democracy.

Reflecting on how democracy promoters should adjust to this changing environment, he concludes:

Even while reviving aggressive advocacy for democracy and human rights, established democracies also need to become more humble.

This seems like an intuitively reasonable suggestion. But what might it actually mean?

Humility is a valuable trait to possess when viewing attempts at democratisation, which is inevitably a difficult and fraught process. The frustration and impatience with the uneven and incomplete nature of the third wave of democratisation, as well as the disappointment with the inconclusive direction of the Arab Spring, is based on a superficial reading of how democracy successfully developed elsewhere.

What should we make of the short-lived optimism of the Arab Spring? Kurbey Urner/flickr

As Samuel Huntington observed, each wave of democratisation has been followed by a reverse wave in which some countries revert to non-democratic rule. Failed attempts at democratisation and the return of authoritarian regimes are hardly new phenomena, and they certainly should not be unexpected.

It is remarkable how quickly optimism about the Arab Spring gave way to disappointment. The situation may not look positive right now, but the story is far from finished.

An uneven and ongoing process

Despite the allusion to Europe’s “springtime of the peoples”, many seem to forget that the immediate consequences of the 1848 revolutions were thoroughly disappointing from the perspective of democracy. It took many of these countries another century of considerable bloodshed and instability to usher in stable democratic rule.

Democratisation is an uneven and ongoing process, one that can provide hope but no guarantees. Not until the 1960s did all citizens in the US receive full and equal rights, and problems still remain, notably in attempts to disenfranchise people through aggressive forms of voter identification.

It is vital to appreciate the difficult, uneven nature of democratisation and the considerable challenges of maintaining democracy. This was observed by Václav Havel, who reflected on “the limited ability of today’s democratic world to step beyond its own shadow”.

Too often, democracy is understood solely in reference to the Western experience with it. One recent example of this is the open letter calling on US presidential candidates to prioritise democracy promotion. It states:

There is no cookie-cutter approach to supporting democracy and human rights, but there are fundamental, universal features we should emphasise: representative institutions, rule of law, accountability, free elections, anti-corruption, free media (including the internet), vibrant civil society, independent trade unions, property rights, open markets, women’s and minority rights, and freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion.

What is presented here as “universal” is actually a prescription of democracy that accords closely with the American experience. Many of these features are highly valuable and worthwhile, but this is an argument that should be made, rather than simply appealing to universalism, which many are rightly sceptical of.

John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress shows Columbia, a personification of the US, leading civilisation and democracy westward. Wikimedia Commons

A more humble approach

A more humble approach would start from the assumption that political change does not necessarily mean democratisation, but, when it does occur, a desire for democracy does not automatically mean a preference for the specific liberal democratic model found in the West.

On this point, Larbi Sadiki has argued that Western preconceptions limit our ability to understand what democratisation and democracy may look like in the Arab Middle East.

In particular, there is a strong need to be more attuned to the way the political and economic spheres relate in the democracy. In the dominant model of liberal democracy – one that matches the above description – the economic sphere is normally removed from democratic control.

In fact, it often works to constrain democratic possibilities. The strong pressure for economic liberalisation and structural reforms has had very mixed results. And where it has caused considerable hardship for people, it has tarnished democracy’s name.

As Coleman and Lawson-Remer observed:

The success of emerging democracies depends fundamentally on whether democratisation can also materially improve people’s lives.

With growing socioeconomic problems in many transitional countries and consolidated democracies, the promise of democracy looks increasingly hollow or false. Democracy is meant to be about freedom and equality, but more people now wonder if it can deliver either.

Economics is also relevant for considering the changing ideational climate surrounding democracy. Perceptions that China has been performing strongly, combined with the economic troubles of developed democracies since the 2008 financial crisis, means there is not the same degree of confidence in democratisation being the best course for political transitions.

Not a universally loved brand: this mural on the wall of Tehran’s former US embassy declares: ‘We stomp on America’. A. Davey/flickr, CC BY

Growing doubts have been reinforced by the many problems and challenges Western democracies are facing. Brexit did little to recommend the virtues of democracy to the rest of the world. If anything, it revived classical fears that putting power in the hands of the people is a recipe for bad decisions.

The unravelling of America’s political system is especially damaging for the brand of democracy. Others are more likely to emulate America’s democratic ideals if it is widely regarded as a just, prosperous, vibrant and tolerant society.

Instead, it is one where inequality is rampant, gun violence is depressingly common, leading politicians are loudmouthed xenophobes, the prison population is the world’s largest, and airports and other public infrastructure are visibly decaying. This is hardly a great advertisement for democracy.

A two-way approach to supporting democracy

Simply put, democracy’s brand is not as attractive as it once was. In turn, this suggests supporters of democracy would benefit from turning inward and considering the limitations of their own regimes.

Adopting a more humble approach suggests a more open, two-way approach to supporting democracy, in which both sides learn from each other. Given that established democracies face serious problems with de-democratisation and the undermining of democratic institutions and practices, there is value in seeing what lessons or experiences they can potentially draw upon.

One danger of adopting a more humble approach is that it can justify or encourage inaction. This has been an accusation repeatedly levelled at US President Barack Obama for his responses to political turmoil in the Ukraine and the Middle East.

There are legitimate grounds for concern here. Certainly, passivity does not cohere well with a democratic ethos. But, if instead one understands humility in terms of an awareness of one’s limits and an acknowledgement of what has yet to be achieved, it has the potential to support democratic government.

Retreat from the world is not a viable option, but one must come to terms with the constraints on action that do limit what possible futures are open. Arthur Schlesinger junior conveyed this idea well when describing the worldview of one of America’s most important thinkers on humility, Reinhold Niebuhr:

Humility, he believed, must temper, not sever, the nerve of action.

Western democracy is no longer the only game in town: China’s Wang Qishan accepts an autographed basketball from Barack Obama. Pete Souza/White House

Much as Francis Fukuyama’s claims that we had reached “the end of history” were overblown a quarter of a century ago, Roger Cohen’s recent lament about the “death of liberalism” is equally misplaced. Excessive pessimism is replacing excessive optimism, but both offer an equally distorted perspective on democracy’s place in the world.

Here there is value in taking a longer view. Doing so, it soon becomes clear that the immediate post-Cold-War era was an unusual time when liberal democracy was the only game in town.

Part of what may now be occurring is simply a realignment; a shift back to the kind of situation that has long prevailed – a world made up of a diverse range of governments, one of which is democracy.

In such a context, the value of democracy needs to be restated and defended, rather than presumed. And, in doing so, there is value in adopting a more tempered stance, one that appreciates the limitations and flaws of democracy and our attempts at supporting it, while retaining a quiet confidence in the reasons we continue to value this form of rule.