Friday, June 01, 2012

Will democracy survive in Europe?

Given the imminent collapse of the Euro, one blogger posed the question:  "Will democracy survive in Europe?"

I'm not so sure I buy the "locked-in" theory of modern democratic consolidation, which posits that once a nation state becomes democratic, and its culture molds around that political structure, it remains a democracy despite political or economic turmoil.  My personal belief is that historical trends are more a product of trans-national influences that exert changes in the same direction.  It is true that *generally* in the 20th century we've seen a trend towards democracy, but it is also true that the United States and Western Europe have been the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world throughout that century.  The attraction and the influence of the Western democratic model has been strong for the last 150 years.

Look what happened to nations that were within the gravitational pull of powerful non-democratic states, though.  The eastern European states in the Soviet Union's orbit failed to become democratic until the Soviet Union collapsed.  Some of the Asian states around China (Vietnam, North Korea) have stubbornly failed to transition.  In the case of Hong Kong, we have an example of an economically free zone that has become less politically free with the decline of democratic political influence (Britain) and the rise of non-democratic ones (China).  The transnational influence doesn't rely on the presence of a regional power, either:  look at the brotherhood of thugs that have dominated Arab dictatorships for years.  If Jordan was surrounded by Arab democracies, I suspect King Hussein would not be the autocrat that he is.  Lebanon would not be so unstable.  Iraq's transition would certainly be easier if its neighbors were democracies.

In South America, the trend has been towards democracy over two decades when the only superpower in the world was a democracy, but those gains are tenuous.  What happens when the powerful Western democracies continue to wane in influence?  We're going to find out soon enough.  The author of the blog entry above puts the chance of a non-democracy emerging from a European political collapse into something else at 1 in 50.  Here is my prediction:  the chances are 1 in 3.  Greece is the most likely to go; it has a particularly toxic brew of factors that will make it ripe for dictatorship, something it has a fairly recent experience with anyways (as does Spain, coincidentally or maybe not).  Greece is facing a nearly unprecedented economic collapse.  It has an increasingly powerful historic foe (Turkey) on its doorstep, which will only increase feelings of nationalism and militarism.  I've also read reports of a new sense of animosity towards the Western democracies that it would otherwise be emulating.

The people of every age always think they're at the end of history.  Especially given the nearly unprecedented political instability that the United States has experienced over the last 12 years (as far as dysfunctional government is concerned), I think a little caution is warranted.

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