Viewpoint: Robert Beck – Democracy treads water in 2023

Robert Beck

Robert Beck COURTESY PHOTO

Published: 12-08-2023 1:21 PM

In a speech in the House of Commons in 1947, Winston Churchill stated that “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The competition between democracy and “those other forms of government,” now primarily autocracy, remained a mainstay of international relations in 2023. So how did the institution of democracy do over the past year? 

Similar to 2022, there were clearly positive signs for one-person, one-vote supporters while, concurrently, dark autocratic storm clouds persisted as an enduring feature of the geopolitical weather map. Starting with the positive news, the United States, the European Union (EU) and other like-minded allies -- Australia, Canada, Japan and South Korea -- collectively countered Russia’s revanchist military gambit in Ukraine with economic, diplomatic and impressive military support.  The fact that the war has dragged on for almost two years without a Red Army victory is testament to the efforts of democratic nations across the world to thwart the expansionist goals of Russia’s Vladimir (I want to be) the Great. 

Similarly, the much-feared rise of China to overtake the United States as the world’s preeminent power has stalled on the rocks of reality.  China’s strategic challenges come in many forms, including economic woes, political stasis and corruption, demographic decline due the former one-child policy, tensions over Taiwan and growing debt burdens among China’s allies in the One Belt One Road initiative.  In no way do these concerns signify that China will soon recede as America’s primary peer competitor on the geopolitical field of battle, but they do cast doubt on Beijing’s claim of the superiority of its one-party system. 

Furthermore, free and fair elections proceeded smoothly across Europe, signaling an enduring adherence to one of the foundational elements of the democratic experience. In the old world, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Netherlands, Spain, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Greece all held significant national level polls to elect new leaders. Though the results saw victories by a mix of left-center, right-center and populist parties, the peaceful and orderly polls throughout the EU represented a clear rebuke to autocratic gains in other parts of the globe. 

Farther afield, Turkey, New Zealand, Argentina and Liberia held bitterly contested yet lawful and non-violent national elections.  While the victors were not always the preferred choice of western democracy advocates, the citizens of those nations fairly chose their new rulers. Liberia set a particularly positive example as its defeated candidate for president, incumbent George Weah, bucked tradition by graciously conceding defeat to his rival, thereby ensuring a smooth transition of power in the West African nation. 

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On the negative side of the democracy ledger, the autocratic “A team” of China, Russia, North Korea and Iran grew closer over the past year.  Iran and North Korea are supplying armaments to the Red Army for its Ukraine adventure, while China currently represents the primary customer for Iran’s growing oil exports. 

Meanwhile, Russia and China continue to cooperate in international forums to counter the influence of the United States and its allies.  While we are not yet at a “Cold War 2.0” stage, the deepening military, economic and political symbiosis among these autocratic regimes poses an abiding challenge to the post-World War II, American-led liberal-democratic world system. 

Additionally, in the developing world, particularly Africa, democracy had a rough year. That continent’s Sahel region, located between the Sahara desert and the equatorial center to the south, continued to struggle with coups and political instability in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Sudan. These countries possess some of the highest fertility rates in the world, which will likely produce waves of refugees in the coming years headed for Europe, exacerbating an already serious challenge to democracies in the EU.  

Meanwhile, in the United States, 2023 featured a seemingly dysfunctional legislature, an oft-politicized judiciary, a dangerously divided citizenry and aging political leaders. The real trial of democracy in America, however, will come in 2024 with an election that promises to test the old adage that “every country gets the government it deserves.”  The world will be watching. 

Robert Beck of Peterborough served for 30 years overseas with the United States government in embassies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He now teaches foreign policy classes at Keene State College’s Cheshire Academy for Lifelong Learning.