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  • The Democratic Moment
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)

The dramatic events of August 1991 in Moscow should convince any remaining skeptics that the democratic revolutions of 1989 indeed marked a watershed in world history. The sudden downfall that year of long-entrenched Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe dramatically transformed the face of world politics. Together with the remarkable changes that had already taken place in both the foreign and domestic policies of the Soviet Union, this development effectively brought to an end the period, beginning in 1945, that has generally been labeled the postwar or Cold War era. Yet despite the general consensus that we have now entered the post-Cold War era, there is sharp disagreement about what the nature and characteristics of this new period will be.

Before addressing this central question, it is worth briefly reviewing the Cold War era and the dynamics that brought it to a close. In the years following the Second World War, the militarily strongest and economically most advanced nations of the world became divided into two sharply opposed camps headed by two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The division of the world into East and West was marked by the "Iron Curtain" that ran through the middle of Germany and the heart of Central Europe. But the split between East and West was not only geopolitical; it was also a conflict between two fundamentally opposed ideologies-Leninist communism and liberal democracy. Many countries sought to maintain varying degrees of neutrality in this struggle, styling themselves as the Nonaligned Movement or the Third World, but they remained more an arena for [End Page 34] superpower competition than a potent independent force in global politics. It is hard to quarrel with the characterization of the international system during the Cold War era as a bipolar world.

Although there was great immobility in this system from 1949 on, the changes that did take place generally seemed to strengthen the Soviet camp. It is now apparent to almost everyone that the communist regimes had long been disintegrating from within, but during most of the Cold War period communism seemed to be enjoying a slow but steady ascendancy. It gradually brought a number of additional non-European countries into its orbit; during the 1970s alone, new procommunist regimes emerged in some dozen nations. Even more significant was the seeming irreversibility of such gains. In fact, until the U.S. intervention in Grenada in 1983, not a single consolidated communist regime had ever been displaced.

Meanwhile, democracy, after receiving a brief ideological boost from the establishment of new democratic regimes during the wave of decolonization, seemed to be in deep trouble. The postcolonial democracies almost all soon failed, giving way to regimes that were authoritarian and generally "nonaligned," though with a strong admixture of hostility toward the West. The imposition of dictatorial rule in India by Indira Gandhi in 1975, seemingly bringing to an end the largest and most important democracy in the non-Western world, marked a low point for democratic fortunes. At that very moment, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a staunch champion of liberal democracy, despairingly wrote:

Liberal democracy on the American model increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy in the nineteenth century: a holdover form of government, one which persists in isolated or peculiar places here and there, and may even serve well enough for special circumstances, but which has simply no relevance to the future. It is where the world was, not where it is going.1

Although the late 1970s witnessed transitions to democracy in Spain and Portugal and its restoration in India, only in the 1980s did it become clear that Moynihan's pessimism was unfounded and that democracy was experiencing a true resurgence. The democratic tide swept through most of Latin America, reached such key Asian countries as the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan, and Pakistan, and by decade's end was beginning to make ripples in sub-Saharan Africa and even the Middle East. Moreover, the 1980s saw such Third World alternatives to democracy as African socialism and bureaucratic authoritarianism in Latin America revealed as political and economic failures.

Most dramatic, of course, was the growing crisis-and in...


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