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  • Democracy and Globalization: Nineteen Eighty-nine and the “Third Wave”

Nineteen eighty-nine stands out as a dramatic divide in contemporary history, in some respects comparable to the French Revolution two hundred years earlier, in some to the “spring of nations” in 1848. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union inaugurated a new era in international relations. But the political transformations that took place around 1989 were global in their range. Parallel to the events in Europe a process of democratic reform ran its course in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. By the beginning of the 1980s most Latin American countries were under some form of military rule; by 1992 all except two had elected heads of state. As late as the beginning of 1989, thirty-eight out of forty-five African countries were under military or one-party regimes, and in the opinion of a prominent Africanist writing at that time, it was “unlikely that new African democracies will be created in the coming years.” 1 Two years later thirty-one African countries had become multiparty states with elected assemblies. In Asia similar pressures for democratic reform were increasing, from the overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines in 1986, to the first free elections in South Korea and Taiwan in 1987, and to the democratic risings in China and Thailand in 1989 and 1992. 2 [End Page 391]

This is what Samuel Huntington has called “the third wave of democratization in the modern era.” 3 In his scheme of periodization, the first wave started with the revolutions in the Americas in the early nineteenth century and culminated with the establishment of the new democracies at the end of World War I. The second wave is represented by the Allied victory in 1945 and the subsequent decolonization process in the Third World. Both waves, however, were followed by reverse movements toward authoritarianism. The third wave began with the fall of the dictatorships in Spain and Portugal in 1975–76 and culminated in the years immediately after 1989. On the face of it, the extent of this wave is impressive: the number of democratic countries—we will return to definitions—rose from 78 to 138, and the percentage of democracies out of the total number of countries rose from 44% to 72%.

However, the notion of a “third wave” needs to be broken up. The process of democratization differed in rhythm and chronology. In Latin America several countries had experienced a pendulum change between forms of democracy and authoritarianism ever since independence in the nineteenth century, and the “third wave” there had already begun in the first half of the 1980s, influenced inter alia by the events in Spain and Portugal. In Asia as well, the pressure for democratic reform was, as we have seen, apparent before 1989, stimulated by specific local conditions.

The form of political transition also varied. The authoritarian starting points differed: one-party systems, military regimes, personal dictatorships. Further, Huntington differentiates among three broad types of political change: “transformation,” with the regime in control of the process, as in Hungary, Spain, and several Latin American countries; [End Page 392] “replacement,” where opposition groups took the lead and the authoritarian regimes collapsed or were overthrown, as in the Philippines, Argentina, East Germany, and Romania; and finally “transplacement,” when democratization resulted from joint action by government and opposition groups, as in the Round Table arrangements of Eastern Europe.

Finally, it is necessary to distinguish among results, for there are many forms of democracy. A minimum criterion is multiparty elections to a national assembly. But examples abound as to how this can be combined with various forms of discrimination against political opposition, manipulations at elections, curtailment of personal freedoms, limited constitutional powers for the assembly, and continued privileges for military or oligarchic elites. The concepts of “militarized democracies” in Latin America and “authoritarian democracies” in Asia indicate the limitations of such “formal democracies.” There is a clear contrast between these and what we may call “real democracies” or “liberal democracies,” based on plural societies, rule of law, a neutral military, and personal freedoms. 4

The third wave was divided almost equally between the two categories of democracy up to the culmination in 1992. Since that time there has again been a reverse development, in that many formal democracies, especially in Africa and the former Soviet Union, have fallen back into forms of authoritarian rule. Thus, between 1992 and 1995 the number of authoritarian countries increased from 38 to 53, the percentage of such countries going up from 20% to 28% of the total.

Still, the reduction from 44% of countries being classified as nondemocratic before the third wave is significant. 5 And even if the third wave can be broken down into separate regional processes, each country in the final resort having its own variation of the story, there remains the problem of global extension and confluence in time, particularly the culmination around 1989.

An interesting point of departure is the fact that the democratic revolutions, particularly the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, [End Page 393] seemed to take everybody by surprise, political leaders as well as academic observers. 6 This naturally became a cause of concern, not least in the discipline of political science, with its ambition toward generalization and prognosis. But so-called structural history was also touched by the problem. An interesting debate has since taken place in political science, mainly dealing with the consequences of 1989 for theory in the discipline. 7 The events in Eastern Europe have been extensively studied from the perspective of several disciplines, including history. 8 Similarly, democratic reform in the Third World has been amply dealt with, particularly in political science, mainly in the form of separate regional studies. 9 In comparison, there has been little attention to the global nature of the change around 1989 and little comparative research on the reform process in the different regions.

The argument of the present article is that the democratization processes around 1989 can only be fully understood against a background of global systemic and normative integration. The social science literature on globalization is enormous and rapidly growing, and the article does not aim to encompass and survey this theoretical field. 10 Instead, the aim is more pragmatic: namely, to draw on such [End Page 394] theories of globalization as may help to explain 1989. But let us start by briefly reviewing some traditional approaches to the explanation of 1989.

International Relations, Modernization, and Diffusion

International relations as a subdiscipline of political science developed during the Cold War, and in America (and Scandinavia) was dominated by the schools of realism and neo-realism. They took the sovereign nation-state as the basic unit of analysis and emphasized the struggle for power and security in an anarchic international system determined by mutual threat perceptions. In contrast, the so-called English school in international relations put more emphasis on international law and institutions, justifying the concept of “international society.11

Up to a point the realist approach can explain what happened around 1989: the new armament spiral during the 1980s proved the superior economic and technological power of the United States and clearly made even Soviet military leaders aware that internal reform was needed to protect superpower status. The new conciliatory policy toward the West implied that Soviet forces would not be used to protect the regimes of east-central Europe, a necessary precondition for the subsequent victory of the democratic revolutions. However, realist theory, with its concentration on relations between states, had little to say about the domestic reasons for the weakening and final dissolution of the Soviet Union—namely, nationalism, liberal ideas, and social movements. The same could be said about Eastern European studies in general; they had concentrated on regimes, elites, and interstate relations under Soviet hegemony to the neglect of Eastern European society, from where the democratic reform movements rose. 12

In the Third World the end of the Cold War and the fall of the [End Page 395] Soviet Union drastically weakened economic and military support for Marxist regimes and undermined the prestige of the socialist model of development. The Americans, on their side, reduced their support of authoritarian regimes that had been their allies during the Cold War, particularly in Latin America, and in some cases began pressing for reform, as in Chile after 1985 and in Zaire and Kenya in the early 1990s. All Third World regimes lost international bargaining power when the Cold War ended. However, economic and political reform in Latin America and Asia, as noted above, had started well before 1989. Thus the end of the Cold War cannot be considered either a necessary precondition or a sufficient cause for the democratization in these regions, even if it accelerated the process.

An alternative approach has been to invoke general modernization theory. One example is Jürgen Kocka’s analysis of the events in Eastern Europe: a modern industrial economy, whether of a socialist or capitalist nature, will create social groups, particularly middle strata, that even under authoritarian regimes will develop new networks and proceed to demand space for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and political participation. Moshe Lewin provides a similar explanation of the background to Gorbachev’s reforms. 13 The formula is simple: in the long run modernization points toward democracy, although history provides numerous examples of periods of modernization under authoritarian rule.

This is a theory of global relevance—although Kocka is hesitant on this point. Middle-class groups of liberal inclination spearheaded the reform movements in Latin America during the 1980s, in shifting alliances with labor and popular forces. New middle classes also played an important role in the opposition against authoritarian regimes in East and Southeast Asia, from the Philippines in 1985 to Thailand in 1992. Developments in China raised the question of whether it would be possible for a communist regime to carry out economic reforms without losing political control—that is, modernization without democracy. A special variant of modernization logic, of particular relevance to developments in Eastern Europe, refers to the demands of the new information technology for openness, flexibility, and decentralization to be fully productive. This was a logic accepted by Gorbachev when [End Page 396] he introduced his glasnost campaign, and it stood in striking contrast to the 1950s and 1960s, when there was a widespread belief, held also in the West, that centralized management of the economy was a key to accelerated development.

But modernization theory, relating to separate but parallel national processes, can only take us part of the way toward explaining 1989. The main problem is that the level of modernization differed too widely among the main regions to explain the global and simultaneous character of the democratic reform movements. Thus African democratic risings, although led by oppositional elite groups, did not have much of a modern middle class for their support, but relied mainly on students and the urban populace.

In the case of Eastern Europe, modernization theory fails to explain the abrupt nature of the events of 1989. Thus Kocka concludes that other causes must be considered in order to explain the unexpected: the Tocqueville effect (classes on the rise spurred on to revolution by concessions from the regime), the role of personalities, the autonomy of the political sphere, and the effect of external events on national developments. In addition, he makes the important point that history is a “probability discipline”; human behavior and historical process can never be wholly explained by causal statements. The past must be given back some of the openness of the present.

A third prevalent explanation for the global wave of democratization around 1989 is diffusion. To stress the importance of external impulses in setting off the various national revolutions is to state the obvious, for in this respect 1989 was no different from 1789, 1848, 1918—and 1968. But in comparison to the past, television provided a powerful new instrument of diffusion. This manifested itself most dramatically in the chain reactions in Eastern Europe. Similarly, television images from the risings in Eastern Europe and China were transmitted to the rest of the world with immediate effect. In Cameroon the local police was dubbed “Securitate,” and in Togo students named their square of demonstration in the capital “Tienanmen.”

But it is difficult to define the specific causal effect of the mass media in setting off the risings; the seed must have a fertile soil if it is to strike root. 14 Nobody will claim that external impulses were a sufficient cause of the democratic risings in and after 1989, in the manner [End Page 397] that an infection can be a sufficient cause of an inflammation. But external impulses must be given weight as contributory and releasing factors, important to the timing of events.

Our preliminary conclusion must be that neither international relations, modernization, nor diffusion can give a full explanation of the similar and largely simultaneous processes of democratization in the different regions of the world around 1989. We need to transcend the notions of an international system of sovereign states, of separate national processes of modernization, and of diffusion as a transmission of impulses across state borders. To explain 1989 satisfactorily, we must in addition introduce the notions of international society and global society. This implies inter alia that the sharp distinction between internal and external causes of national development is modified and replaced by a notion of interaction within larger systems—ultimately, global society—with a range of actors beside the state, from multinational corporations and networks of private organizations to international media and institutions.

The discussion about the concept of “society” is an old one in the social sciences. We have mentioned the English school in international relations, with its emphasis on the rules and institutions created by the states in their dealings with each other: this is what justifies the notion of international society as something different from an anarchic system of sovereign national states. It can be argued that the rules and institutions of the world market must come under the same category of international society. The term global society or world society, in contrast, is commonly used to refer to a deeper integration, including norms, culture, and networks of private organizations—the beginnings of a global civil society. The importance of such norms in international relations is emphasized in particular by the classical liberal and radical schools in the social sciences, which profess an explicit normative agenda under the lodestars of liberty and justice. 15

Against this background we are now ready to consider how the events of 1989 were embedded in material and normative systems created by an accelerating process of global integration. [End Page 398]

Nineteen Eighty-nine and Economic Globalization

Failure of economic performance within an increasingly globalized economy can be considered the most general underlying cause behind the demise of authoritarian regimes around 1989.

The expansion of the world market has been common currency in the discipline of history, with special attention to its development under the liberal international regime before 1914 and its new period of expansion under the Bretton Woods institutions after 1945. 16 However, from the 1970s onward it is possible to talk of a breakthrough in integration, driven by new technologies in the fields of transport, communication, and production, and above all by the new information technology. The volume of exports in relation to gross domestic product roughly doubled from 1960 to 1990; the stock of international bank lending increased tenfold from 1980 to 1990; and at the same time liberalization and new technology increased capital mobility enormously. A radical new feature was the internationalization of production through the multinational corporations. The IMF rose in importance in its role as a global lender of last resort and a global financial watchdog. All of this meant that weak economic performance was quickly punished by the global market. Considering that this had consequences for welfare and living standards in the countries concerned, it was bound to have political consequences as well. Let us look more closely at the effects in the different regions.

The global context is now increasingly emphasized in explaining the political collapse in Eastern Europe. 17 True, the socialist camp had been largely sealed off from the capitalist world market, but it had always presented itself as an alternative to the doomed capitalist system: “catch up with and overtake the West” had been a standard slogan since Khrushchev. When the Western system then proved to be superior in all regards, from information technology to basic consumer goods, this was bound to have serious consequences for the legitimacy [End Page 399] of the regime and for the self-confidence of the ruling elite. A guiding idea for Gorbachev was that reintegration in the global economy was the only way to obtain new technology and break out of stagnation. For the first time in Soviet history sizable loans were taken up in the West, and the IMF began to loom large on the horizon. In the late 1980s the Soviet Union had an import rate of 12% of GDP, the same as the United States, mainly trading with other socialist countries, but increasingly with the West as well. Membership in the international trade agreement, GATT (now the World Trade Organization, WTO), became a high political priority. In this situation political reform was a necessity, to achieve not only economic productivity, but also international credit-worthiness. But Gorbachev had underestimated the forces he let loose: the frustrated nationalities, popular disillusionment, and the democratic movements in the satellite states in east-central Europe.

In explaining the crises in the Third World, the relevance of globalization is even more apparent. Both Latin America and the earlier colonies in Africa and Asia had seen a tendency toward authoritarian governments and state-directed, protected national economies after World War II, justified by current development theory and favored by elites eager to milk the economy for personal profit. The standard problems of political decay and low productivity in authoritarian states then appeared from the 1970s, and state finance went out of control in one country after another in Latin America and Africa. Currency manipulations and uninhibited printing of money led to hyper-inflation, destructive of the legitimacy of any regime.

The crises in the 1980s were set off by the confrontation with the realities of the global economy in the form of the debt problem. Here the steep rise in oil prices after 1973 had a crucial, double effect. The flood of petro-dollars pumped new lending capacity into the global capital system, leading to reckless lending and borrowing. At the same time the increased oil import bill took a larger share of the foreign currency earnings of poor countries. Combined with falling prices on other raw materials and fluctuating dollar values, this brought the malfunctioning national economies in Latin America and Africa into bankruptcy, starting with the Mexican declaration of nonpayment in 1982.

The ensuing rescue operations, in the form of joint action by the threatened American banks, the IMF, and the U.S. government, provided a vivid illustration of the new level of interdependence in the global economy. The conditions imposed by the IMF and the World Bank in the form of financial discipline, realistic budgets, and economic liberalization represented a degree of international intervention [End Page 400] unheard of since the days of informal imperialism in the Middle East and China in the nineteenth century. African critics talked of “recolonization.” 18

The connection between economic and political reform was not straightforward. The IMF and World Bank were initially satisfied to see structural adjustment implemented by authoritarian regimes, as in the case of Pinochet’s Chile in the early 1980s; a strong regime might be best suited to carry out the unpopular measures needed. However, after the fall of communism and with the pressure for democratization from different quarters, the IMF and World Bank also began to include human rights and multiparty democracy among their conditions. The pressure increased when bilateral aid donors lined up behind the international financial institutions. When large-scale credit and aid was withheld from President Arap Moi in Kenya in 1991, it did not take long before multiparty elections were conceded.

The austerity programs imposed by the IMF predictably led to increased popular discontent; thus there were revolts in a dozen African countries in 1989. But it is not easy to unravel the various threads that went into these risings. Urban discontent with worsening material conditions, particularly the removal of food subsidies, was politically dangerous. There was a widespread exasperation with despotic governments. Demonstrators combined demands for democratic elections with protest against the IMF and foreign influence in general. 19 When elected regimes took over responsibility for the austerity programs, this in turn became a strain on their legitimacy, which was part of the explanation for the backlash against liberal reform, both in Eastern Europe and the Third World. But by the early 1990s democratic reform had become a precondition for credit-worthiness in the world market. Previous Marxist governments, as in Angola and Mozambique, announced multiparty elections on the eve of their departure to Washington to negotiate loans with the World Bank. [End Page 401]

Nineteen Eighty-nine and Normative Globalization

Local economic crisis arising from the confrontation with a globalized economy could not in itself provide a program for democratic reform. At this point it is necessary to set the events of 1989 in the context of “global society,” with its emphasis on normative integration and coordinated democratic action.

First, it is extraordinary to note that all the roughly 190 discrete, “sovereign” units in the international system are organized according to the same nation-state model, with the same paraphernalia and the same claim to international status; in this sense, global political culture, including nationalism, has been homogenized to a surprising degree. Second, the international state system has produced an ever-increasing number of common institutions, at both the regional and global levels—military, economic, and cultural—with the United Nations family as the most conspicuous, although not the most effective. The growth of international law and institutions for its promotion may be taken to be the most substantial expression of global normative integration. International conventions regulate ever more sectors, and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights has become a universally recognized code, even if interpretations differ, as demonstrated at the World Conference for Human Rights in Vienna in 1994. In Eastern Europe it was of material importance that human rights were written into the Helsinki Accord of 1975; thus the stipulations about free travel were immediately used by opposition groups in Eastern Europe. Regard for the Helsinki Accord might also have spelled the end to the Brezhnev doctrine of the right of intervention in defense of threatened communist regimes. 20

Throughout the 1990s, we have even seen the principle of nonintervention set aside (Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and most recently Kosovo, with NATO as the self-appointed agent in a situation with a dead-locked Security Council), with the argument that the rights of individuals must override the rights of states. In other words, the nation-states have created institutions and procedures that undermine [End Page 402] their own sovereignty or—put differently—trade some of their sovereignty for supra-national coordination and influence. International opinion, under direct influence from the mass media, increasingly demands intervention, not only in humanitarian but also in political crises.

When we come to the political actors behind the democratic movements, the concept of a global society based on normative integration becomes immediately relevant. True, political opposition and revolts were aimed at national regimes, and the civic organizations that took a leading role had developed in symbiosis with the nation-state. However, international networks between NGOs had existed from the nineteenth century and had fostered an increasing awareness of common values. After 1945 NGOs became significant actors in international politics, recognized as such in the study of international relations. During the 1990s their role was strengthened by the so-called “forums” for NGOs held at the many international conferences devoted to global problems: Environment and Development in Rio in 1992, Human Rights in Vienna in 1994, and Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1995. We are observing a basic mechanism in the development of a global society—namely, the dialectic between the state and civil society, at both the national and global levels.

In east-central Europe the ground for 1989 had been prepared by Solidarity, Charta-77, the Hungarian reform movement, and the muted East German opposition. Churches, peace organizations, environmental groups, and informal networks made up the special profile of the “velvet revolutions” of Eastern Europe, easing the transition to democratic rule by forming negotiating bodies acceptable to the authorities in the form of the so-called Round Tables. Their immediate link-up with parallel groups in the West was an important feature of developments in 1989. In the Soviet Union the antinuclear and peace movement of the 1980s, with its close East-West coordination, was of particular importance. It created new space for political debate by being able to play on official Soviet peace and disarmament ideology.

Civic organizations played a particularly important role in the democratization process in Latin America, keeping up their criticism of the military regimes and utilizing their international connections to the full. Civil society on a European model was an integral part of the political tradition in this region, and even military regimes tended to regard democratic government as the ideal and their own rule as time-limited emergency operations. When left-wing groups and guerrilla movements were weakened by the dwindling of Soviet support during the late 1980s and American support of authoritarian regimes was [End Page 403] withdrawn, the road was open to a controlled transition to civilian rule—a reform process with its own profile, compared to the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the popular risings in Africa.

There were parallels in South Africa, where the political culture of white society was basically liberal, and where the disenfranchised and suppressed nonwhite population also had a long tradition of civic organizations, with churches as the most active. The Catholic Church openly flouted apartheid legislation, and black trade unions were recognized by the government. The regime’s desire for political legitimacy in the West and the strain of having the status of a political outcast must be part of the explanation why apartheid gradually was abandoned. When the ban on multiracial political organization was lifted in 1984, the United Democratic Front could spring up almost overnight, and its new suppression two years later proved to be the last frantic measure before the dike burst in 1990. But here as well the disappearance of the communist menace and the consequent weakening of the African National Congress was a precondition for the start of the reform process. 21

In black Africa economic weakness and dependence meant that the regimes were particularly vulnerable to external pressure once international norms of democracy and human rights were activated. The reports of Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists were of great influence. The latter played a leading part in arranging conferences of lawyers and journalists to prepare the ground for a Charter of Human Rights, which was finally adopted—in a castrated form—by the Organization of African Unity in 1990. And once the demands for elected government were unleashed, international networks immediately went into play: when President Kaunda resisted demands for multiparty elections in Zambia in 1990–91, the international trade union movement mobilized, and when the IMF and bilateral aid organizations at the same time threw their weight behind the demand, Kaunda was forced to concede. 22

Compared to their role in Latin America and Africa, it may seem that NGOs with international networks played a less important part [End Page 404] in East and Southeast Asia. In many countries the emerging “authoritarian democracies” stressed the importance of control and collective duties, rather than individual rights and unlimited freedom. The former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, was a prominent spokesman for this view—in a would-be Confucian tradition—insisting that economic reform must come before political freedom; the Soviet Union was wrong and China right.

Let us return to the question of the social basis of the democratic movements: is it possible on this point to identify global patterns created by a universal modernization process? Eric Hobsbawm, with his ambition to write global social history, finds a common precondition for the political risings around 1989 in what he calls “the growing urbanization of the globe.” In his structural interpretation the world at the end of the twentieth century is in a state of social crisis, including an increasing political gap between rulers and ruled. 23 The middle classes that mobilized in citizen movements clearly had common features in all regions of the world—logically enough, given the universal character of modern higher education and the employment of its candidates in the bureaucracies and economies of the modern homogenized nation-state. Immanuel Wallerstein finds a common cause behind 1989 in the squeeze on the middle classes, which in the golden years of the world economy after 1945 had been inflated far beyond what the productive base could carry and which after the recession of the 1970s in many countries found the ground cut from under their feet. 24

Students and intellectuals had continuously drawn attention to the lack of democratic rights under military dictatorships in Asia and Latin America. African universities were in a state of frequent turmoil, and students and intellectuals were overrepresented among political prisoners. In the risings around 1989 students were often in the vanguard, regularly so in Africa. The role of students in international revolutionary movements is an old story, related to the international character of the university, the capacity of the students for international communication, and their mobile nature as a social group. 25 [End Page 405]

All aspects of systemic integration, including the globalized economy, naturally lead to social integration in the form of personal contacts through trade, travel, tourism, and employment in multinational corporations and international organizations. The increasing number of people living in international communities, away from their own nations, and frequently intermarrying across national and racial borders, might represent the core of a cosmopolitan, global culture. The “new literature” in the former colonial languages by authors who come from the Third World is an eloquent manifestation of new cultural forms transcending national cultures. 26 Exile communities in many cases played an important role in international link-ups in 1989. However, the effect of mass migration on normative integration is highly ambiguous and reminds us of the contradictory nature of globalization.

Global consciousness is clearly most in evidence among elite groups, but not exclusively so. The events in 1989 revealed the enormous attraction of Western mass consumer society as a cultural model for broad strata of the population, both in Eastern Europe and in the rest of the world. It meant that specific material standards, styles, and products were taken as criteria for self-realization and a meaningful modern life. The importance of this “demonstration effect” in the political breakdowns of the socialist countries can scarcely be overestimated. Western popular youth culture, as expressed in dress, style, and rock music (including its verbal content), transmitted an aggressive message of personal freedom and opposition to established norms.

The modern mass media have a special function in this connection. The media in their material aspect represent systemic integration at the highest level. They provide channels for diffusion of political impulses—as was amply demonstrated in 1989—and they provide means of coordination during political actions. Tactics at Tienanmen Square in 1989 were coordinated through telefax with student groups in America, and television coverage was skillfully manipulated with an awareness of the global audience. The later efforts of Chinese authorities to control access to the Internet—and the problems they encountered in doing so—provide another example of the global potential of electronic communication. It is no longer possible for the nation-state to control the flow of information. Authoritarian regimes are relentlessly exposed to a global audience, and the cost of repression in terms of international legitimacy is constantly rising. [End Page 406]

In sociology much attention has been paid to the cultural aspects of the media revolution. 27 Marshall McLuhan’s vision of a “global village” no longer seem so farfetched. CNN with its global coverage provides common images and interpretations, and sets a global agenda. The English language in itself may promote a global cultural homogenization in the form of a common discourse. Common concepts structure perceptions of what constitutes a normal political culture: democracy, welfare, and individual rights.

The most pointed statement of a belief in global normative integration is Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History?” article from 1989. 28 Inspired by Hegel’s idealistic interpretation of world history, Fukuyama regarded 1989 as a final victory in the progress of the idea of freedom. True, there would be future conflicts, particularly in the Third World, caused by religion and nationalism, and possibly a reversal to aggressive, even fascist forms of nationalism in Russia. But these would be rearguard actions until the victorious liberal idea had worked itself out fully (Fukuyama as well did not in the summer of 1989 expect the imminent fall of the regimes in Eastern Europe).

Critical Perspectives

This treatment of globalization as a road toward a world society can be criticized as a neo-liberal version of modernization theory writ large. As in all systems theory, there is a danger of functionalism, and in historical theory a danger of teleology. For our purpose—to explain the simultaneous and global appearance of democratic movements around 1989—it has been natural to focus on integrative forces and systems formation. But attention to globalization need not exclude other approaches. In a broader perspective globalization is clearly a contradictory process, characterized by both integration and fragmentation. We continue to live in a world of power, and the state continues to be the most powerful international agent. In the world market the triad of Japan, the United States, and the European Union is dominant, at times verging on trade wars. Religion has again become a powerful force in international politics: in Huntington’s view this will be the [End Page 407] main dividing line in the future conflict of “civilizations.” Modernization is not a monolithic process, as can be seen in the great regional and cultural variations of industrialization, in the extremely complex and contesting forms of organization, and in the chaotic patterns of international migration. In the political field the resurgence of ethnicity, nationalism, and religious fundamentalism indicates the primary need for identity in the face of globalizing modernity. Thus globalization creates its own counter-forces.

From a radical perspective, theories of globalization are particularly defective in their awareness of inequalities and attention to concepts like capitalism, class, and hegemony. 29 It is a striking fact that the problem of poverty is largely absent from international relations studies, and that development studies have tended to become a separate academic enclave. The most widely debated alternative approach remains world systems theory, whether of the Braudel version, the underdevelopment-dependency school, or the Wallerstein variety. Wallerstein’s original theory, based on the center-periphery dichotomy, is extremely functionalist and one-dimensional in its emphasis on the capitalist system as the decisive force in world society, determining not only the division of labor between geographical regions but also the state system and even the cultural forms that best serve its purpose. 30

However, Wallerstein has recently provided an interpretation of 1989 that points in new directions: there is an alternative model of modernity to capitalism, one rooted in the Enlightenment and emphasizing human freedom rather than material growth, and the contradiction between those two versions of modernity underlie the moral and institutional crisis of our time. 31 In this perspective Wallerstein regards 1989 as a continuation of 1968, both “revolutions” representing [End Page 408] a protest against the capitalist world system, Soviet “state capitalism” included, based on the idea of “people’s sovereignty.” In all regions of the world, 1989 therefore represents, not the triumph of liberalism, but a challenge against the classes that sustain the capitalist world economy.

A similar, radical interpretation of 1989 is provided by Barry Gills and Joel Rocamora under the heading of “low intensity democracy.” 32 Here the new democracies in the Third World are seen as the result of a global strategy by the United States as the hegemonic power, together with local ruling classes, to preempt the revolutionary potential of the 1989 risings. The new elected regimes only imply a shift of power within the local ruling elites and a delinking of the middle classes from the alliance with popular forces. The resulting new formal democracies are weak regimes, easily controlled by the United States through the international financial institutions, thus answering the needs of the global capitalist economy. True social reform has bleak prospects, and far from a golden age of global democracy, the future may hold economic chaos, deepening social conflicts, and neo-authoritarianism in much of the world.

New critical perspectives on globalization are also provided by writers influenced by postmodern or poststructuralist views. “Modernization” has after all been the most general and unifying “narrative” in modern world history. But in the postmodern interpretation this narrative is a construction, a discourse based on Western hegemony and force. Such narratives should be “deconstructed” and are in any case bound to dissolve when new groups and regions arise with their own worldviews and interpretations. When points of view in world history are shifted away from the West, modernization is also cut loose from its roots and will be replaced by a concept of multiple modernities. 33 From such a perspective, structural explanations of the 1989 movements, as pursued in the present article, might also be seen as a construction. But the postmodern approach leaves us with the problem of the relative contemporaneity of the democratic risings, which can [End Page 409] scarcely be explained by reference to chance. 34 A possible alternative is to refer to zeitgeist: an international revolutionary mood and discourse can activate local conflicts of different nature, as happened in 1789, 1848, 1918, and 1945. Thus every democratic rising around 1989 should be studied as a separate phenomenon, a prescript congenial to history as an “individualizing” discipline.


Samuel Huntington compares the third wave of democratization to the second—when foreign imposition and decolonization formed the background—and concludes: “While external influences were often significant causes of third wave democratizations, the processes themselves were overwhelmingly indigenous.” 35 The arguments of the present article point in an altogether different direction. Evidently, the immediate actors in the risings around the world were indigenous, and their actions were aimed at local authorities. However, we have found common global patterns in the social basis of the opposition to authoritarian regimes, with middle classes, students, and urban popular groups predominating. If they were not conscious global classes für sich they were at least products of largely similar material circumstances and subject to the same international economic and political conjunctures. We have seen historians like Hobsbawm and Wallerstein groping for explanation in a global social history.

Further, we have specified the role played by voluntary organizations in the democratic oppositions, and we have put much emphasis on the international networks and formalized cooperation between them. International NGOs, like Amnesty International, clearly played an important part. Common to all these groups and organizations, both local and international, was a consciousness of universal democratic values that could translate into practical agendas for local political reform. May we talk of a global civil society in embryo?

However, we have found the most general precondition for the democratic revolutions in the economic bankruptcy of the authoritarian, state-directed economies, dramatically revealed in their confrontation [End Page 410] with a globalized economy in the form of the debt crisis. A new dimension was added when the IMF and the World Bank, followed by bilateral aid agencies, added human rights and multiparty elections to their conditions. This was certainly experienced as external pressure, but the distinction between internal and external is not so easy to draw within the framework of a globalized system.

The realist school in international studies, with its concept of an anarchic international system dominated by the power struggle between sovereign states, can take us only part of the way toward an explanation of the third wave of democratization. But the change in power relations toward the end of the Cold War did, of course, weaken the position of Marxist authoritarian regimes, and at the same time the United States could now afford to abandon reactionary authoritarian allies. And external influence in the form of media transmission of the images of the revolutions in Eastern Europe and China must be given an important place in explaining the chain reactions, particularly in Eastern Europe and Africa after 1989. Diffusion of revolutionary moods and images was not a new thing in modern history.

The conclusion must be that the democratic revolutions around 1989 represent a topic and a problem where the discipline of history needs to transcend its usual core categories of the nation-state and the international state system. We need to adopt in addition the concepts of “international society” and “world society” as developed in the social sciences, recognizing the new levels of both material and normative integration that have developed as a result of the accelerated globalization process since the 1970s. This does not exclude critical perspectives; globalization is a multifaceted and contradictory process, implying both integration and fragmentation, and calling forth its own counter-forces, as exemplified in the backlash against reform in some of the democracies created during the third wave.

Jarle Simensen
University of Trondheim


1. Henry Bienen, “Authoritarianism and Democracy in Africa,” in Comparative Political Dynamics: Global Research Perspectives, ed. S. A. Rustow and K. P. Erickson (New York, 1991), p. 226.

2. General introductions to the problem of democratization in the Third World include the following: Larry Diamond et al., Democracy in Developing Countries, vol. 2: Africa (Boulder, Colo., 1988); Axel Hadenius, Democracy and Development (Cambridge, 1992); L. Diamond, J. Linz, and Seymour Lipset, eds., Democracy in Developing Countries, 4 vols. (Boulder, Colo., 1988). On democratic reform in Asia see reports from the Nordic Asian Institute in Copenhagen: Thommy Svensson, Impossibility of Liberalism and Democracy in Indonesia, 1840–1940, NIAS Report 13 (1994); Stein Tønnesson, Democracy in Vietnam?, NIAS Report 16 (1993). For a comparative perspective, see L. Gerardo Munck and Carol Skalnik Leff, “Modes of Transition and Democratization: South America and Eastern Europe in Comparative Perspective,” Comparative Politics 29 (1997): 343–63. On democratic reform in Africa, see Walter Oyugi, ed., Democratic Theory and Practise in Africa (London, 1988); John A. Wiseman, ed., Democracy and Political Change in Sub-Saharan Africa, (London, 1995); Claude Ake, Democracy and Development in Africa (Washington, D.C., 1996); Richard Joseph, “Democratization in Africa after 1989: Comparative and Theoretical Perspectives,” Comparative Politics 29 (1997): 363–83. See also Africa Today 43 (1996), a special issue on democratic reform.

3. Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, Okla., 1991); and Samuel Huntington, “How Countries Democratize,” Political Science Quarterly 106 (1991–92): 579–616.

4. The criteria underlying the two types of democracy go back to Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York, 1947); and Robert Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven, Conn., 1971).

5. On the backlash for democracy, see Larry Diamond, “Is the Third Wave Over?” Journal of Democracy 7 (1996): 20–37; Julius Ihonvbere, “Where Is the Third Wave? A Critical Evaluation of Africa’s Non-transition to Democracy,” Africa Today 4 (1996): 343–68; Samuel Huntington, “Democracy for the Long Haul,” Journal of Democracy 7 (1996): 3–14. The Journal of Democracy closely follows the course of democratic reform.

6. Sidney Tarrow, “Understanding Political Change in Eastern Europe: ‘Aiming at a Moving Target’: Social Science and the Recent Rebellions in Eastern Europe,” PS: Political Science and Politics 24 (1991): 12–20; Timur Kuran, “Now out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989,” World Politics 44 (1991): 7–49; James S. Rosenau, “Signals, Signposts and Symptoms: Interpreting Change and Anomalies in World Politics,” European Journal of International Relations 1 (1995): 113–23; Barry Buzan, “The Present as a Historic Turning Point,” Journal of Peace Research 30 (1995): 385–98; Christian Meier, “Die ‘Erreignisse’ und der Umbruch des Weltsystems,” Merkur 44 (1990): 376–86; Jan Oskar Engene, “Sviktende kunnskap eller umoral? Karl Poppers kunnskapsteoretiske forklaring på kommunismens fall,” Nordisk Øst-forum 1 (1994): 52–63.

7. Lucian W. Pye, “Political Science and the Crisis of Authoritarianism,” American Political Science 84 (1990): 3–21; Fred Halliday, Rethinking International Relations (Vancouver, B.C., 1994); Halliday, “International Relations: Is There a New Agenda?” Millennium 20 (1991): 57–72; John L. Gaddis, “International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War,” International Security 17 (1992/93): 5–58; John L. Gaddis, “History, Science and the Study of International Relations,” in Explaining International Relations since 1945, ed. Ngaire Woods (Oxford, 1996); Torbjørn Knutsen, A History of International Relations Theory (Manchester, 1997). On the lack of change in political science, see Kjell Goldmann, “Im Westen nichts Neues: Seven International Relations Journals in 1972 and 1992,” European Journal of International Relations 1 (1995): 245–59.

8. For historiographical surveys of research on Eastern Europe, see Martyn Rady, “Nineteen eighty-nine and All That,” Seer 73 (1995): 111–116; and Philip Longworth, “Nineteen eighty-nine and After,” Slavonic and East European Review 71 (1993): 701–11.

9. See note 2, above.

10. Standard works on globalization are Martin Albrow, The Global Age: State and Society beyond Modernity (Cambridge, 1996); Bruce Mazlish and Ralph Buultjens, Conceptualizing Global History (Oxford, 1993); Yoshikazu Sakamoto, ed., Global Transformation: Challenges to the State System (Tokyo, 1994); Malcolm Waters, Globalization (London, 1992). Globalization is regularly discussed in journals like Millennium, Theory, Culture and Society, and the Journal of World History. On global processes in the long historical perspective, see William H. McNeill, The Global Condition: Conquerors, Catastrophes and Community (Princeton, 1997); Wang Gungwu, ed., Global History and Migrations (Boulder, Colo., 1997); Adam Watson, The Evolution of International Society (London, 1992).

11. Richard Little, “Neorealism and the English School: A Methodological, Ontological and Theoretical Reassessment,” European Journal of International Relations 1 (1995): 9–35. See note 4, above, especially Halliday, for useful discussions of the various schools.

12. Did not the democracy movements in Eastern Europe prove that Truman had been right in claiming at the beginning of the Cold War that the contest was basically about freedom? The point is made in John L. Gaddis, “The Cold War, the Long Peace and the Future,” in The End of the Cold War: Its Meanings and Implications, ed. M. J. Hogan (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 21–39.

13. Jürgen Kocka, “¨Uberraschung und Erklärung: Was die Umbrüche von 1989/90 für die Gesellschaftsgeschichte bedeuten könnten,” in Was ist Gesellschaftsgeschichte? Positionen, Themen, Analysen, ed. Manfred Hettling et al. (Munich, 1991); Moshe Lewin, The Gorbachev Phenomenon: A Historical Interpretation, expanded ed. (Berkeley, 1991).

14. The point is made in Jens Arup Seip, “Problemer og metode i norsk middelalderforskning,” Norsk Historisk Tidsskrift 32 (1940): 49–131.

15. Martin Shaw, Global Society and International Relations: Sociological Concepts and Political Perspectives (Cambridge, 1994); Roland Robertson, “Mapping the Global Condition: Globalization as the Central Concept,” in Global Culture, ed. Mike Featherstone (London, 1990), pp. 31–57; William E. Connolly, “Democracy and Territoriality,” Millennium 20 (1991): 463–84. An early introduction of the concept of “world society” is John Burton, World Society (Cambridge, 1972).

16. Economic history introductions to globalization are the following: Robert Reich, The Work of Nations (New York, 1991); Paul Hirsch and Graham Thompson, Globalization in Question (Cambridge, 1996); Paul Krugman, Popular Internationalism (Cambridge, Mass., 1996).

17. Ed A. Hewett, Open for Business: Russia’s Return to the Global Economy (Washington, D.C., 1992); György Péteri, “On the Legacy of State Socialism in Academia,” Minerva 33 (1995): 305–324; also published as chapter 8 in György Péteri, Academia and State Socialism: Essays on the Political History of Academic Life in Post-1945 Hungary and East Central Europe (Highland Lakes, NY, 1998), pp. 227–55.

18. The field of structural adjustment studies has been a growth industry during the 1990s. An introduction to its political aspects is Stephen Haggard and Steven B. Webb, eds., Voting for Reform: Democracy, Political Liberalization and Economic Adjustment (New York, 1994). A brief Scandinavian survey with a basic bibliography on structural adjustment is På vej mod markedet, a special issue of Den ny verden (Copenhagen) 28 (1995). For a critical perspective, see John Cavanagh, ed., Beyond Bretton Woods: Alternatives to the Global Economic Order (London, 1994). For Africa, see Peter Gibbon et al., eds., Authoritarianism, Democracy and Adjustment (Uppsala, 1992).

19. Lars Rudebeck, ed., When Democracy Makes Sense: Studies in the Democratic Potential of Third World Popular Risings (Uppsala, 1992); M. Bratton and N. Van de Valle, “Popular Protest and Political Reform in Africa,” Comparative Politics 24 (1992): 419–43.

20. Alison Dundes Renteln, International Human Rights: Universalism versus Relativism (London, 1990); David Held, Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance (Oxford, 1995); Richard Falck, “The Infancy of Global Civil Society,” in Beyond the Cold War: New Dimensions in International Relations, ed. Geir Lundestad and Odd Arne Westad (Oslo, 1993), pp. 219–35; E. McCarthy-Arnolds et al., eds., Africa, Human Rights and the Global System (Westport, Conn., 1994); Claude E. Welsh Jr., Protecting Human Rights in Africa: Strategies and Roles of Non-governmental Organizations (Philadelphia, 1995).

21. As President F. W. de Klerk explained in 1990: “The decline and collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia put a new complexion on things. The ANC was formerly an instrument of Russian expansion in Southern Africa; when that threat fell away, the carpet was pulled from under the ANC; its base of financing, counselling and moral support had crumbled. It was as if God had taken a hand—a new turn in world history. We had to seize the opportunity.” Quoted in W. de Klerk, F. W. de Klerk (Johannesburg, 1997), p. 27.

22. E. McCarthy-Arnolds et al., eds., Africa, Human Rights and the Global System.

23. Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century (London, 1994), p. 458.

24. I. Wallerstein, G. Arrighi, and T. K. Hopkins, “Nineteen eighty-nine, the Continuation of 1968,” Review: A Journal of the Fernand Braudel Centre XV (1992): 221–42.

25. Seymour Lipset, Student Politics (London, 1967); D. K. Emerson, ed., Students and Politics in Developing Countries (London, 1968); W. J. Hanna, University Students and African Politics (London, 1975).

26. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Post-colonial Studies Reader (London, 1995).

27. For an introduction to the cultural aspects of globalization, see the following: Mike Featherstone, ed., Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity (London, 1990); Featherstone, Consumer Culture and Postmodernism (London, 1991); and Featherstone, Scott Lash, and Roland Robertson, Global Modernities (London, 1995).

28. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” National Interest 16 (1989): 3–18.

29. For critical perspectives on globalization, see the following: Peter Gran, Beyond Eurocentrism: A New View of Modern History (New York, 1996); James Mittelmann, Globalization: Critical Reflections (London, 1996); Hans-Henrik Holm and Georg Sørensen, Whose World Order? Uneven Globalization and the End of the Cold War (Oxford, 1995); William H. Meyer, “Global News Flow: Dependency and Neoliberalism,” Comparative Political Studies 22 (1989): 243–64. See also Millennium: Journal of International Studies 24:3 (1995), a special issue entitled The Globalization of Liberalism. The American Marxist journal Monthly Review has a continual debate on globalization.

30. Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System (London, 1974); and Wallerstein, “Culture as the Ideological Battleground of the Modern World System,” pp. 31–57 in Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity, ed. Mike Featherstone (London, 1990).

31. Immanuel Wallerstein, “The End of What Modernity,” Theory and Society 24 (1995): 471–88; and Wallerstein, Arrighi, and Hopkins, “Nineteen eighty-nine, the Continuation of 1968.”

32. Barry Gills and Joel Rocamora, “Low Intensity Democracy,” Third World Quarterly 13 (1992): 501–525; a similar perspective is presented in Stephen Sparkes, “Democracy as Staged Performance: Reflections on the 1996 Thai Elections,” NIAS-nytt, Nordic Newsletter of Asian Studies 1 (1997): 13–15. On hegemony in world history, see Adam Watson, The Evolution of International Society: A Comparative Historical Analysis (London, 1992).

33. Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, “World History in a Global Age,” American Historical Review 100 (1995): 1034–61; Marshall G. S. Hodgson, Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam and World History (Cambridge, 1993); Peter Gran, Beyond Eurocentrism: A New View on Modern World History (New York, 1966).

34. From an altogether different perspective, Duncan A. Rustow, A World of Nations: Problems of Political Modernization (Washington, D.C., 1967), formulates a theory of transitions to democracy that provides for historical contingencies, accidents, and inadvertent decisions.

35. Huntington, “How Countries Democratize,” p. 591.

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