Larry Diamond: What's happening to the democracy movement worldwide?

Historians in the News

In the early hours of April 25, 1974, Europe's oldest remaining dictatorship was overthrown by a small cadre of left-wing officers in the Portuguese military. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how that event sparked an unprecedented wave of democratization that would ultimately spread well beyond the streets of Lisbon. Consider that in the mid-1980s, about two in every five states worldwide were democratic. A decade later, it was three in every five states. Though that democratic boom petered out after the mid-1990s, the birth of more than 90 democracies in such a short period of time represents, according to Larry Diamond, "the greatest transformation of the way states are governed in the history of the world."

How did this happen? What are the cultural, economic, political, and international factors that foster and sustain democracy? And perhaps most urgent, why has democracy failed to take root in the Middle East — the only region of the world that does not have a critical mass of democracies? Those are among the questions Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, tackles in The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World (Times Books).

Diamond is primarily intent on showing how George W. Bush's soaring rhetoric about democratic reform in the Middle East has, in light of the failure to stabilize and democratize Afghanistan and Iraq, tarnished the cause of democracy promotion. He strenuously argues against the cynical idea that certain regions, cultures, or societies are incompatible with democracy, pointing to the progress of the past three decades as evidence that democracy is indeed a universal aspiration. "But in order for the promise of a democratic world to be realized," Diamond writes, "the international community will need to do much more to generate the conditions that facilitate democratic development — and do it more wisely."

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