Widespread concerns exist among analysts and policymakers over the current trajectory of democracy around the world. Congress has often played an important role in supporting and institutionalizing U.S. democracy promotion, and current developments may have implications for U.S. policy, which for decades has broadly reflected the view that the spread of democracy around the world is favorable to U.S. interests. The aggregate level of democracy around the world has not advanced for more than a decade. Although the degree of democratic backsliding around the world has arguably been modest overall to this point, some elements of democracy, particularly those associated with liberal democracy, have receded during this period. Declines in democracy that have occurred may have disproportionately affected countries with larger population sizes.
Overall, this data indicates that democracy’s expansion has been more challenged during this period than during any similar period dating back to the 1970s. Despite this, democratic declines to this point have been considerably less severe than the more pronounced setbacks that occurred during some earlier periods in the 20th century. Numerous broad factors may be affecting democracy globally. These include (but are not limited to) the following:
- The growing international influence of nondemocratic governments. These countries may in some instances view containing the spread of democracy as instrumental toward other goals or as helpful to their own domestic regime stability. Thus they may engage in activities that have negative impacts on democracy internationally. At the same time, relatively limited evidence exists to date of a more affirmative agenda to promote authoritarian political systems or norms as competing alternatives to democracy. The state of democracy’s global appeal as a political system.
- Challenges to and dissatisfaction with government performance within democracies, and the concomitant emergence of economically successful authoritarian capitalist states, may be affecting in particular democracy’s traditional instrumental appeal as the political system most capable of delivering economic growth and national prestige. Public opinion polling data indicate that democracy as a political system may overall still retain considerable appeal around the world relative to nondemocratic alternatives.
- Nondemocratic governments’ use of new methods to repress political dissent within their own societies. Tools such as regulatory restrictions on civil society and technology-enhanced censorship and surveillance are arguably enhancing the long-term durability of nondemocratic forms of governance.
- Structural conditions in nondemocracies. Some scholars argue that broad conditions in many of the world’s remaining nondemocracies, such as their level of wealth or economic inequality, are not conducive to sustained democratization.
The importance of these factors to democratization is complex and contested among experts. Wide disagreements and well-worn policy debates persist among experts over whether, or to what extent, the United States should prioritize democracy promotion in its foreign policy. Many debates concern the relevance of democracy promotion to U.S. interests, its potential tension with other foreign policy objectives, and the United States’ capacity to effectively promote democratization. Democracy promotion has arguably not featured prominently in the Trump Administration’s foreign policy to this point, creating potential continued areas of disagreement between some Members of Congress and the Administration. Simultaneously, current challenges around the world present numerous questions of potential consideration for Congress. Broadly, these include whether and where the United States should place greater or lesser emphasis on democracy promotion in its foreign policy, as well as various related questions concerning the potential tools for promoting democracy.