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Democracy Is in Retreat Around the World. Is Another World War in the Offing?

News Abroad
tags: ISIS, ISIL, World War



Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

"Islamic State (IS) insurgents, Anbar Province, Iraq" by Islamic State (IS) Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia.


In little over a century the world has witnessed three great wars. The Western powers, in different alliances, won all three of these global struggles. After each victory came a wave of democratization, creation of new nations and economic growth.

The first wave, coming after the end of a first World War which cost 10 million lives, lasted 15 years. It led to the disintegration of four large empires, an economic boom, the creation of the League of Nations and the roaring twenties. It ended in the 1930s with the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s fascist Italy and militarist Imperial Japan and their early successes in World War II.

After the Western victory (together with the Soviet Union) in World War II, which cost perhaps 60 million lives, the second wave lasted several decades. It saw the end of fascism and militarism, the creation of over 100 new nations, the founding of the United Nations, and the development of the European Union, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The American economy flourished and the United States rose as one of two global superpowers.

The third wave, after the victory in the Cold War, saw the disintegration of the Soviet Union, end of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, demise of Communism, rise of numerous democratic countries, economic growth and the predominance of the United States as the world’s only superpower. By 2000, 120 countries with 40 percent of the world’s population, were democratic and many were on road to economic development.

Now the end of this post-Cold War era is evident. None of the world’s rising powers -- China, Russia, Iran and Turkey -- are democratic. These authoritarian states, basking in the memories of their Imperial Chinese, Tsarist Russian, Persian Empire and Ottoman Turkish past, are looking to regain lost territories from their imperial past. Russia is striving to regain part of Ukraine, China to dominate the South and East China Sea, Iran to take over Iraq and liquidate Israel, and Turkey offering to take back Gaza.

The number of democratic powers is shrinking. Countries like Venezuela, Argentina, Ukraine, Hungary -- even Poland – are moving towards authoritarianism. The Arab Spring of 2011 has failed almost totally to create new democratic countries, except possibly for Tunisia. Instead those countries are often dissolving along religious, ethnic and clan allegiances. Islamic radicalism, led by ISIS, flourishes in the region.

Rising China has remained stoutly authoritarian under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Russia, under Putin’s autocratic rule, has made no move towards democracy. Iran is run by an absolute autocrat, the Grand Ayatollah, and Turkey is increasingly authoritarian under Tayip Erdogyan.  Far right-wing parties, like Maine Le Pen’s National Front, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Fidesz Party under Victor Urban and Holland’s Party for Freedom under Geert Wilder, are flourishing in Europe.

Meanwhile, the United States, with a sluggish annual GDP growth rate and its worst recovery from a deep recession since the 1930s, is doing poorly. Its military will soon be reduced to the level of 1940. In global opinion surveys the United States is voted the #1 global enemy.

Across the Atlantic, the European Union is relatively impotent, with weak power projection capabilities, anemic economy, high unemployment and a growing danger of disintegration of countries like Spain (Catalonia) and England (Scotland).

Even the BRICs are not doing well. Russia and Brazil, both highly corrupt, are sinking with negative economic growth. In Russia the ruble is down by over 50 percent. India is doing better but its GNP/capita is 2 percent, no better than that of the United States. China’s growth rate is declining sharply. With massive corruption and pollution, serious demographic problems, a largely rural population and huge debts (over 240 percent of GNP), China’s future is looking bleaker than anticipated a few years ago. It will not emerge as a superpower for at least two or three decades, if ever.

The popularity of angry candidates like Trump and Cruz for the Republicans and Sanders for the Democrats reflects the American fear of the future. The world is facing chaos. More local and regional wars could destroy the peace and democracy earned at such a high cost by Western countries in three wars. Will the world meet the ultimate fate of a fourth global war in little over a hundred years?



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