A challenging decade for democracy

31.12.10 Publication:

Journalists often think news is defined in terms of days or even minutes. Politicians seem far-sighted if they think in weeks, or visionary if they can see as far ahead as the next election. Most ordinary folk have memories whose range varies according to the topic, longer for family or career, shorter for political or economic affairs or, especially, other people’s news. Historians, however, like to think in decades, for ten or so years seems to them to be long enough for trends to be set or to change course.

So it is worth asking: what might future historians think was important during the first decade of the 21st century? And will they think the decade was primarily a positive one, in terms of human development or progress, or negative?

The questions are unfair, in part, for future historians have a crucial advantage over us: they know what happened next. This enables them to see the longer-term significance of an event or trend that is harder to judge when seen up close, as well as to see whether the effects proved to be good or bad. This applies most clearly to scientific discoveries—will the completion of the first full human genome in 2003 prove to be a landmark event, opening the way to vast new achievements in medicine and vast dilemmas in psychology and ethics, or is it a false dawn?—but also to economics (think of the euro, born in 1999) and even to geopolitics.

The consensus now is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the financial debacle of 2007-09, will be seen as marking the decline in American prestige and power, power that in 2000 looked globally supreme. It was easy in that year to lose count of the number of analysts likening late Clinton and early Bush-junior America to the Roman empire. George W. Bush said during his election campaign that his country should be “humble but strong”, and few doubted that it would remain at least strong.

Now, thanks to the 19 Al-Qaeda-trained hijackers who on September 11th 2001 flew commercial aircraft into the World Trade Centre in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and (the one failure) a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people, in an extraordinary coup of terrorism, the doubts have changed, and the Roman analogy has shifted from one of hegemony to enfeeblement or even collapse. Power is shifting to Asia, as we all know. Iraq has been a discrediting shambles, Afghanistan a quagmire. American finance is a bad joke. The West has suffered its worst economic crisis since 1945.

The really near-sighted might even add Wikileaks to the evidence for American decline, for the failure to keep diplomatic reports secure is a huge new embarrassment. Yet I wonder if historians will agree. The clue may even lie there, in the cables. What they have shown, so far, is a nation whose diplomats are straight-talkers and not double-dealers, and who really do seem to care about universal values of democracy and human rights.

If that is a good guide to the underlying qualities of America, then the grotesqueries of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and of Guantanamo Bay might, in future, look as much like anomalies as do the My Lai massacre of villagers in Vietnam in 1968. Let us not forget that in the 1970s, following the Vietnam war, the oil shock and then the Iranian revolution, America looked in a serious state of decline—and that was even before another Asian rival, Japan, really looked likely to take over.

The eventual significance of the 21st century’s first decade could, like the 1970s, be a mere rearrangement of world affairs, and not a change in leadership. The past decade has seen the welcome emergence of the Group of 20, as a broader, more inclusive replacement for the Group of Seven (later Eight) that was born in the 1970s when in that era more collective leadership seemed desirable. But if America’s economy now revives, if it retains its technological lead, it could still be the effective chairman of the G20, as it is now.

Even more than that, it will be chairman if it retains or regains moral leadership—which above all means human rights and democracy. For if democracy continues to spread around the world, the West in general but America in particular may well get the historians’ credit—thanks in part to the evidence they will read courtesy of Wikileaks.

That is a big if. Freedom House, the New York-based think tank that monitors the condition of democracy and the freedom of the press around the world, has reported on a worrying slowing of democracy’s progress during the past decade; or even, in some places, regress. Historians, though, will place this alongside the extraordinary progress that occurred during the 1990s, thanks to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, and may not be surprised that democracy was unable in the past decade to match its rapid spread during the previous ten years.

Even so, disappointments in Ukraine’s “Orange” revolution of 2004, rather patchy progress in Africa and the worrying threats to press freedom even in the European Union—now in Hungary and over several years in Italy—cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, we can take some comfort from global statistics—that in 2009, on Freedom House’s reckoning, more than 45% of the world’s population lived in “free” countries, whereas in 2000 the figure was only 40%. The crucial point is that the world’s most populous country, China, remains a dictatorship.

Wikileaks may also, however, give us another clue to a significant trend of the past decade, this time through the gender of the American Secretary of State. Historians will surely note with approval and interest that not only did 2008 bring the first black president, but also that three of the past four Secretaries of State have been women (Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright).

This is, in historical terms, the culmination of trends that began with the broadening of education and with new social attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s, throughout the western world. In addition to those three female American leaders we should currently count one female French finance minister, one female German Chancellor and three female heads of the main business federations in France, Britain and Italy.

Women in leadership positions remain exceptions rather than the rule. But this decade has been the one when the exceptions spread all over. It is also the decade when women became more than half the American workforce, when they filled 6m of the 8m new jobs that were created in the European Union in 2000-09, and when they took a clear majority in the number of university students, both in Europe and America.

Social change creeps up on us, without big events to prompt our memories. This was also the decade when gay marriage became a mainstream topic of debate, and when it became almost unimportant that the German foreign minister is homosexual. It was also the decade when smoking became illegal in bars and restaurants and even public places in most western countries.

Above all, though, it was surely a decade that will be seen as notable for the way in which globalisation turned from being a subject for riots in Seattle and Genoa and instead was seen to be making the world more equal. In 2005, according to the World Bank, there were 1.4 billion people living in absolute poverty, while there had been 1.7 billion in 2000 (and 1.9 billion in 1980). Much of the reason for that is economic growth in China, India and other emerging countries, which has reduced poverty even while the world population has been growing.

As that population passed six billion, heading eventually towards nine, attention inevitably turned towards the threat of disease and conflict. Yet perhaps the most notable thing about a decade in which one new nuclear-weapons state was declared (North Korea), when two recent ones came to the brink of war (India and Pakistan in 2002), and another (Iran) moved closer to that status, is how both conflict and disease in fact retreated rather than expanding.

Historians might just see the decline in conflict as a pause: we cannot now know. But the retreat of disease? There are more people now living with HIV-AIDS (33.3m, according to the United Nations) than in 2001 (28.6m), but the death rate from the disease has been stabilised, thanks to the wider availability of AIDS treatments. Nor has there yet been any global pandemic, whether of Avian flu, SARS or anything else, despite frequent warnings of it.

Scientific progress continues; it is even likely to accelerate, as more and more people in China and India emerge from better education and profit from it, just as our three American female Secretaries of State (and one black president) have done. The same might well, eventually be true of democracy. Here is a reckless prediction: that education and affluence will mean that by 2020 China too will have moved towards, or even to, democracy. Now that really would be a western triumph.