Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 04/2009

Stepping Back From Democratic Pessimism

Thomas Carothers

February 2009

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Pessimism about the progress of democracy in the developing and postcommunist worlds has risen sharply in recent years. Negative developments in a variety of countries, such as military coups, failed elections, and the emergence of antidemocratic populist leaders, have caused some observers to argue that democracy is in retreat and authoritarianism on the march. A broad look at the state of democracy around the world reveals however that although the condition of democracy is certainly troubled in many places, when viewed relative to where it was at the start of this decade, democracy has not lost ground in the world overall. The former Soviet Union is the one region where democracy has clearly slipped backward in this decade, primarily as a result of Russia’s authoritarian slide. The Middle East has also been a source of signifi cant disappointment on democracy but mostly in comparison with unrealistic expectations that were raised by the Bush administration. In most of the rest of the world good news with respect to democratization is found in roughly equal proportion to bad news and considerable continuity has prevailed as well. This more balanced perspective on the global state of democracy undercuts some of the explanations that are currently offered by democratic pessimists, such as that citizens of struggling democracies are withdrawing their support for democracy as a result of poor socioeconomic performance of their governments, that elections are tearing apart many weak democracies, that economic gains by authoritarian states are causing authoritarianism to spread, and that antidemocratic foreign policies by some assertive nondemocratic states, such as Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran, are doing signifi cant harm to democracy. The Obama administration should take on board this more balanced perspective. Doing so will help ensure that unnecessary democratic pessimism does not reinforce the natural tendency to respond to the Bush administration’s negative experiences with democracy policy by backing away from U.S. support for democracy abroad.