The Global Prospect

Saturday, October 30, 1999

Since April 1974, when the Portuguese military overthrew the Salazar/Caetano dictatorship, the number of democracies in the world has multiplied dramatically. Before the start of this global trend—what Samuel Huntington has famously dubbed the “third wave” of democratic expansion—there were about forty democracies. The number increased moderately through the late 1970s and early 1980s as several states experienced transitions from authoritarian rule (predominantly military) to democratic rule. In the mid-1980s, the pace of global democratic expansion accelerated markedly. By the end of 1995, there were as many as 117 democracies or as few as 76. The number depends on whether the standard is the more minimal electoral democracy (in which the people can choose their leaders through regular, free, and fair multiparty elections) or the more substantial liberal democracy (which secures individual liberties and civic pluralism through institutional checks and balances and a strong rule of law).

Since 1995 the number of electoral democracies has essentially remained at 117. This signals that the third wave of democratization has drawn to a halt. The key challenge in the coming years will be to consolidate and deepen the new and troubled democracies of the world, thereby preventing a third reverse wave of democratic breakdowns. But what about the longer term? Will there be a fourth wave of democratization? If so, when and why?

The very breadth of the third wave may, ironically, suggest gloomy prospects for a fourth. Almost all countries that had favorable economic, social, and cultural conditions for democracy have democratized. Most of those countries that did not democratize do not seem promising candidates for democratic transition in the next decade or two. In several of the most repressive countries in the world, particularly Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea, and Cuba, even modest political liberalization will probably require the death or overthrow of the long-ruling tyrant or clique. Aside from Kuwait, the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, have so far shown little appetite for any kind of political opening.

For most of the fifty-three states characterized as “not free” by the watchdog group Freedom House, the prospects for democratization appear bleak for some time to come. Forty-nine of these states share one or more of the following three characteristics (many have two; a few have all three):

  • A majority Muslim population and often strong Islamic fundamentalist pressures
  • Deep ethnic divisions without a single, dominant ethnic group (one containing more than two-thirds of the population)
  • Neocommunist or postcommunist regimes with a strong hangover of diffuse, one-party domination

In addition, the “not free” states are disproportionately poor. Poverty in itself does not preclude democratic development, but it does significantly shorten the average life expectancy of a democracy, especially in the absence of sustained economic growth. When combined with one or more of the other conditions above, poverty greatly diminishes the democratic prospect.

Of course, no discussion of international affairs should dismiss the possibility of surprise. For example, few foresaw the collapse of Soviet and East European communist regimes and the rise of democracy in Russia. Nor were many Asia specialists predicting in the mid-1990s that Indonesian president Suharto would be ignominiously toppled from power.

A number of the most repressive regimes in the world are brittle. If a broad domestic crisis grips the economy or society, and if international support or tolerance erodes, they are vulnerable to collapse. When President Suharto celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of his rule in March 1996, he seemed “secure in his control,” the regime looked “solid and highly efficient,” and the country appeared further away from democracy than it had just a few years before. Barely two years later, popular protests resulting from a devastating financial crisis forced Suharto to resign and his chosen successor to pledge new, democratic elections (in which an opposition party finished first). Burma and Nigeria have had articulate democratic movements with passionate support in their societies. As in Nigeria—where the sudden death in June 1998 of military dictator Sani Abacha opened the way for a military withdrawal and a return to civilian, democratic rule—in Burma some combination of domestic mobilization, ruling elite divisions, and international pressure could trigger democratic change. Indeed, authoritarian regimes in Kenya and Cameroon were thrown on the defensive and nearly toppled by domestic and international pressure in the early 1990s. They face new and serious challenges at some point in the years ahead.

No one can confidently predict where and when a combination of unforeseen events, regime divisions, and popular protest might open a game of democratic transition. The element of surprise thus justifies some broad distribution of efforts promoting democracy: condemning repression, encouraging democratic opposition, and fostering foundations for pluralism in as many nondemocracies as possible. This increases the odds that authoritarian regime crises will lead to democracy.

Because most democracy promotion efforts directed at today’s authoritarian regimes will at best till the soil for longer-term political change, however, their strategic aim should be to gradually lay the foundations for market economies, constrained centers of power, rules of law, more resourceful civil societies, and the incremental development of competitive electoral processes. For countries such as China, in which economic growth promises to produce better-educated, more-informed, diverse, and assertive societies in the coming generation, incremental democratization seems a realistic prospect and a compelling rationale for long-term engagement by the established, wealthy democracies.

In fact, the long term may not be that long. Assuming that China and Indonesia sustain relatively high growth rates in per capita income (averaging 4.5 percent annually), by 2020 they are projected to have per capita incomes (in 1990 dollars) of $6,600 and $8,800, respectively. These income levels lie in the middle to upper-middle reaches of the range of economic development in which many democratic transitions of the third wave took place, including Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, and Chile.

Of course, predicting the future can be a dangerous business. The outbreak in late 1997 of the East Asian financial crisis underscored how tenuous linear projections of past performance can be. By mid-1998, Indonesia’s currency, per capita income, and financial institutions had suffered such staggering declines that projections even for long-term development had to be sharply reconsidered. Yet the collapse of the Indonesian miracle, combined with long-standing public frustration over massive corruption and nepotism, only accelerated pressures for democratization. Some China watchers predict economic troubles for China as well, which could similarly undermine the stability of Communist Party rule. If popular and intellectual mobilization for democratization did erupt in China, would the regime respond with liberalization or with the kind of brutal crackdown it launched on the Tiananmen protests in 1989? (See below: China's Democratic Prospects)


Democrats throughout the world increasingly share a vision of a world system that is democratic in two senses: one composed of free societies and democratic states and one in which relations between states and among peoples are constrained by law and by common principles of decency and justice. A growing international architecture of collective institutions and formal agreements is gradually emerging, enshrining both the principles of democracy and human rights and the legitimacy of international action to promote and defend them. In the next generation, we have a historic opportunity to bring a truly democratic world into being.

That quest encompasses three core challenges: first, to deepen and consolidate democracy where it has formally come into being; second, to continue to build and reinforce the cooperative structures and institutional rules of democracy at the level of regional and international organizations; and, third, to encourage the many disparate currents of change that could gather into a fourth wave of democratization.

None of this is inevitable. The most dangerous intellectual temptation for democrats is to think that the world is necessarily moving toward some natural democratic end state. Democracy can deteriorate at any point in its development; its quality and stability can never be taken for granted. It is wrong to think that democracy is the only model of governance with any power and legitimacy in the world today. Communism may be dead, but Leninism lives on. There is still a powerful attraction in Asia and elsewhere to what may be termed the Singaporean model—a form of pseudodemocracy that offers real economic freedom but only a thin veneer of electoral competition and constitutionalism, behind which a hegemonic state and ruling party firmly control and constrain political life. And even as it begins to fray in Iran, the Islamic fundamentalist model is still very much alive in a crucial part of the world. Then there is the eternal danger of bigotry and intolerance. In the face of social and economic stress, democracy will always struggle against one or another form of ethnic or nationalist chauvinism, which exalts some defined “we” by demonizing and persecuting some perceived “they.”

If democratic progress is to continue in the next century, it must continue at the core, in the most economically advanced countries. To be credible, and to provide an appealing model and vision of a global democratic future, the established democracies—not least the United States—must attend to the quality of democracy in their own countries. The established liberal democracies need to engage their citizens more vigorously in public life, nurturing and revitalizing the associational structures through which citizens participate and cooperate as political equals and which breed the cultural foundations of a healthy democracy: trust, tolerance, efficacy, reciprocity, honesty, and respect for law.

In the long run, the expansion of world wealth and education will be the most powerful structural factors facilitating the expansion and deepening of democracy. Economic and social development will help, but ultimately political leadership, choice, and action at many levels will make the difference. This imposes strong obligations not only on government officials, political parties, interest groups, and civic organizations in developing democracies but also on institutions in rich, established ones.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the third wave is the considerable contribution that international actors have made by enhancing the resources, skills, techniques, ideas, linkages, and legitimacy of civil society organizations, civic education efforts, the mass media, legislatures, local governments, judicial systems, political parties, and election commissions in the developing and postcommunist worlds. The prospects for democracy in the world will be much brighter if these many currents of practical engagement are sustained, refined, and widened. Thus continued and increased funding is needed for the democratic assistance programs of official aid agencies, regional and international organizations, publicly funded democracy foundations, private foundations, and a wide array of small nongovernmental organizations.

A second imperative is to create the economic conditions that will not only consolidate the third wave but bring into being a fourth. New democracies have persisted in the third wave in the face of economic hardships that many believed they could not endure. Now, after painful economic reforms, a number of postcommunist, Latin American, and even African states are experiencing real, even vigorous growth. International assistance can help foster the market-oriented reforms that are driving this growth and that are necessary to quicken and sustain it. Ultimately, however, the most powerful initiative the industrialized democracies can undertake is to open their markets and to compel the emerging democracies to open their own markets, while observing international standards of trading conduct and labor rights. Open economies are the institutional companion of open societies and free political systems. As communities of nations liberalize and eliminate their barriers to trade, they draw closer politically and culturally as well. The European Union is the single most important community of democracies in the history of the world. Two of the highest priorities for the advancement of democracy in the world are to (1) expand that union to incorporate the postcommunist states and (2) bring about a true common market in the Americas.

For the major democratic powers, and especially for the United States, dealing with the world’s next superpower, China, is likely to be the most formidable international challenge. China must continue to develop economically, and nothing would be gained for democracy or other U.S. interests to use trade as a weapon to punish China for its reprehensible record on human rights. On the one hand, China is not only growing richer rapidly, as a result of dramatic (albeit still partial) market reforms; at a slower pace, it is also making some significant political reforms. On the other hand, China’s grave violations of human rights persist and must be exposed and condemned. Moral and diplomatic pressure must be mounted through a variety of means and forums to persuade China to cease these abuses.

International moral outrage alone, however, will not change China. If that outrage is not balanced by engagement and dialogue, it could provoke a nationalist reaction that would freeze or derail political reform. While protesting abuses in the short term, international democrats must encourage the longer-term process of social and political change in China. That involves the investment and trade that, by accelerating economic growth in China, are creating a more sophisticated, pluralistic, informed, and autonomously organized society. Balanced political and economic engagement of this kind will also be needed to engage and pressure other authoritarian regimes in which change is possible but in which democratization seems a distant prospect.

In Africa, the established democracies have more scope to pressure for democratic reforms than in China because they exercise much greater power. The dependence of African states on international aid, finance, and investment makes it possible to provide tangible incentives for liberalizing reforms and to impose penalties on those regimes that cling to corrupt and abusive practices.

A new bargain is needed between Africa and the West, swapping debt for democracy and development for good governance. Aid should be conditioned on economic liberalization, political freedom and accountability, and redirection of budgetary priorities away from military and other unproductive spending and toward human and physical capital. Those governments that are serious about development and good governance deserve more aid, including debt relief, as a transitional boost to sustainable development. Those that are not should be denied international aid and loans. Even in the most authoritarian situations, however, the international community needs to seek out and support civil society groups that are serious about development, democratization, and accountability. If international actors are to promote democratization, they must affect the domestic political context; this means strengthening prodemocratic forces from below and giving wavering and divided regime elites incentives to tilt toward democracy.

Click on graph for larger version.

The possibilities for democracy are shaped by many grand historical and social forces: the failure of empires, the diffusion of models, the movement of peoples, the change of generations, and the transformation of values and class structures that comes with economic development. These forces, especially economic development, are going to generate new pressures for democratization in the twenty-first century. In the end, however, democracy is won or lost by individuals and groups and by their choices and actions.

In the near term, democrats around the world confront a historic opportunity and imperative: to prevent a third reverse wave of democratic breakdowns by moving the values, practices, laws, and institutions of new and unstable democracies toward consolidation. If, in the coming decade or two, some large portion of the third-wave democracies can be deepened and consolidated, the established democracies will be greatly enlarged in number and the world will be transformed.

Increasingly, universal norms of democracy and human rights will become embedded in international dialogue and action. Many of the newly established democracies will become important sources of diffusion and promoters of democracy themselves. As democracy—indeed, liberal democracy—takes root in many parts of the world where it was scarcely present before, its universality will be affirmed and the specter of a clash of civilizations laid to rest. Pressure will grow on the world’s remaining dictatorships, and resources and moral inspiration will flow to the movements, thinkers, parties, and politicians seeking democratic change. No doubt many of them will fail. Within a generation, however, enough of them will succeed to generate a fourth wave of global democratization and a spread of democracy throughout the world that few would have dared imagine in 1974, when the third wave began.

China’s Democratic Prospects

China is starting to liberalize politically as it crosses the threshold of $2,500 per capita income, the same level at which political opening and pluralization began to gather momentum in Taiwan in the early 1970s. In a loose parallel to Taiwan, a key early element of political change is the increasing autonomy of local authority and the introduction of at least partially competitive and free elections for local governing bodies at the village level. China’s central government is working to improve and standardize competitive village elections—and even seeking international assistance in the process—in an effort to control corruption, channel peasant frustrations, generate greater efficiency and legitimacy at the local level, and thus maintain political stability.

Political decompression in China has other dimensions as well. Modest competition has been introduced to the party congress elections. The National People’s Congress and especially some provincial and local people’s congresses are evolving from rubber stamps into more autonomous, professional, and inquisitive bodies, and delegates at all levels are pressing for further reform. A rudimentary system of law is beginning to emerge, including a law on administrative litigation that enables citizens to sue government agencies and officials for abuse of state power.

Chinese citizens are becoming more aware of their political and economic rights and more assertive in defending them. This is due in part to economic reform and development and to limits to central state power. Access to independent information is expanding.

To be sure, China remains an authoritarian, one-party state with strong corporatist controls over civil society and appalling human rights violations. The current shift involves only a partial and tentative opening. Most observers do not think the trends and challenges will lead to the democratization of China anytime soon. But sooner or later, economic development will generate growing pressures (and possibilities) for China to make a definitive regime change to democracy.

In China (as in Taiwan, Korea, and, before that most classically, Spain), economic development is creating a more complex, pluralistic, self-confident, resourceful society, which cannot be managed with the old patterns of monolithic, highly repressive, and arbitrary state domination. The regime increasingly recognizes that it must provide institutional mechanisms to limit corruption and abuse of power and to enable citizens to express their concerns and challenge state actions. Without this adaptation, societal acceptance of the regime could evaporate; protests over unemployment, dislocation, corruption, and inequality could spin out of control; and Communist Party rule could be swept away in a sudden, violent eruption.

In attempting to preserve its dominance, the Chinese communist leaders face a difficult quandary. They must continue reforming politically, introducing higher and wider levels of political competition, freer flows of information, more space for independent organization, and a more autonomous, authentic system of justice. But if they keep liberalizing politically, they will be riding a tiger they cannot dismount. More and more citizens and groups will have acquired a stake in institutions that give them some political voice, freedom, predictability, and choice, and it will become increasingly costly and dangerous to take these away. As the new institutions grow in scope and sophistication around the country, they will generate democratic norms and expectations and a demand for further expansion of democratic practices and procedures. (This process will clearly occur much sooner in Hong Kong than the rest of China, and the potential effects emanating from democratization in Hong Kong and Taiwan should not be underestimated.)

In China, economic development is creating a more complex, pluralistic, self-confident, resourceful society. The new China cannot be managed according to the old patterns of monolithic and repressive state domination.

It is possible that all this will merely produce a steady (though hardly smooth and linear) expansion of political pluralism and civil freedom, perhaps for a generation, until China reaches a “magic moment” in its level of economic development. More likely, however, at some point in the near future, political and social change will cumulate—and possibly intersect with economic stress or social turmoil—to produce a regime crisis. Such a crisis could lead to a transition to democracy, depending on how regime leaders divide and nonregime forces align. But it could just as likely lead to a new form of authoritarianism, a period of contested rule and social and fiscal disarray, or a ruthless crackdown that would set the country back in every respect.

No matter which scenario unfolds, China will not remain the same politically, and how it evolves will powerfully influence political trends in Asia and the rest of the world. For China is not just another country but a rising superpower that contains a fifth of humanity. In a narrow demographic sense, one could argue that the successful democratization of China would, in itself, constitute a wave of democratic change. Certainly its impact on global political models and power relations would be profound.

If China undergoes substantial political liberalization in the next two decades, especially if it becomes an electoral democracy at the national level, the impact throughout East Asia and beyond could be powerful enough to launch a fourth wave of global democratization.