Democracy and Transatlantic Community: The Role of Central Europe
This policy brief was originally published on the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Click here to download the complete report.
The Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC), and the Transatlantic Academy (TA) jointly organized an international conference on “Democracy and the Future of the Transatlantic Community” in Warsaw, Poland on 21 May 2013. The event’s timing and location reflected a new wave of concern with democracy’s health (as articulated in TA’s in-depth research report, The Democratic Disconnect, released earlier the same month), reflection by GMF and GCMC on the title topics prompted by milestone anniversaries of their foundings (forty and twenty years, respectively), and the intensified activism in this area by Poland and other countries in Central Europe (as exemplified by establishment of the new European Endowment for Democracy).
This paper draws freely on discussions at the Warsaw conference in an attempt to capture and extend their major points. The scale of present problems does not doom democracy’s future. Though there are no quick fixes, well-focused efforts can yet revitalize the transatlantic community’s internal politics as well as its external support for democratic development.
The State of Democracy and its Promotion
The report TA presented at the conference opens with the sentence: “Democracy is in trouble.” Exhibit A for this conclusion remains the lingering effects of the post-2008 financial crisis. These have reflected and amplified polarization and gridlock in the United States, nationalist populism and fraying solidarity within the European Union, and a decade-long plateau if not decline in the global spread of freedom. In Europe’s surrounding neighborhoods, autocratic and hybrid regimes remain entrenched across a post-Soviet space dominated by an increasingly repressive Russia while the Arab Spring threatens to devolve into a mix of old regime resistance, illiberal Islamist rule, and anarchic violence. Meanwhile, higher growth and surface stability within a rising China cast further doubt on the benefits of democratic governance.
Parallel “fatigue” has sapped enthusiasm for external democracy promotion. The term’s association with forcible regime-change in Iraq continues to cast a shadow. The gap between the limited subsequent results and the human and financial costs involved there and in Afghanistan have likewise pushed large-scale nation-building off the international agenda. Austerity has hit budgets for diplomacy, development, and defense engagement, the last even as new studies reemphasize armed forces’ key role in democratic transitions. Meanwhile, new democratically-conditioned NATO and EU enlargement, the most successful post-Cold War tool in this field, is limited both by members’ internal preoccupations and the smaller remaining pool of ready candidates.
This standard summary is sobering but requires some countervailing perspective. Democracy’s condition today is clearly less precarious than in the 1930s and arguably no worse than at the outset of Huntington’s “Third Wave” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In that latter period, industrialized democracies experienced post-oil shock stagflation. The United States suffered from post-Vietnam, post-Watergate “malaise.” “Eurosclerosis” beset the continent’s West, while martial law in Poland again reversed nascent liberalization in the East. Globally, Soviet-backed Marxists were on the march across the Third World.
Yet within a decade, the outlook had reversed. The Cold War ended. The Single European Act and Maastricht Treaty re-energized the integration project. The U.S. attained unipolar preeminence and started its longest peacetime economic expansion. NATO and the EU opened their doors to over a dozen new members. For the first time in history, a majority of the world’s states embraced at least electoral democracy.
Glimmers of improvement (at least compared to the lowest points of the past few years) also apply to more recent negative trends. Within the United States, a recovering economy and the conclusion of the 2012 elections have slightly tempered the intensity and effects of political polarization. Growth remains slower and more fragile in Europe, but the European Central Bank and other EU bodies have averted a eurozone breakup while achieving compromise on a new seven-year EU budget, laying the groundwork for a banking union, and collecting the Nobel Peace Prize. The EU-mediated, U.S.-backed framework agreement between Serbia and Kosovo in April 2013 advanced integration in the Balkans. Farther afield, reform in Burma could presage broader democratic breakthroughs in East Asia.
To be sure, this relative progress remains partial, and the experience from democracy’s last rough patch, which gave way to a heady golden age, is no guarantee that contemporary problems will prove equally transient. Persistent “politics of scarcity,” driven by accumulated debt, aging societies, and/or climate change, could negate democratic revival. Other technological and societal shifts may further undermine the integrative effects of cohesive identities and formal institutions within modern democracies. Chinese-style market authoritarianism might present a more durably dynamic alternative than Soviet communism, while simultaneous weaknesses of states and societies could leave hybrid regimes the norm in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
Such factors present a formidable collective challenge. On balance, however, there are enough similarities between democracy’s past and present tests to treat even the differences as potentially surmountable.
This policy brief was written by Dr. Matthew Rhodes, professor of National Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and Michal Baranowski, the director of GMF's Warsaw office.
 See Zoltan Barany, The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas (Princeton, 2012) and Dennis Blair (ed.), Military Engagement: Influencing Armed Forces Worldwide to Support Democratic Transitions (Brookings, 2013).
 See Ronald Asmus, “Europe’s Eastern Promise: Rethinking NATO and EU Enlargement,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2008.
 See Diamond, Larry, “The Coming Wave,” Journal of Democracy, January 2012.