The world appears under siege from dark forces of violence, xenophobia, corruption, and conflict. The latest reporting from watchdogs like Freedom House,Transparency International and Human Rights Watchremind us that recent trends are negative; democracy is in recession; and progress toward peace, development, and human rights is waning.
Some proclaim a crisis in confidence among leading democracies as they wrestle with economic downturns, persistent inequality, growing migration demands, and political stalemate. One need only look to the catastrophe unfolding in the Middle East to conclude that we have entered a new, more dangerous period that threatens fundamental precepts of the international liberal order constructed over the last 70 years.
But is it really so dire? Strong currents of change that have taken shape since the early 1990s are pulling toward more optimistic scenarios:
- the number of people living in systems that give them a voice in electoral democracies has doubled since 1989 to over four billion,
- one billion people have risen out of poverty,
- the death rate for children under five has been cut in half,
- more people are living longer and healthier lives,
- millions more girls and boys are enrolled in school,
- deaths from conflict in the developing world have fallen by 75 percent,
- average incomes have nearly doubled, and
- food production has increased by half.
The Sustainable Development Goals approved by world leaders last September set forth a list of ambitious but achievable targets designed to build on these successes, and climate change is finally getting the collective attention and action it deserves. The international machinery to address human rights violations has never been more responsive to the growing demands for monitoring and accountability of abuses.
Despite these more positive features of the international liberal order, its fate has never felt more precarious. Various geopolitical and economic factors—aggressive moves by China and Russia to stifle dissent and disrupt international norms as they cope with economic downshifts, as well as the spreading instability and conflict in the Arab world—exacerbate fears that we may be reaching a tipping point in which our collective efforts to build a more peaceful, democratic, and prosperous world will be replaced by a much more divisive and chaotic situation.
New kids on the global power bloc
In this sea of uncertainty stand five rising democracies: India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Indonesia. Their fortunes will likely play a decisive role in the world’s ability to sustain and strengthen the international liberal order.
The good news is that each of these diverse countries—which collectively represent 25 percent of the world’s population—has emerged from painful periods of dictatorship, apartheid, and colonialism to embark on a path toward more open societies, improved human development, and more widespread prosperity. Their average GDP growth rates over the past 30 years have been consistently above the global average and until 2014 regularly outperformed China on a per capita basis. Since their respective transitions to more liberal and competitive systems of political and economic governance, they have made major strides in securing political rights and civil liberties. They’ve also reduced debt and controlled inflation, and made significant improvements in key dimensions of human development (defined as a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living). Life expectancy improved, poverty rates dropped, literacy grew, and infant and maternal mortality fell significantly. Most importantly, they achieved these outcomes in tandem with democratization, underscoring the virtuous circle of political and economic liberalization and offering a positive antidote to the restrictive model of China’s state-dominant development.