The Cooperative Society Newsletter
March 2022, Issue 34
by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
“The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 is down to 1989 levels. The last 30 years of democratic advances are now eradicated. Dictatorships are on the rise and harbor 70% of the . . . world population . . . .”
Democracy Report 2022
Not exactly uplifting news for those of us who value “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Other recent analyses have drawn similar conclusions about the erosion of democracy over the last decade or more.
And then along came Putin the Terrible‘s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. In addition to the deaths, destruction, suffering, and dislocation inflicted on Ukrainians by Russia’s ”special military operation,” there have been three major consequences not intended by Putin: strong, effective resistance by the Ukrainian government and its people to the invasion; an outpouring of support for Ukraine by democratic countries around the world; and a level of political, economic, and military cooperation among them that has not been seen since the end of World War II.
Thus, despite the gradual decline in democratic institutions in recent decades and the continuing tragedy of the war in Ukraine, the tone of this newsletter is optimistic about the future of democracy in the world. I will start out by reviewing the recent, mostly negative, trends related to democracy, then analyze the early reactions of many democratic countries to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and conclude by projecting a renewal of democratic growth in the years ahead.
Changes in Democracy Since World War II
Each year the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and Freedom House and other organizations publish reports on the current state of democracy in the world. For the past 16 years the EIU’s Democracy Index has been on a downward trend. The Freedom House index has shown a similar negative pattern for 17 years. That is, the countries of the world have become less democratic and more authoritarian during most of the 21st century to date.
There was a very different pattern that began during World War II, according to the Center for Systemic Peace. The world experienced an unprecedented flowering of democracy that continued through the remainder of the 20th century. According to the Center, the approximate number of democratic countries increased from 10 during World War II in the early 1940s to 80 in 2000, and autocratic rule declined from a peak of about 90 countries in the late 1970s to 30 in 2000.
What accounts for the rapid rise, then gradual decline of democracy since World War II?
This is a complicated question. Following are some possible answers.
Much of the proliferation of new democracies after World War II resulted from the end of colonialism in Asia, Africa, and on islands in Oceania and the Caribbean from the late 1940s through the 1970s, and from the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia around 1990. As we have found out, however, one cannot just wave a magic wand and create a democracy.
In 1945, there were 74 sovereign states in the world. Today, there are 193 member states in the United Nations, representing almost every country in the world. That is approaching an almost three-fold increase in less than 80 years.
Many of the newly minted (or liberated) countries struggled to become democratically run – even if they were formed as nominal democracies. Major problems included:
- The tendency of elected leaders to seek lifetime tenures rather than submit to periodic, fairly conducted elections
- Traditional ethnic rivalries that degenerated into civil wars rather than developing into functioning democracies
- The self-interested interference of former colonizers or other outsiders that undercut democracy
- Military coups
There are a different, but overlapping, set of factors that have undercut long-established democracies in the early 21st century:
- Self-serving politicians and political parties, often financed by wealthy individuals and corporations, that weakened the role of other parties in order to secure and maintain political control
- Military coups
- Inequality that undercuts balanced political participation
- Political apathy
- White supremacy
Taken together, these diverse factors have reduced the level of democracy around the world.
The reaction of democratic countries to Putin’s war
The United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, NATO, the United Nations, and other democratic countries and institutions have denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They also quickly supported a range of economic sanctions on Russia and the provision of arms and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, including support for refugees.
The current actions of democratic countries around the world echo their response to the German, Italian, and Japanese invasions of their neighbors in World War II. Democracy in the world was up against the wall in the early 1940s, but the allies prevailed in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
At the time, Russia was a key, but uneasy, part of this anti-fascist coalition. As was borne out in the following decades, Russia had a very different, long-term goal from its democratic allies – creation of an authoritarian Soviet empire rather than preservation and expansion of democracy.
Now, Russia is the autocratic aggressor against its democratic neighbor, Ukraine. And a world democratic alliance has rapidly formed to counter this aggression.
A resurgence of democracy, an unintended consequence of Putin’s war
As Jennifer Rubin put it in a recent Washington Post opinion piece: “A renaissance of bipartisan, pro-democracy sentiment may be one of the many startling consequences of Russia’s invasion.”
As this newsletter is distributed in late March 2022, there is no way of knowing yet what the short- or long-term effects of Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine will be. Nor is it clear whether or not the heightened level of cooperation among democratic countries of the world will continue after the war is over. Another uncertainty is whether the current democratic upsurge will translate into transitions within countries that make them more democratic.
For example, will the current bipartisan support of Ukraine in the United States create a broader conciliatory relationship between the two political parties? Will support of Ukraine reduce the proliferation of some of the crazy conspiracy theories about the outcome of the last presidential election and set the stage for free and fair elections in 2022 and 2024?
In Hungary, will support of Ukraine lead to the electoral defeat of Prime Minister Victor Orban, who has turned the country into an oppressive, “illiberal democracy” during the past decade? Will President Erdogan of Turkey or Prime Minister Modi of India curb their autocratic tendencies in the face of popular support for democratic reforms? What impact will support of Ukraine have, If any, on China’s international relationships?
In sum, will there be a carryover from the heroic actions of millions of Ukrainians, and the support for these actions by hundreds of millions of people around the world and by the countries in which they live?
We don’t know the answer to these questions yet. But I’m betting on future reports from the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House, and other analysts, showing increases in democracy around the world rather than the gradual decreases we have seen in recent years.
An edited version of this article first appeared in The Capital Times, a weekly newspaper published in Madison, Wisconsin, on Saturday, March 26, 2022.
 There are a number of parallels between Ivan the Terrible, the brutal tsar who ruled Russia in the mid-1500s, and Vladimir Putin. For example, “Ivan’s reign was characterised by Russia’s transformation from a medieval state to an empire … but at an immense cost to its people and its broader, long-term economy.”
The Cooperative Society Project has been following trends in democracy since we began in 2015. You can read more in the second edition of The Cooperative Society – and in several articles. All can be accessed at our website.