In the crush of international reporting on terrorism, civil war, and revolution, it’s easy to lose sight of the more incremental progress in the world. A few decades ago, few would have dreamed that a majority of states in the world would be democracies, or that democracy would be the only broadly legitimate form of government in the world. Neither would many have imagined that the United Nations General Assembly, which had made a habit of excusing if not celebrating tyrannies, would establish in 2007 an annual International Day of Democracy to intensify global resolve to promote and consolidate democracy. Even the date (just four days after September 11) is a not-so-subtle rebuke to those who see violence and extremism as the path to a more just world.
While democracy has made dramatic gains over the last four decades, it has also confronted a growing pace of challenges and setbacks, even in the face of the new hope generated by the Arab Spring. In each of the past six years, many more countries have declined in freedom than have gained, and the number of democracies in this period has also receded. There has been a rising tide of democratic breakdowns in the past twelve years, and autocrats have been emboldened by the growing power and self-confidence of China and the economic and political troubles of the advanced industrial democracies.
Yet, as we have seen in the Arab Spring, and before that the Color Revolutions of the post-communist states, authoritarian regimes are also facing acute challenges to their stability, and without the floor of intrinsic legitimacy that most democracies enjoy. A rising generation in Singapore expects more freedom and openness, and has helped to drive unprecedented opposition gains in recent elections. The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in Malaysia has seen its political dominance erode and could lose power altogether in the next elections there. In Burma, the military has launched a transitional process that could lead to a transition to democracy in the next scheduled national elections, in 2015.