Politics follows geopolitics, or so it has often seemed throughout history. When the Athenian democracy’s empire rose in the fifth century B.C.E., the number of Greek city-states ruled by democrats proliferated; Sparta’s power was reflected in the spread of Spartan-style oligarchies. When the Soviet Union’s power rose in the early Cold War years, communism spread. In the later Cold War years, when the United States and Western Europe gained the advantage and ultimately triumphed, democracies proliferated and communism collapsed. Was this all just the outcome of the battle of ideas, as Francis Fukuyama and others argue, with the better idea of liberal capitalism triumphing over the worse ideas of communism and fascism? Or did liberal ideas triumph in part because of real battles and shifts that occurred less in the realm of thought than in the realm of power?
These are relevant questions again. We live in a time when democratic nations are in retreat in the realm of geopolitics, and when democracy itself is also in retreat. The latter phenomenon has been well documented by Freedom House, which has recorded declines in freedom in the world for nine straight years. At the level of geopolitics, the shifting tectonic plates have yet to produce a seismic rearrangement of power, but rumblings are audible. The United States has been in a state of retrenchment since President Barack Obama took office in 2009. The democratic nations of Europe, which some might have expected to pick up the slack, have instead turned inward and all but abandoned earlier dreams of reshaping the international system in their image. As for such rising democracies as Brazil, India, Turkey, and South Africa, they are neither rising as fast as once anticipated nor yet behaving as democracies in world affairs. Their focus remains narrow and regional. Their national identities remain shaped by postcolonial and nonaligned sensibilities—by old but carefully nursed resentments—which lead them, for instance, to shield rather than condemn autocratic Russia’s invasion of democratic Ukraine, or, in the case of Brazil, to prefer the company of Venezuelan dictators to that of North American democratic presidents.
Meanwhile, insofar as there is energy in the international system, it comes from the great-power autocracies, China and Russia, and from would-be theocrats pursuing their dream of a new caliphate in the Middle East. For all their many problems and weaknesses, it is still these autocracies and these aspiring religious totalitarians that push forward while the democracies draw back, that act while the democracies react, and that seem increasingly unleashed while the democracies feel increasingly constrained.
It should not be surprising that one of the side effects of these circumstances has been the weakening and in some cases collapse of democracy in those places where it was newest and weakest. Geopolitical shifts among the reigning great powers, often but not always the result of wars, can have significant effects on the domestic politics of the smaller and weaker nations of the world. Global democratizing trends have been stopped and reversed before.
Consider the interwar years. In 1920, when the number of democracies in the world had doubled in the aftermath of the First World War, contemporaries such as the British historian James Bryce believed that they were witnessing “a natural trend, due to a general law of social progress.” Yet almost immediately the new democracies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland began to fall. Europe’s democratic great powers, France and Britain, were suffering the effects of the recent devastating war, while the one rich and healthy democratic power, the United States, had retreated to the safety of its distant shores. In the vacuum came Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy in 1922, the crumbling of Germany’s Weimar Republic, and the broader triumph of European fascism. Greek democracy fell in 1936. Spanish democracy fell to Franco that same year. Military coups overthrew democratic governments in Portugal, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. Japan’s shaky democracy succumbed to military rule and then to a form of fascism.
Across three continents, fragile democracies gave way to authoritarian forces exploiting the vulnerabilities of the democratic system, while other democracies fell prey to the worldwide economic depression. There was a ripple effect, too—the success of fascism in one country strengthened similar movements elsewhere, sometimes directly. Spanish fascists received military assistance from the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. The result was that by 1939 the democratic gains of the previous forty years had been wiped out.
The period after the First World War showed not only that democratic gains could be reversed, but that democracy need not always triumph even in the competition of ideas. For it was not just that democracies had been overthrown. The very idea of democracy had been “discredited,” as John A. Hobson observed. Democracy’s aura of inevitability vanished as great numbers of people rejected the idea that it was a better form of government. Human beings, after all, do not yearn only for freedom, autonomy, individuality, and recognition. Especially in times of difficulty, they yearn also for comfort, security, order, and, importantly, a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves, something that submerges autonomy and individuality—all of which autocracies can sometimes provide, or at least appear to provide, better than democracies.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the fascist governments looked stronger, more energetic and efficient, and more capable of providing reassurance in troubled times. They appealed effectively to nationalist, ethnic, and tribal sentiments. The many weaknesses of Germany’s Weimar democracy, inadequately supported by the democratic great powers, and of the fragile and short-lived democracies of Italy and Spain made their people susceptible to the appeals of the Nazis, Mussolini, and Franco, just as the weaknesses of Russian democracy in the 1990s made a more authoritarian government under Vladimir Putin attractive to many Russians. People tend to follow winners, and between the wars the democratic-capitalist countries looked weak and in retreat compared with the apparently vigorous fascist regimes and with Stalin’s Soviet Union.
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