NEW YORK (Project Syndicate)—During my years as a policy maker in India and at the World Bank, one of the few leaders I met whom I came truly to respect was Madeleine Albright. The former U.S. secretary of state was a master strategist, but behind the strategizing lay empathy and a moral compass.
That is why we should take seriously her recent essay on the need for urgent global action to fight authoritarianism, which the all-out invasion of democratic Ukraine by Russia’s autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin, only serves to underscore.
History is replete with grotesque forms of human oppression, including slavery, racism, and oligarchies crushing people’s aspirations. Today, the continued rise of authoritarianism in countries such as Brazil, Turkey, and of course Russia highlights the need to shore up democracy. What is new is that this effort now must be global.
Even as the shadow of authoritarian misrule spreads, there is a growing aspiration for democracy among ordinary people seeking greater freedom and dignity. A Pew Research Center survey of 17 advanced economies in 2021 shows disaffection with the lack of individual freedom in authoritarian states at an all-time high. Additionally, according to the survey, a median of 74% of people in these countries had no confidence in Putin doing the “right thing in world affairs.”
There is also hope in Albright’s interesting observation that leaders with totalitarian inclinations tend to rise and fall in waves. Force out one, and others may tumble, too, as happened when the end of authoritarian rule in the Philippines in 1986 was followed by similar developments in Chile, South Africa, Zaire, and Indonesia over the next decade or so. This should encourage responsible governments today to initiate the process of reviving global democracy.
Sadly, the record of the United States is far from clean in that regard. A recent study by the Roosevelt Institute’s Kyle Strickland and Felicia Wong points to how America’s neoliberal economic policies fueled discrimination and inequity in many countries.
Moreover, in Chile, Cuba, Central America, and elsewhere, America has intervened, often brutally, not to support democracy but to protect U.S. corporate interests. Providing leadership to isolate authoritarian regimes and nurture democracy will thus require the U.S. to break with significant aspects of its past and take on this responsibility as its moral obligation to chart a new course for the world.
But to rely wholly or substantially on the U.S. would be folly. To be sure, some U.S. presidents—notably, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama—have possessed a strong sense of global responsibility. Fortunately, many prominent Americans, including current political leaders, take a similar stance. Yet, as Donald Trump demonstrated, a U.S. leader can be elected by promising to “make America great again,” and, once in office, define “America” as his friends, family, and cronies.
Democracy is essential
While many justify the need for democracy as a means to other desirable ends, I believe that democracy is necessary in itself. If it were the case that democracy slowed economic growth, we should be prepared to grow a little less in order to let equality and freedom flourish. This is because the commitment to treat all human beings as equals, as democracy requires, is an ethical axiom. As Abraham Lincoln put it in a handwritten note in 1858, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”
That said, the evidence suggests that democracy is a key ingredient of economic advancement.
By creating the space for dissent, criticism, and change, democracy nurtures creativity and innovation, and, through that, economic flourishing. Economic progress in countries that succumb to religious fundamentalism or authoritarianism almost invariably stalls. China seems to be an exception, but it is worth noting that democratic Taiwan’s GDP per capita is nearly three times that of China.
India’s hopes, and struggles
One of the best examples of what democracy can do is post-independence India, one of the world’s most audacious experiments in creating and nurturing an open society. The country undoubtedly made some economic-policy mistakes over the last 75 years, and its annual growth rate in the early decades after independence remained low, at around 3%.
But the democratic investment meant that, despite being a poor country, India did well in higher education, research, the arts, and other creative fields.
The pickup in India’s economic growth from the early 1990s onward had many causes, but it also reflected the democratic dividend. Because of the country’s political openness and freedom of speech and criticism, the services sector, which relies on creative human capital, began to bloom, fostering the growth of firms like Infosys, Wipro, and Tata Consultancy Services. By 2005, India was among the world’s four or five fastest-growing economies. Its sophisticated polity had made the country a global success story, poised for a remarkable run.
This success has come under a cloud in recent years with an increase in restrictions on free speech and the media. Not surprisingly, India’s GDP growth decelerated each year from 2017 to 2020.
The close connections between democracy, creativity, and economic progress are subtle and long-term, but they are real. And they demonstrate clearly the need to encourage democratization world-wide.
Kaushik Basu, a former chief economist of the World Bank and chief economic adviser to the government of India, is professor of economics at Cornell University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.