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Inside Asia

Jun 21, 2017

Whether we like it or not, democracy is in decline. Like climate change, the erosion of democratic institutions is something that creeps up on us. It’s what happens when you take countless insidious little short-cuts over time, end-rounding one law or the other,  creating exceptions for some at the expense of others.

Do this long enough and the foundations of democracy begin to crumble. 1995 was the high point of democracy, but the times have been changing.  My guest again this episode is noted author and Asia insider Adam Schwarz, founder and CEO of Asia Group Advisors. Last episode, my discussion with Adam focused on Indonesia and its somewhat uneven embrace of democratic ideals and systems. This week Adam and I broaden our conversation and discuss some of what is behind what seems to be a general move away from democracy in many parts of Asia.

As Adam points out, one of the key reasons for this shift is that democracy is messy and difficult. It requires institutions and the rule of law. All of that takes time, and time is often in short supply in these contexts. Situations in which things needs to be done quickly and with little discussion make for circumstances under which it becomes easier for democratically elected leaders to bend others to their will, circumventing the democratic institutions that might be in place.

During the 1990s and before, there was the US at least, a symbol of the possibility of democracy. But even that has crumbled. With the Trump administration’s “America First” platform, human rights and support for burgeoning democracies around the world have been replaced with threats of trade retaliation, sanctions, and even military invasion. American diplomatic benevolence is in retreat and, as Adam observes, for governments in Asia teetering between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism, the latter is looking a lot more likely.