This is not hyperbole. Last fall, our organizations — the liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative American Enterprise Institute — joined forces to study what ails democratic nations and how democratic regression will affect transatlantic security. While we often disagree over important policies, we are more unified than ever in our fear of a coming wave of democratic collapse.
People worldwide still prefer democracy as system of government, but major indexes presently show that, in a range of countries, democracies are in crisis; the data also show more backsliding on measures of democracy than ever before. Well-established democratic nations are failing basic tests on fundamentals such as the integrity of elections, protection of minorities and media freedom. Once-strong democracies such as Turkey and Venezuela are now democracies in name only.
A central revelation from our project is that these unsettling global trends have more to do with the shortcomings of the establishment class than with the political appeal of extremism and intolerance. Democracy that fails to be for the people ends up corrupted by the people, as they embrace extreme partisanship and elect populist disrupters. Those leaders often have little use for democratic institutions.
Both in Europe and the United States, extremists from the right and the left are filling a void left by mainstream parties. Authoritarian powers such as Russia are exploiting that void to sow chaos and weaken western political and security structures like the European Union and NATO — by deploying divisive propaganda and hacking, and selectively attacking politicians and elections.
To fight the rising tide of authoritarianism, we believe established democratic nations need three things: a restoration of the privileges that come with embracing true democracy, imposing costs for democratic backsliding, and a reinvigorated sense of democratic pride.
Until the fall of communism, the benefits of trade and investment, cooperation on national security and technology, and the movement of people for work and education were largely privileges of free nations. In the early 1990s, a reformist China and the countries of the crumbling Warsaw Pact raced to join multinational structures such as the European Union, NATO and the World Trade Organization.
Established democracies believed these new entrants would reform. But key autocratic leaders flipped the script. Democracies grew accustomed to cheap labor and cash from Chinese investment and wealthy Russian oligarchs. Concerns about theft of intellectual property, or subsidies for state-owned enterprises, or human rights abuses were largely brushed aside.
Now the consequences are becoming clear, but the response of democracies remains muddy. Defensive measures such as bolstering allies against Russian aggression and reciprocity for trade violations are important but demonstrably insufficient.
Instead, a renewed premium to bind democratic nations should take precedence over punishment of non-democracies. For example, as they update trade agreements, democracies could commit to preferential terms that reward shared commitments to the rule of law and labor standards — and coordinate responses to autocratic partners when they cheat the system. Democracies should assist one another in guaranteeing elections free of outside interference. They can enhance security cooperation, share more technology, and grant easier access for citizens seeking business or educational opportunities.
Rational investment in mutual friends for mutual benefit could be built out of existing structures such as the Community of Democracies or the G-7 — or from an informal club of countries like those involved in the Open Government Partnership. With China actively building structures to serve its interests, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, willing democracies might even step up with a new multinational body of their own.
Along with a new premium, democracies that backslide must face consequences. Joining NATO or the EU is an arduous process. Because membership has great privileges, aspirant nations commit themselves to the principles of the relevant treaties and institute difficult reforms in dozens of areas from customs to labor standards to the rule of law.
With Britain’s exit from the European Union, many democratic leaders are understandably fearful of further unraveling and are nervous to impose penalties against countries like Poland, Hungary and Turkey that violate commitments they made as part of the EU or NATO. This is a mistake. Democratic accountability is vital, even if it may prompt a backlash or further defections.
Calibration is key. Countries can be asked to reopen negotiations just on the areas in which they are slipping, such as judicial independence or free media. They might be placed on a probationary status or even be returned to candidate status. Only President Vladimir Putin of Russia will benefit from the irrevocable decline that would follow if democracies gradually abandon their standards.
Finally, mainstream politicians need to recapture patriotism and a positive — even populist — nationalism that is rooted in core democratic values. They need to fight for equality before the law, free markets, freedom of speech and the press, and free and fair elections as nationalist priorities. Conservative and liberals will continue to disagree, as we do, on everything from tax cuts to the wisdom of the Iran nuclear deal. But they can unite against the perils of authoritarianism. Some politicians are finding this path in Europe and the United States, but the legacy political parties on the center-left and center-right have a long way to go.
The world’s democracies are paralyzed by inaction in the face of this global crisis. The time has come to mount a coordinated response that renews the democratic spirit and restores mutual benefit among democratic nations. Otherwise, a less prosperous and less secure world awaits.