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Defining Trends

The Spread of Democracy and Respect for Human Rights is Proceeding Unevenly
Globalization Has Weakened Old Concepts of State Sovereignty
Ethnic, Regional and Religious Tensions Have Become More Acute
The Prospects for Progress Toward Democracy and Stability Very from Region to Region

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The Spread of Democracy and Respect for Human Rights is Proceeding Unevenly

During the late 1980s, the global advancement of democracy and respect for human rights made notable strides. The number of states under democratic rule nearly doubled between 1973 and 1990, while the total number of states barely increased. The percentage of the world's population enjoying democratic freedoms also rose--the most widely used data, from Freedom House, understate this shift in our view. Democracy and freedom spread thanks to two factors. One was dramatic: the sudden collapse of Soviet communism. The other resulted from slow accumulative increases in literacy and levels of education, as well as from greatly expanded access to communications technologies.

But from the vantage point of the mid-1990s, the global trend toward more democracy, respect for human rights, and individual freedom is making uneven progress. In the next few years, the further advancement of democracy and human rights will probably vary substantially in three different groups of states.

The first group is composed of certain states in Central Europe, Latin America and East Asia. The rapid rise in the standard of living of some East Asian countries over the past two decades has greatly increased the attractiveness of their economic and political systems. That model includes open embrace of free market economics and general access to modern technologies, followed by the establishment of democracy. Such a model is inspiring the new Central European and Latin American democracies. The chances for their ultimate success as market democracies seems high, based on the ongoing progress of the East Asian forerunners.

The second group is made up of states making the transition from authoritarian or totalitarian rule to democracy. By the early 1990s, professions of allegiance to democratic ideals became the international norm. However, in some countries, these declarations are presently no more than pro forma bows to world opinion. In others, democracy is under severe pressure. Many new democracies have discovered problems in reconciling group rights and individual freedom with political stability. Severe contractions of national economies have frequently turned public opinion against democratic reformers who were raised to leadership in the wake of the Soviet Union's disintegration, most notably in Russia itself.

It seems possible that, in the next few years, a number of recently established democracies will slip backward to one or another form of authoritarian rule. It is impossible to predict which transitional states will fail to sustain democractic institutions in the short term. But important indicators of potential challenges to democracy are human rights abuses, limitations on freedom of the press and of assembly, abuses of police and judicial powers, and harrassment of opposition political parties.

The third group is troubled states. Democracy depends on the establishment and survival of the institutions of civil society. These democratic foundations are proving painfully hard to maintain in poorer states, including many African countries. Since the introduction of democracy and respect for human rights threatens many entrenched interests in pre-democratic states, such interests will frequently resist such changes, sometimes with violence. Under such circumstances, democracy may collapse under the weight of political conflict or civil war.

Thus, in contrast with the heady optimism of the late 1980s, there are now grounds for concern about the worldwide future of democracy and respect for human rights. But cases of failure or backsliding should not distract us from the reality of overall progress. Great struggles lie ahead before all mankind is free. But compared to the situation of twenty years ago, democracy and respect for the individual have become the acknowledged norm toward which the countries of the world are aspiring.

It seems possible that, in the next few years, a number of recently established democracies will fall under quasi-authoritarian rule. The conditions for the establishment and survival of the institutions of civil society that underpin true democracy are proving painfully hard to establish in many of the poorer states. Since the introduction of democracy often threatens the status quo for entrenched interests in pre-democratic states, such interests will frequently resist it, sometimes with violence. While it is not possible to predict which transition states will be unable to consolidate democracy in the short term, human rights abuses--limitations on freedom of the press and of assembly, abuse of police and judicial powers, and harrassment of peaceful opposition politicians--provide an important indicator of potential problems with the functioning of democracy.

The difficulties in democratic transition being experienced by the transition states should not offer serious alarm about the bright future of democracy over the long run. History suggests that the creation of fully secure and deep democratic systems can take decades. Even in the United States, some fifty years passed between the Declaration of Independence and the creation of Jacksonian democracy, which was still limited to white males. The democratic spark of the First and Second French Republics was soon snuffed out, and France only acquired a stable democratic system in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Even under the favorable conditions created by developments stretching back to Classical times, many other nineteenth and twentieth century European democracies have floundered--Spain, Italy, Germany, and Russia all endured decades of authoritarian rule.

One factor which may assist democratic forces is the more active pro-democracy stance being taken by the community of states, whereas military corps were once common in Latin America, the 1991 military overthrow of an elected government in Haiti created a situation that was judged by the Organization of American States and the United Nations to be a threat to peace. The U.N. Security Council authorized the use of military force to restore the democratically elected government.

With the global diffusion of democracy, it has become clear that what is meant by "democracy" varies from state to state as a result of differing cultural influences. When democracy was largely confined to North America and Western Europe, it had a relatively unambiguous definition based on the values of the North Atlantic community. But in states outside of this community, the greater importance attached to religion, ethnicity, or group consensus gives democracy a different flavor than in states with direct cultural links to the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, and the struggles for civil rights.

Even within the West, there is disagreement about the meaning of democracy. In Italy, for example, the neo-Fascists (who prefer to call themselves "post-Fascists") claim to espouse democracy, yet also insist on policies and principles that many others see as incompatible with democracy, such as the idea that public order is a higher priority than individual freedom, and that the rights of the state take precedence over those of the individual. Similar notions have been put forward by some political leaders in France, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Russia, and Japan.

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Globalization Has Weakened Old Concepts of State Sovereignty

Late twentieth-century economic, social, cultural, and technological developments--including huge concentrations of capital in multinational corporations, the allure of Western popular culture and mass consumerism, the ubiquitous reach of international television broadcasting, the spread of international criminal organizations, movement of people on an unprecedented and sometimes unmanageable scale, the transnational impact of environmental changes and disasters, and the growing power of international organizations--have frequently overwhelmed the power of states based on eighteenth-century ideas of sovereignty.

This weakness is particularly acute for multi-ethnic developing countries that inherited inappropriate nation-state models of organization from their colonial masters. Much of the population of such states, lacking strong allegiance to governments with which they share little sense of identity and from which they receive nothing, are easily attracted to other power centers. But even for successful countries based on the nation-state system and with close ties between citizens and government, globalization has often unleashed forces that overwhelm sovereignty.

The response of populations with a strong sense of nationhood has frequently been xenophobia aimed at the supposed source of transnational interference in national affairs. The increasing antipathy of many Western Europeans toward Eastern European and North African immigrants, and the hostility of many Islamic populations toward Western popular culture, are two striking examples of this phenomenon. In states suffering from ethnic or regional divisions, the effect of globalization has frequently been to nurture divisive tendencies, which tend to grow in parallel with a sense of rage or disdain for the impotence of central governments.

Trouble often arises when less developed countries attempt to acquire or emulate aspects of Western society and culture that are realistically beyond their grasp at the moment. For example, less developed nations may be unable to provide the waste disposal necessary for the safe removal of the by-products produced by the use of Western goods, and many of the cities in the poorer countries of Latin America and South Asia are now badly polluted by petroleum by-products.

The near-universal broadcasting of American-produced television programs has saturated the developing world's viewers with seductive images of the U.S. standard of living. This has created a gigantic market for Western goods and services, but it has also raised expectations to unrealistic levels among many populations, which may result in social unrest in places where governments and economies are unable to meet such demands.

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Ethnic, Regional, and Religious Tensions Have Become More Acute

Divisive regional, ethnic, and national tensions have promoted war and violent conflict within and among states in areas ranging from the Balkans and the Caucasus to Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and South Asia.

In general, nationalism enjoys more strength as an ideology than ever before. Thanks to the spread of modern communications and formal education, nationalist stirrings have awakened among populations who have been denied national self-determination, but were previously passive. Emigrants at great distances from their lands of origin are now able to agitate for the independence for their ancestral homelands. Modern broadcasting and information technologies allow easy penetration of borders by ideas and propaganda. The huge increase of global population has increased the size of many groups to the level where national independence has become possible for these groups for the first time. Without suggesting that such ethnic groups will actually gain their independence, one might cite the Chechens of the northern Caucasus or some indigenous peoples, such as the Greenland Eskimos.

Another aspect of nationalism in developing countries is its frequent expression in religious terms. The use of religion to advance a political agenda was the norm throughout the Western world until the emergence of modern mass political parties in the nineteenth century. In many other parts of the globe, such an overlap of religious and political movements is still common. The combination of fundamentalist religious attitudes with hyper-nationalist politics has proven highly appealing in certain developing countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikstan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.

Unfortunately, religious nationalism often threatens the safety of religious minorities, the survival of multi-religious states, and the security of neighboring states. If successful, religious nationalist movements might seek to redraw many of the borders in the vast swathe of territory stretching from the North African-Mediterranean region across the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

The appearance of new nations and the fracturing of existing multinational states is likely to continue over the medium term, though not necessarily in the next few years. Governments of existing states are often reluctant to promote the ideal of national self-determination for fear of conflict and upsetting of international order. There are no easy solutions to the vexing challenges presented by demands for the creation and recognition of new nation states. Clearly, not all national aspirations can be fulfilled, lest the international order dissolve into interminable chaos and division. But neither should nationalist demands be categorically dismissed as threatening or irrational. Many existing states with a history of domestic peace and progress were created from very small populations on quite limited national territories, some quite recently. Ireland, Denmark, Portugal, Greece, Israel, and Singapore are some examples.

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The Prospects for Progress Toward Democracy and Stability Vary From Region
to Region

Movement toward the fulfillment of democratic and national ideals may be slow in the transitional states and erratic at best in the troubled states. People generally require social stability, a minimal level of education, and a degree of prosperity before they can develop a secure sense of national identity and a respect for human rights and democratic processes.

In the transitional states in Latin America, much of East Asia, and Central/Eastern Europe, the preconditions for progress toward a system of stable, democratic nation states have, with a few notable exceptions, been established in recent years. It is reasonable to expect the growth of healthy sovereign states throughout those areas in the next few decades. The concept of national self-determination is generally respected in these regions. But the movement toward the stability of democratic, sovereign states will almost certainly experience temporary setbacks in at least a few transition states. Some of those states could slip into the troubled category.

Favorable conditions for building national consciousness do not prevail in troubled states, and appear unlikely to do so for decades. Between the Sahara and the Kalahari, many states are losing their grip on internal peace and effective government, and a number of them are mired in or approaching a state of chaos. Some of these states simply may not survive within their present borders. In fact, over the next few years, Africa is almost certain to present the United State with its most pressing challenges regarding human rights, individual liberties, and the territorial integrity of recognized states.

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