Copyright © 1996 National Endowment for Democracy and the Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes within a subscribed institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the JHU Press.
Journal of Democracy 7.2 (1996) 3-13

Democracy For The Long Haul

Samuel P. Huntington

I was last in Taipei in January 1989, participating in a conference on political change in Taiwan co-sponsored by the Institute of International Relations of National Chengchi University and the Harvard Center for International Affairs. At that time, as a result of the leadership of President Lee Teng-hui, the process of political change was well under way and was becoming a process of democratization. Martial law had been lifted; the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had been formed; electoral competition was expanding; legislative debates had become vigorous; press censorship was on the way out; social movements and social groups were organizing, demanding, and protesting. The conference itself was also a small part of this process, as the first public meeting in which both Kuomintang (KMT) and DPP officials took part.

The changes taking place here in 1989 were, of course, part of the vast third wave of democratization that had begun 15 years earlier in Southern Europe, and then moved on to Latin America and Asia. By 1989 this wave was in full flood, reaching its crest at the end of the year with the collapse of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, which was soon followed by the disintegration of the USSR.

These events generated a swelling tide of euphoria. Many believed that a global democratic revolution was under way, that liberal democracy was soon destined to triumph everywhere, that history was [End Page 3] at an end, and that, as Francis Fukuyama put it, we might be approaching "the end point of man's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." 1 Similar euphoric expectations had appeared at the end of this century's other major conflicts. The First World War was thought to be the "war to end all wars" and the war to make the world safe for democracy. The Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt said, would lead to a new security system that would "end the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries--and have always failed." Instead, we would have "a universal organization" of "peace-loving Nations" and the beginnings of a "permanent structure of peace." 2 The First World War, however, generated communism, fascism, and the reversal of the century-old first wave of democratization. The Second World War produced a Cold War that was truly global.

Now, six years after the collapse of European communism, our euphoric moment has passed, and we too have become sadder but wiser. A single dominating ideological conflict has given way to a multiplicity of ethnic conflicts, the stability of a bipolar world to the confusion and instability of a multipolar and multicivilizational world, and the potential horror of global nuclear war to the daily horror of ethnic cleansing. The word "genocide" has been heard far more often in the past five years than it was in any half-decade during the Cold War.

In this sobering world, we need to have a sober view of the prospects for democracy and to recognize the possibility that this great third wave of democratization, having brought democracy to some 40 countries, may be losing its outward dynamic and moving from a phase of expansion to one of consolidation.

Among scholars of democratization, a major debate goes on concerning the issue of crafting versus preconditions. Some argue that movement toward democracy depends on the existence within society of particular social, economic, or cultural preconditions, although there is much disagreement over what those preconditions are. A different school of thought sees democratization as primarily the product of political leaders who have the will and the skill to bring it about. Clearly, however, both preconditions and crafting have roles to play, and certain preconditions can facilitate democratic crafting. These include a relatively high level of economic development and the prevalence of what can be termed Western culture and values, including Western Christianity. At present, virtually all of the non-oil-producing high-income or upper-middle-income countries, with the exception of Singapore, are demo-cratic. Similarly, all of the countries that are Western or that have been influenced substantially by the West, with the exception of Cuba and perhaps one or two others, have become democratic. The countries that have not democratized are those in which the conditions favoring [End Page 4] democratization are weak. This is not to say that these conditions are required for democratization. They are not: non-Christian, nonwealthy India is an obvious case in point. Almost all the remaining nondemocracies in the world, however, are either poor, non-Western, or both. Their democratization is not impossible, but it is likely to be more difficult. In addition, many non-Western societies are going through pervasive processes of cultural indigenization. They increasingly resist Western attempts to export Western values and institutions and are searching for identity and meaning in their own cultural traditions.

Economic development can alter a country's culture and make it more supportive of democracy. If it occurs, economic development will presumably have this effect on Islamic, Buddhist, Eastern Orthodox, and Confucian societies. But apart from East Asia, economic development lags in much of the world, and in East Asia cultural change is likely to be a lengthy process. Recent transitions to democracy have served the historically important function of extending democracy throughout almost all the wealthier countries in the world and almost all countries that have largely Western cultures. Efforts to extend democracy further face much more significant economic and cultural obstacles than did the democratizations of the past two decades.

History unfolds in a dialectical fashion. Any substantial movement in one direction tends eventually to lose its momentum and to generate countervailing forces. Each of the first two waves of democratization was followed by a reverse wave in which some but not all of the new democracies reverted to authoritarianism. There are indications that a new reverse wave may be gathering which could lead to the erosion of some third-wave gains. This again places a premium on the need to bolster and protect those gains. In some respects the democratic expansion since 1974 can be thought of as a military campaign, with country after country being liberated by the surging democratic forces. As any general knows, however, an offensive can advance too far too fast. Forces become overextended and vulnerable to counterattack. Even in the most dramatic of advances, such as that of the Allied armies across France in 1944, it becomes necessary to pause, regroup, and consolidate one's gains. It appears that the third wave of democratization may have reached that point.

Problems of Democratization

In the coming years, more countries will undoubtedly move toward democracy and some democratic transitions will occur. The established democracies should continue to promote democracy and human rights where they are absent and to support democratic opponents of authoritarian regimes. At this time, however, the primary emphasis needs to be placed on consolidation. The dominant theme should be not the creation [End Page 5] of additional democracies but the consolidation of recently established democracies and the completion of the transitions to democracy already under way, especially in such key countries as Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, and Mexico.

The difficulties that new democracies face include problems inherited from their authoritarian predecessors, as well as others peculiar to democracy and democratizing societies. Democratization is the solution to the problem of tyranny, but the process of democratization itself can also create or exacerbate other problems with which new democracies must then grapple. I will mention three.

First, the initiation of elections forces political leaders to compete for votes. In many situations, the easiest way to win votes is to appeal to tribal, ethnic, and religious constituencies. Democratization thus promotes communalism and ethnic conflict, and relatively few new democracies have structured their institutions to minimize the incentives to make such appeals. In one notable case where this was done, South Africa, the leaders of the main parties representing the principal ethnic groups agreed before the election on what the outcome of the voting should be. The result was a peaceful transition from white to black rule but not exactly an exemplar of democracy. In the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, in contrast, the first elections brought nationalist parties to power, virtually ensuring the breakup of those countries. Similarly, in Bosnia voters conspicuously ignored the multireligious parties: Serbs voted for the Serb party, Croats for the Croat party, and Muslims for the Muslim party. People identify with family, faith, and blood, and unless the rules of electoral engagement are very carefully constructed, politicians competing for office have little choice but to appeal for votes in these terms. In non-Western societies, the introduction of democracy also creates what can only be described as "the democracy paradox." It facilitates the coming to power of groups that appeal to indigenous ethnic and religious loyalties and are very likely to be anti-Western and antidemocratic.

Second, democratization can make foreign war more likely. It is true that overwhelming evidence shows that democracies do not, except in rare, marginal circumstances, fight wars against other democracies. This has been particularly true in the years since World War II. 3 In a recent study, however, Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder present impressive evidence, covering the same period of time, which shows that in the "transitional phase of democratization, countries become more aggressive and war-prone, not less. . . . democratizing states are more likely to fight wars than are mature democracies or autocracies. States like contemporary Russia that make the biggest leap in democratization--from total autocracy to extensive mass democracy--are about twice as likely to fight wars in the decade after democratization as are states that remain autocracies." 4 This proclivity of emerging democracies [End Page 6] for interstate war stems in part, of course, from the same incentives to make communal appeals that also stimulate ethnic conflict within democratizing states.

Third, democratization involves the removal of state constraints on individual behavior, a loosening of social inhibitions, and uncertainty and confusion about standards of morality. By weakening state authority, as it must, democratization also brings into question authority in general and can promote an amoral, laissez-faire, or "anything goes" atmosphere. Hence, although the evidence is sketchy and unsystematic, democratization appears to involve an increase in socially undesirable behavior, including crime and drug use, and possibly to encourage disintegration of the family and other bastions of collective authority.

These problems of communal conflict, foreign war, and social decay, produced in some measure by the processes of democratization, join the many other problems that new democracies have inherited from the previous authoritarian regimes. While confronting these challenges, third-wave democracies also face some distinctive new threats to the maintenance of the essential elements of liberal democracy.

During the 1960s and 1970s, second-wave democracies were threatened by forces from outside the political system. In many countries Marxist-Leninist insurgencies, usually but not always with a rural base, challenged both democratic and nondemocratic incumbent regimes. Military interventions overthrew democratic regimes in Greece, Turkey, South Korea, Pakistan, and many Latin American countries. These threats reflected the still relatively underdeveloped nature of the economies of these second-wave democracies. They still had substantial peasant populations that could provide a base for revolutionary movements, and their middle class and bourgeoisie, which were small and weak, often felt threatened by populist and lower-class movements, and hence acquiesced in military seizures of power.

Most third-wave democracies are at much higher levels of economic development. In 1965, for instance, Latin America was 70 percent rural and 70 percent illiterate; it is now 70 percent urban and 70 percent literate. The threats to democracy in urban, literate, middle-class, industrial societies will not come from peasant revolutions, the last fading remnants of which can be seen in Chiapas, the Peruvian highlands, and central Luzon. Nor are military interventions likely to pose threats to such societies. Successful coups have occurred only in extremely poor third-wave democracies, such as Sudan, Nigeria, Haiti, and more recently São Tomé and Príncipe and Niger. As I have suggested elsewhere, it is even possible to conceive of a "coup-attempt ceiling" at about $3,000 per-capita GNP and a "coup-success ceiling" at about $1,000. 5 In countries with per-capita incomes below $1,000, coups are often attempted [End Page 7] and are usually successful; in countries with per-capita incomes between $1,000 and $3,000, coups are often attempted but are rarely successful; in countries with per-capita incomes above $3,000, coups are rarely attempted and almost never succeed. In addition, the coups that have been attempted against third-wave democracies have usually been led by field-grade officers, lieutenant colonels in particular, rather than by commanders-in-chief. Top military leaders have generally learned that military intervention is no solution to the problems of their countries and creates severe problems for the cohesion of their military establishments.

New Dangers

Threats to third-wave democracies are likely to come not from generals and revolutionaries who have nothing but contempt for democracy, but rather from participants in the democratic process. These are political leaders and groups who win elections, take power, and then manipulate the mechanisms of democracy to curtail or destroy democ-racy. In the past, when democratic regimes fell as a result of coups or revolutions, no doubt existed as to what happened, and the transition to authoritarianism was brief, clear, and dramatic. With third-wave democracies, the problem is not overthrow but erosion: the intermittent or gradual weakening of democracy by those elected to lead it.

These threats take various shapes. One, which I do not believe to be serious but which has received much attention, is the "red return"--that is, the restoration to power through elections of former communists and former communist parties in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Indeed, apart from the Czech Republic, most of the leaders in all these countries are former communists. In some, old communist parties with new names have won majorities in parliament. In others, coalitions dominated by former communists have control of the government. In several, former communists reconfigured as nationalists have been elected to office. These developments have led observers to express deep concern about the future of democracy in these countries. So far, however, former communists and former communist parties have generally played by the democratic rules, and their economic policies have varied from stringent liberalization to softer social-democratic policies designed to lessen the burdens of shifting away from the command economy. It is conceivable that the red return may at some point undermine democracy, and to date Slovakia is, I believe, the only case where a government dominated by former communists has been voted out of office--and there it subsequently won reelection. But perhaps all that the red return signifies is that people who have the political talent to rise to the top in communist systems also have the political talent to rise to the top in democratic systems.

A second potential threat to new democracies comes from the electoral victory of parties or movements apparently committed to [End Page 8] antidemocratic ideologies. This possibility arises most directly with Islamic fundamentalist groups and has been rare only because meaningful elections in Muslim countries have been so rare. The issue did come up, however, in Algeria in 1992, when the military cancelled the election that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was certain to win. The issue could appear in Turkey, where the Welfare Party has been increasing its strength and won the most votes in the most recent parliamentary elections. Does the possible or actual victory of such parties justify the suspension of democratic procedures? In general, I believe the answer is no. With respect to Algeria, for instance, it is by no means clear that a fundamentalist movement that comes to power through the electoral process will necessarily act in the same way as one that achieves power through a revolution (as in Iran) or a coup (as in Sudan). In addition, there would have been powerful incentives for the FIS to act in a moderate and reasonable manner in order to secure the aid and investment it needed from the West. Finally, if a FIS government had moved in an extremist direction and begun to destroy democracy, the "Pinochet option" would still have been available. The Algerian army could have intervened in the same way that the Chilean army did when Allende's government moved sharply to the left. France, the United States, and the West in general did democracy a serious disservice in not preventing the preemptive action by the Algerian military and in not vigorously protesting that action when it did occur.

A third, more serious threat to democracy is executive arrogation, which occurs when an elected chief executive concentrates power in his own hands, subordinates or even suspends the legislature, and rules largely by decree. This has happened in some measure in Russia, in Belarus, and in some other former communist countries. It has also been prevalent in Latin America, where it has been variously referred to as "authoritarian democracy," "bounded strongmen," "caudillos by consent," and "delegative democracy." In Argentina and Venezuela, presidents have ruled largely by decree. In 1995, the president of Colombia, faced with charges of massive drug-related corruption, declared a state of emergency and announced that he would rule by decree for the next three months. In the most extreme case, President Fujimori carried out a full-scale executive coup in Peru, shutting down the legislative and judicial branches and political parties, imprisoning politicians and intellectuals, censoring the media, and drastically curtailing human rights. He then, however, used his authoritarian power to break the influence of the terrorist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), restore law and order, stabilize the currency, promote foreign investment, achieve the highest rate of economic growth in Latin America, and win overwhelming reelection in what was generally considered to be a fair vote. In a somewhat similar manner, President Menem of Argentina won reelection largely on the basis of results he achieved by the use of undemocratic [End Page 9] means. Do these exercises of emergency powers and suspensions of democracy provide a means of strengthening democracy by enabling governments to achieve desirable goals that cannot be achieved by normal democratic procedures? Or is executive arrogation likely to feed on itself and become a political addiction from which the society will be unable to escape? Immediately after Fujimori's coup, Secretary of State James Baker publicly attacked it, saying, "You can't save democracy by destroying it." But perhaps Fujimori did precisely that.

Finally, many governments in new democracies have not hesitated to abridge political rights and civil liberties. Freedom of the press is limited, television and radio are strictly controlled by the government, editors are fired, editorial guidelines are imposed. Opposition politicians are harassed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Legitimate claims by ethnic minorities are rebuffed. Such minorities have been subjected to brutal suppression in democracies like India and Turkey just as they have been in nondemocracies like Indonesia and China.

A general tendency seems to exist for third-wave democracies to become something other than fully democratic. In its Comparative Survey of Freedom for 1995, for instance, Freedom House identified 114 countries as democracies--more than at any other time in history. Yet it also classified 37 (or one-third) of these democracies as only "partly free," because of their abridgements of basic political liberties and human rights. Similarly, Larry Diamond, in a masterful 1993 analysis of Latin American democracy, identifies 4 clearly democratic countries, 3 authoritarian or totalitarian countries, and 15 countries that fall into one of four intermediate categories: "partially illiberal democracy," "com-petitive semidemocracy," "restrictive semidemocracy," and "semicom-petitive partially pluralist authoritarian." 6 Between 1987 and 1993, moreover, the overall movement of Latin American countries was toward these intermediate categories, with 11 of the 22 countries becoming less democratic, 5 becoming more democratic, and 6 not changing their position. On the democratic-nondemocratic continuum, in short, we seem to be moving toward a classic bell-shaped curve, with a growing number of countries somewhere in the middle between Denmark and China. More generally, perhaps, one could say that as formal democratic institutions are adopted by more and more diverse societies, democracy itself is becoming more differentiated. Significant differences exist among Anglo-American, German, and Japanese capitalism; comparable differences may be emerging among Western, Latin American, East Asian, Eastern Orthodox, and African versions of democracy.

Surveying the Alternatives

Democracy, as Winston Churchill famously observed, is the worst form of government, except for all the others. What happens, however, [End Page 10] if there are no others? That, in effect, is the situation in the wealthy industrialized democracies of the world. In these countries, however, people have become pervasively alienated from politics and public discourse, deeply cynical about their political leaders, decreasingly involved in political and other social organizations, and less and less trustful of other people. These attitudes perhaps reflect the absence of an alternative political system or ideology competing with democracy. If the choice is the "worst system" of government or no system of government, people may well prefer the latter.

Is this the situation, however, with respect to the new democracies of the third wave? Do they have alternatives to democracy? At one level, none exists because throughout most of the world it is necessary to pay deference to the ideas and procedures of democracy; the legitimacy of a government depends on the extent to which it can make a plausible claim to represent the will of the people. Yet this is not universally the case, and at least two alternatives to democracy have been advanced in the postcommunist world. One is the Islamist alternative, a political system based on the Koran and the shari`a, merging politics and religion in the ummah, or community of the faithful. The political institutions of an Islamist system, however, remain unclear and varied, and range from the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia to the circumscribed, religiously defined semidemocracy of Iran. Moreover, no society explicitly organized in terms of Islam has achieved the economic success or the political order that would give it a more general appeal, and the Islamist alternative has so far had relatively little appeal even to Muslims.

A second, much more significant, potential alternative to democracy is "Asian authoritarianism." The appeal here, of course, lies in the remarkable economic success of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore under nondemocratic systems of government, a record of economic growth now being duplicated in some measure by Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and, most importantly, mainland China. Except for another East Asian society, Japan, no democratic country has sustained for as long a period of time the 8 percent or higher growth rates that these countries have achieved under authoritarian rule. This achievement has tremendous appeal elsewhere, especially among the former Soviet republics. The case for the East Asian model is also bolstered by theoretical arguments first articulated in the concept of the "new authoritarianism" developed in mainland China in the late 1980s. This doctrine provided a theoretical substitute for Marxism-Leninism that would justify abandonment of totalitarianism, movement toward a market economy, and the maintenance of an authoritarian political system. More recently, similar arguments have been expounded by Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia and, most notably, by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and other scholars and officials from Singapore. The last few [End Page 11] years, indeed, have seen what might be termed a "Singaporean cultural offensive." The Singaporeans argue that fundamental differences exist between Asian values of community, order, discipline, and respect for authority and Western values of liberty, license, individualism, and disrespect for authority. The latter, Lee and his associates say, have led to the social decay and moral disintegration of Western societies; in order to prevent similar developments in their own societies, they must resist Western pressures for human rights and democracy. What people want and need, they argue, is not democratic government but good government--that is, government that will provide economic well-being, political stability, social order, communal harmony, and efficient and honest administration.

The contrast between this model and the democratic model is often set forth in terms of the contrast between Singapore and Taiwan, a contrast that is real if often exaggerated--as in the recent New York Times headline that summed it up as the difference between "clean and mean," on the one hand, and "filthy and free," on the other. As that article also pointed out, Taiwan and Singapore are the two most successful Chinese societies in the 5,000-year history of Chinese civilization, and one or the other is likely to be the model for the future of mainland China. 7

Some authoritarian governments, Singapore's among them, have been remarkably successful in producing economic prosperity, social order, and general well-being. Other authoritarian governments, however, have been total disasters, producing economic catastrophe, domestic violence, pervasive corruption, and severe social inequalities. Authoritarian governments suffer from two profound and inherent weaknesses. First, they lack feedback mechanisms and hence they tend to ignore emerging disasters. As Amartya Sen has pointed out, a democratic country like India may not achieve the same high growth rates that a nondemocratic country like China does, but it also does not suffer from famines as China has. 8 Politicians concerned about reelection will not let their people starve. Second, the argument that authoritarian rule produces good government assumes that authoritarian rulers are good people. It is, however, far from certain that this is the case, and even rulers who initially aspire to be good and to do good can be corrupted by the temptations of power. The case for authoritarianism, in short, rests on unrealistic assumptions about human nature.

Singaporeans speak with justified pride about the lack of corruption in their political system, an achievement made possible by the example and discipline of Lee Kuan Yew. Yet while authoritarian rule may provide good government for a decade, or even a generation, it cannot provide--and throughout history never has provided--good government over a sustained period of time. It lacks the institutions for self-reform: public debate, a free press, protest movements, opposition political [End Page 12] parties, and competitive elections. Democracy, in contrast, is based on a much more realistic and complex view of human nature and on the recognition that (as James Madison put it) "ambition must be made to counteract ambition." The basis for democracy was perhaps best expressed in the famous comment by Reinhold Niebuhr: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." 9 The freedom and creativity that President Lee has introduced in Taiwan will survive him. The honesty and efficiency that Senior Minister Lee has brought to Singapore are likely to follow him to his grave. In some circumstances, authoritarianism may do well in the short term, but experience clearly shows that only democracy produces good government over the long haul.

Samuel P. Huntington is Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor and director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous books, including The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991). The present essay was first presented at a conference on "Consolidating Third Wave Democracies: Trends and Challenges" held on 27-30 August 1995 in Taipei, Taiwan, under the auspices of the Institute for National Policy Research of Taipei and the International Forum for Democratic Studies of Washington, D.C.


1. Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History," The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989): 4.

2. "Address to the Congress Reporting on the Yalta Conference," 1 March 1945, in Samuel I. Rosenman, ed., Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt (New York: Russell and Russell, 1969), 13:586.

3. Henry S. Farber and Joanne Gowa, "Politics and Peace," International Security 20 (Fall 1995): 123-46. There is a rich literature hotly debating the "democratic peace" thesis. For recent exchanges, see Christopher Layne, "Kant or Cant: The Myth of Democratic Peace," International Security 19 (Fall 1994): 5-49; David Spiro, "The Insignificance of the Liberal Peace," International Security 19 (Fall 1994): 50-86; "Correspondence: The Democratic Peace," International Security 19 (Spring 1995): 164-84; Bruce M. Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

4. Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder, "Democratization and the Danger of War," International Security 20 (Summer 1995): 5-6.

5. Samuel P. Huntington, "Reforming Civil-Military Relations," Journal of Democracy 6 (October 1995): 14-16.

6. Larry Diamond, "Democracy in Latin America: Degrees, Illusions, and Directions for Consolidation," forthcoming in Tom Farer, ed., Beyond Sovereignty: Collectively Defending Democracy in a World of Sovereign States (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

7. New York Times, 5 February 1995, E1, E4. It might be noted that a synthesis of seven surveys of corruption in 41 countries rated Singapore the third least-corrupt (after New Zealand and Denmark), while Hong Kong ranked seventeenth, Taiwan twenty-fifth, and China next to last, exceeded in corruption only by Indonesia. New York Times, 20 August 1995, E3.

8. Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 210-15.

9. Reinhold Niebuhr, Children of Light and Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950), xi.