On Political Books

Mob of Democrats

Egypt isn’t the only country where elected leaders are being ousted in the name of democracy.

By Christopher Walker

The impunity the CCP enjoys in this regard increasingly touches a sensitive nerve in Chinese society and is contributing to what China scholar Andrew Nathan has recently suggested may be a critical tipping point in China’s current trajectory of development. The government in China, like that in Russia, heavily relies on performance legitimacy. As the performance in delivering economic goods loses its luster, these governments may well confront a crisis of political legitimacy sooner than many observers imagine.

But the China model alone cannot explain the current challenges to democracy. Kurlantzick points out that the debilitating economic crisis in the United States and Europe has caused the world’s advanced democracies to turn inward and has raised questions about the credibility of the democracies. The role of money in politics continues to erode confidence in aspects of democratic governance. And the landscape for advancing democracy abroad is much tougher today than during the 1990s.

To address these challenges, Kurlantzick offers ten prescriptions that he believes would help improve the prospects of developing countries to achieve democratic consolidation, including more effective and realistic management of expectations in young and aspiring democracies, crafting approaches that can retain the support of the middle class, and devising more effective ways to help these countries combat corruption. All sensible ideas.

While the points made in the book are generally accurate, in making an important argument for increased flexibility in the programming of U.S.-supported democracy assistance to help meet diverse challenges, Kurlantzick mistakenly refers to the National Endowment for Democracy (where I work) as a “contractor.” The NED is a private, nonprofit foundation that is congressionally funded. The book also alludes to the failure of the European Union to create a “European Endowment for Democracy,” in essence Europe’s analog to the NED. Since Democracy in Retreat went to print, the EU finally established the European Endowment, which should begin its democracy support work in the not-too-distant future. On the whole, however, the book puts forward a valuable set of ideas for supporting democratic development.

At a time when policy makers have tended to place support for democracy on a back burner, Kurlantzick reminds us that the stakes are very high for countries seeking to consolidate democratic systems. In his concluding chapter he writes, “When it comes to indicators of societies’ health and well-being, democracies that succeed in consolidating their political transitions fare better on all of them, over the long term, than do their autocratic peers.” The stakes are high for the United States and its allies, too. Further democratic regression and a shrinking number of democracies would have negative implications beyond any single country’s borders. It would shape, for instance, the treatment of human rights issues in international and regional bodies. Alternatively, if these countries make their way into the ranks of consolidated democracies, they could tip the global balance and reinvigorate democratic governance.

Kurlantzick’s book provides a timely and thoughtful examination of the serious and complex threats to the achievement of democratically accountable systems that are best able to deliver for their citizens, safeguard human rights, and be the best partners for the U.S. and its allies.

Christopher Walker is the executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. He can be followed on Twitter: @Walker_CT.


  • Kevin M on July 05, 2013 12:14 PM:

    An insightful analysis, Mr. Walker. However, I am sorry you did not acknowledge that evidence of these anti-democratic forces exists in our own democracy. Over the last five years, and during previous Democratic Administrations, we have seen to many examples of a great deal of the American electorate unwilling to accept the legitimacy of the duly-elected President. For far too many in the United States, election results are being accepted on a contingent basis. Far too many people give at least lip service to claiming an inherent ability to resist lawful authority and set aside election results should they see fit.

    A "democracy recession" exists to a great extent in the United States, and not just in Egypt, the Philippines, Thailand, and Honduras.