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Democracy’s Decline & the Political Economy: Q&A with Kevin Archer

Over the past decade, Freedom House’s Democracy Index has recorded a worldwide decline in ‘freedom,’ while, simultaneously, European analysts have been concerned with a retreat from democracy throughout the European Union. Coupling these concerns with the more recent financial crisis and the rise of China, there has been a growing interest on the topic of democracy’s decline [or the decline of freedom around the world] and ‘the retreat of the state’ [the redistribution of economic power away from the West to Asia, as well as a greater reliance on the free-market to drive and/or manage economic affairs]. In tackling this topic, I reached out to Dr. Kevin Archer.

The former Director of International Studies at Point Loma Nazarene University and current lecturer at the University of Denver Joseph Korbel School of International Studies, Dr. Archer has taught extensively on the international political economy, global governance, US foreign policy, and multilateral negotiation theory. Outside of academia, Dr. Archer is the founder and president of the Institute for Global Education – a university operated study abroad program in Vienna, Austria and soon Athens, Greece – as well as a member of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations.


Do you believe democracy is suffering an intellectual retreat and its attributes – freedom, liberty, and human rights – have waned, worldwide, in recent years? Has the perception of democracy in decline impacted democratic institutions – politically and intellectually – worldwide and initiated an ‘autocratic revival’?

There is certainly an “autocratic revival” in parts of the world. The return to autocracy in Russia is of some importance symbolically if not substantively since Russia was never a well functioning democracy during the Yeltsin years and is certainly not democratic under Putin. But overall I’m not convinced that we are witnessing the decline of democracy as much as we are probably experiencing a fall off in its’ expansion as we come to terms with how difficult it is to develop the necessary civil-society institutions that make democracy functional.

It strikes me that in every case where there is an “autocratic revival” of some kind that the institutions that underpin democracy; constitutionalism, the rule of law, individual liberty, civil and human rights, etc.; were never very strong to begin with or failed to develop entirely.

If we look back 30 years there are certainly more democracies today than during the waning years of the Cold War, so we are still net positive. The more interesting question is whether there will be more democracies 30 years from now? It’s more than likely that all of the current members of the EU will remain functioning democracies as will democracies throughout the Americas and Oceania. Add to that count India and a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia and the likelihood is that democracy will hold its’ ground. With a little assistance you might even see some growth in the number of democracies in Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, as well.

In a similar exasperated tone as the ‘autocratic revival,’ a large amount of ink has been spilled on the viability of the Beijing Consensus. China’s rapid growth has sparked concerns that the East Asian Development Model will replace the Western model of modernization. How effective has the East Asian Development Model been for national and regional development and is it sustainable over the long-term? How has this model impacted regional relations which continue to be strained and are becoming increasingly hostile?

This is a really big question that needs a much fuller discussion than I can provide at this time but my general sense is that what you are calling the East Asian development model is here to stay. Let’s be clear that there is no such thing as “universal development model.” What works in one country may not work in another country and vice versa. The rise of China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, etc. all show some similarities but all developed differently and all have different political systems that underpin their development. Certainly the East Asian Development Model writ large is one in which the state plays an enormous role in development but I’m somewhat unconvinced that this is an “Asian” phenomena given that there is no evidence of any major economy developing without significant state assistance. In terms of the impact of the rise of China on East Asia, obviously this is not a small shift in the power dynamics of the region and given that China will be the world’s largest economy sometime in the near future it seems that as a regional power China will likely have its way on numerous issues. As to future hostilities between China and its’ surrounding neighbors, this is extremely hard to predict as the other regional powers currently seem to be perfectly capable of balancing Chinese behavior in the near term and the long run behavior of any state is impossible to predict.

Turning, now, to the United States, successive administrations have reaffirmed America’s commitment to promote democracy at home and abroad. Last year, a study was published by Princeton University entitled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” that implied that the United States more resembles an oligarchy than a democracy. Should we be concerned that this report, seemingly, surprised no one in the United States? And if this study is accurate – in that the United States resembles and oligarchy more than a democracy – will America’s promotion of its version of democracy abroad cause lesser-developed countries to trend toward new forms of authoritarianism?

The Unites States has a rather complex history for being only 200+ years old and big parts of that history are significant periods of economic inequality. It was really only the latter half of the 20th century that saw a significant leveling of both wealth and income – two areas that are now increasingly showing signs of increasing concentration and inequality. So to some extent “oligarchy” is not abnormal in the American political economy – what is abnormal is the power that a few individuals are exerting over the US political system because of their willingness to spend virtually unlimited amounts of money in support of their favorite candidates and causes.

The impact of this on the “American ideal” is at this point totally unknown but it seems likely that if the United States doesn’t show leadership on the question of easing inequality than less democratically inclined states certainly wont feel any pressure to move in the direction of greater levels of democratic governance.

Though the United States continues to influence other governments, paranoia and secrecy has shrouded its’ politics and it is feared that the on-going fight against non-state actors will only further erode the democratic institutions that define it. How has the current debate over the rule of law – national security versus civil rights/liberties – impacted lesser-developed countries’ perception of democracy? Due to the contestation of this topic, has Western zeal for worldwide democratization ebbed?

The developing world has long been fully aware of the hypocrisy of the United States when it comes to the rule of law, national security, and civil liberties. But the opening of Guantanamo Bay, the passage of the Patriot Act, and the general lawlessness of some members of the American intelligence community damaged the reputation of the United States to a much greater extent than any time since the end of the Cold War. How all of this impacts “democratization” is a bit unclear but there is no doubt that the reputational advantage the United States once had is now largely gone when it come to issues of civil liberties and the rule of law. The West is still interested in expanding democratic governance around the world, but with the reputation of the US in tatters and the Europeans increasingly looking inward there is little movement in the direction of greater support for democratization.

Democracy is not free from flaws and it seems in some regions – particularly Africa or India – there is a perception that democracy hinders national progress. Cases in point, many developing countries rely on exports as a means of economic development; however, in order to be competitive in the world market there must be an element of government intervention [lax regulation and accountability allows for cheap goods and services], which is contrary to the democratic ideology preached by Western nations. Does this stem from a lack of institutional reform, a lack of leadership in developing countries, or a misplaced understanding, in the West, on the correlation between the rise in global capitalism and the decline in democratic institutions?

There is nothing in capitalism that requires the formation of democratic institutions, although it does seem to function more efficiently when market choices are left to market participants and this is more easily accomplished with the base level of personal freedom that democracies typically guarantee. Having said that, it’s also important to remember that there is no single global capitalism. There are many versions of capitalism with the American version at one extreme (heavily laissez-faire) and the Chinese version at the other (heavily state managed). Put more simply, there is no single “global capitalism” and in fact there are many “capitalisms.” Developing countries often have much bigger problems than simply implementing the kinds of market reforms required of a functioning capitalist economy. Since most developing states lack basic institutional structures and civil society is usually weak, fractured, or both they are often not a place to develop the necessary democratic institutions to begin with.