Democracy Under Siege From Autocrats, Social Media and Its Own Failures

This article is from a special report on the Athens Democracy Forum, which convenes this week in the Greek capital to examine the ways in which self-governance might evolve.

BRUSSELS — Democracy seems under threat everywhere, from angry domestic populists to autocrats who argue that untrammeled state power produces more benefits to ordinary citizens, that democracies are too noisy and divided to deliver the goods.

Even within the European Union, there are substantial challenges to liberal democracy and the rule of law from countries like Poland and Hungary, which the European Parliament recently declared can “no longer be considered a full democracy,” but an “electoral autocracy.”

The victory of liberal democracy that Francis Fukuyama rightly celebrated after the collapse of the Soviet Union can sound hollow today; at the least, it is under severe challenge from autocracies ranging from Russia and China to Turkey, Brazil and the oil-rich Gulf.

In the late 1990s, 72 countries were democratizing, and only three were growing more authoritarian, according to data from the V-Dem Institute, which monitors democracy and its variants. Last year, only 15 countries grew more democratic, while 33 slid toward authoritarianism. Liberal democracies were at their lowest level in 25 years, V-Dem said, covering only 13 percent of the world’s population; “closed autocracies” governed 26 percent of the world’s people, and “electoral autocracies” governed 44 percent.

So the American “unipolar moment” is long over; the emerging world disorder will be “complex, fragmented and fluid, its jagged contours mapped by opportunistic alliances, plurilateral pacts and overlapping boundaries,” said Philip Stephens, a contributing editor at the Financial Times, in an essay for the Institut Montaigne.

The United States and its NATO allies are deeply engaged in helping Ukraine push back a Russian invasion, presented as a fight for democracy against totalitarianism. But that may be a misreading of the real nature of the war — and too optimistic a view of Ukraine, which seven months ago was hardly considered a model of democracy or transparency. Still, as ever, politics needs slogans, and democracy versus authoritarianism sells.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, center, made an unannounced visit to the recaptured city of Izium this month, attending a flag-raising ceremony with soldiers in the city’s main square.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

But that antithesis, promoted by President Biden, is too simple, given that NATO allies like Hungary and Turkey and much of the Global South, including the massive, mostly democratic India, have refused to join the West in sanctioning Russia and regard the war in Ukraine as a form of American-Russian proxy war. And Western democracies, in desperate search of energy to replace Russian oil and gas, have had to go cap in hand to some of the most autocratic leaders on earth.

As Russia and China try to alter or even destroy the international order built by the democratic winners of World War II, “the geopolitical contest that matters is not one between liberal democracies and the rest,” said Mr. Stephens, “but one between the rule of law and the rule of the strongest.”

And in that struggle, the deep polarization and decaying condition of American democracy is an important factor, one that the digital revolution is making apparent in every corner of the world.

“In the end, the United States is the mirror in which we view ourselves,” said Arancha González Laya, former foreign minister of Spain and dean of the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po. “So I’m deeply worried. Whatever happens in the U.S. doesn’t stay in the U.S., and it is analyzed and scrutinized in Europe and around the world.”

(Prompted by such domestic polarization, The New York Times is running a series on challenges to democracy and is working in association with the Athens Democracy Forum, which convenes this week in the Greek capital.)

Gianni Riotta, a visiting professor at Princeton, expanded on the thought. With economic dislocation, increased inequality, the globalized erosion of national identity and the loss of major military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, “the United States and the West have lost their soft power,” he said. “Our efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East and in Afghanistan failed.”

To many in the West, especially the young, he said, “democracy is important, but so is the climate and the economy.”

In the months after the fall of Afghanistan in 2021, a white Taliban flag replaced the black, red and green national flag that once flew more than 200 feet above the Wazir Akbar Khan hill in Kabul.Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

The failure in Iraq marked a larger blow to America’s influence in the world than the loss of the Vietnam War, and the recent and humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, after an effort of more than 20 years of democracy building, did great damage, argued Stefano Pontecorvo, the senior NATO civilian in Afghanistan and one of the last to leave after the Taliban takeover.

At the height of the war, the United States spent $3 billion a year, and for nothing, he said. “The problem with exporting democracy is that it is not natural to these countries,” he said. “You can’t impose your values — you have to accommodate them to the values of the country. It took Britain 250 years to build democracy in India, and we had 20.”

But a rapidly declining America is not necessarily welcome, even by its main strategic and ideological rival, China — at least not yet, said Huang Jing, a Chinese-American political scientist and professor at Shanghai International Studies University.

China is interested in stability in a difficult time, he said at the Ambrosetti Forum earlier this month. China and Russia have a “friendship without limits,” but not an alliance at all costs. Russia has “a great capacity for destruction” of the current world order, he said, while China, watching the mess in Ukraine, “is trying to stay in this order and be a peacemaker and a contributor of public good,” he insisted.

“A disorderly decline of the United States is disastrous for us and the global economy,” he said. “China believes a stable, united and prosperous U.S. is good for China, at least for now.”

People wearing face masks walk past a flower decoration on display outside an office building in Beijing, welcoming the 20th party congress.Credit…Andy Wong/Associated Press

Niall Ferguson, a historian at Stanford University, warned against Chinese self-confidence. They are making the same mistake as the Germans in the 1930s and the Russians in the 1970s by underestimating the fundamental strength of democracy, he said. “They are believing our own self-flagellating criticism and not seeing their own problems and mistakes.”

But China has made it clear that it sees the United States and its democracy in terminal decline, while it has been careful at home to control or censor what some consider the crucial engines of that decline, especially social media and the internet.

The digitalization of the political space and the confusion between truth and lies has undermined democracy, said Bruno Le Maire, France’s minister for the Economy, Finance and Industrial and Digital Sovereignty.

“The digital revolution has not only changed the organization of our nations and societies, but our brains,” he said in an interview. “There can be no democracy without a common ground for debate. And what is the outcome of a political debate? A majority of people gathering themselves around shared truths, shared observations and shared diagnostics. But in the era of the digital revolution, there is no such a thing.”

Social media is “a different mental universe” and has “no single truth,” yet “at the core of democracy is the distinction between truth and lies,” he said. “It is the key political question today, because our liberal democracies are profoundly undermined by this digital revolution and by the individualization of society.”

Bernard Spitz, a lawyer and adviser to Medef, the largest employer organization in France, agreed that globalization and digitalization had altered democratic societies, “and like all revolutions, they can bring the best and the worst,” including doubts about democracy and stability, more visible extremism and “democratic disillusion.”

But associated with the new digital world of social media, there is another challenge to democracy that is emerging, and that is generational. The young care most about climate change, which they regard as existential, and less about liberal democracy, Mr. Le Maire said. “For the younger generation, climate is the main issue — their political awareness centers on climate change.”

Democracy is hard work and “must be nurtured every day,” said Ms. González, the former Spanish foreign minister.

Mr. Riotta said that the real danger now is not fascism.

“The real danger,” he said, “is democracy fatigue.”

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