Klaas opened the discussion by asserting that the world is currently undergoing a ‘global crisis of democracy’. Drawing on more than 250 interviews conducted over the past few years, Klaas argued that the West must share the blame for this global democratic decline.

In particular, he highlighted four key arguments which supported his main thesis.

  1. Western governments are resigned to the idea of authoritarianism. Klaas argued that in recent years, western governments have decided that it is easier to interact with the devil they know than the devil they do not. Wary of the post-transition instability which has marked the twenty-first century, western governments no longer have the stomach to advocate for democracy. The problem with this apparently realist attitude, according to Klaas, is that the West will always end up on ‘the losing side’. Authoritarian rulers are not immortal and their state networks are not impenetrable; by siding with strongmen over the professed ideals of democracy, the West looks hypocritical and will ultimately lose influence across the world.
  2. The bar for democracy has been set too low. Even when democracy is present, Klaas argued that western governments have reduced democracy to a ‘tick-box’ exercise which governments can use in order to access aid and development grants. The ‘curse of low expectations’ is particularly acute in countries which are less geopolitically relevant to the West. With the West content to see countries do the bare minimum to qualify as democracies, the whole idea of democracy is undermined. For example, people in these countries recognise that they live what is called a ‘democracy’ but do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as other democracies. As a result, this ‘democracy’ is often considered hollow, and little better than other political systems.
  3. The West needs to offer authoritarians a way out. In the most controversial of his ideas, Klaas proposed that the West needs to offer authoritarian rulers a way out of power that is safe for them and their families. To illustrate the point, he reminded the audience that 43% of authoritarians ruling the various countries of the African continent have been killed or imprisoned once out of power. This creates a logical, rational incentive to stay in power regardless of domestic or international pressure. The West should give incentives for rulers to leave their position before crises emerge. Klaas labelled these incentives “golden handcuffs”.
  4. Democratic transitions require the input of all of society. Klaas argued that the West should advise its democratic partners in transition countries to offer the “unthinkable olive branch” to former regime members. To illustrate the point, he compared the chaos of Iraq’s de-baathification, which immediately gutted the country’s bureaucracy and removed anyone with any experience from positions of power, to Tunisia’s more peaceful transition which has been the result of a conscious policy of inclusion by both Islamist and more secular parties.

In his concluding remarks Klaas argued that the West can reinvigorate democracy if it wanted to. With incentives like access to lucrative western markets, the West has the tools to do so. In an age of increasing competition from other powers, it would be wise to start aligning its policy with its rhetoric.

About the Speakers

Brian Klaas is a Fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, where he focuses on democratisation and political violence. He has advised several national governments and major international NGOs and is a regular contributor to LI’s Democracy Lab.

Anne Applebaum leads the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum. She is also a columnist for the Washington Post and Slate, and the author of several books, including Gulag: A History, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction as well as other awards. Her most recent book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1946, won the 2013 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature and was nominated for a national book award in the US. Since 1989, her journalism has frequently focused on the politics of transition in Russia, central Europe and other former communist states, but she has also written extensively about British, American and European politics and international relations.