Democracy is in a global recession

American interests and values do not change just because a new person becomes president

Thomas Melia
8 May 2017

Political Capital Blog: The latest report of Freedom House examining the political and institutional reforms of European and Eurasian post-communist states depicts a grim situation. According to the report entitled Nations in Transit 2017, several countries participating in the survey rather showcased negative developments in terms of the ongoing democratic processes in these nations last year. The formerly exemplary country of the region, Hungary, is today following the illiberal path and the state of democracy deteriorated further in 2016. You visited Hungary often during its transition to democracy. What is your opinion on the changes currently ongoing in Hungary?

Thomas Melia: As for the continuing democratization of Hungary – a nation that, for twenty years after the collapse of Communism in 1989, was building one of the most successful and prosperous European democracies – it is very sad to watch. I often wonder what the families of the heroes and martyrs of 1956 must be thinking as they watch Viktor Orbán emulating the tactics of the Russian authoritarian, Vladimir Putin. Step-by-step, each of them is very clearly trying to dismantle the nascent democratic systems their countries were in the process of building after all the destruction done by Communism. Each of them is now trying to isolate their own people from the international community of free nations – that is what is behind the Big Lie that civil society groups receiving financial support from abroad are somehow unpatriotic. That is what is behind the efforts to close the European University at St. Petersburg and the Central European University in Budapest. It is about building a wall around Russia, or around Hungary. When you think about the history of this region, about how important it was to tear down the Berlin Wall and to dismantle the Iron Curtin along the Hungarian-Austrian border, it is very sad that elected leaders are building walls and dividing peoples in the 21st Century.

Hungary is not an isolated case, 18 of 27 CEE countries dropped in the NIT ranking. ‘This is the second biggest decline in the survey’s history, almost as large as the drop following the 2008 global financial crisis,’ wrote the authors. Even though Poland has been considered to be a consolidated democracy, what we have seen so far is that Jaroslaw Kaczynski is following the path of Viktor Orbán in many cases. Do you believe that these are regional patterns? Regarding these democratic backslidings, shall we say that the concept of a one-way trajectory from authoritarianism towards democracy has completely failed?

The backsliding in Poland and Hungary is not just a regional phenomenon; it is part of the current global recession in democracy. It is very troubling. I think anyone who thought there is a “one-way trajectory from authoritarianism towards democracy” is not familiar with world history, or even European history. There is no democratic reform, or institution, that is “’irreversible”. Hungary, like some of its neighbors, has gone down this path before. The health of a democratic society is not different than the health of a human body; it requires constant attention, exercise and education. There has to be a constant effort in all our countries to educate our children about important ideas, including the value of fundamental freedoms and rule-of-law, and finding the right balance between majority rule and minority rights.

Do you agree with those who claim that the EU should do more to intervene? For example, launching a combined Article 7 procedure against both Poland and Hungary so that they cannot protect each other with their veto?

Like many others, including many Europeans, I have been disappointed that the EU has not found a way to take action to halt Hungary’s movement away from democratic fundamentals, or even to suspend Hungary from enjoying some of the benefits it is getting from Brussels. While EU taxpayers are providing enormous transfer payments to Hungary to improve infrastructure and many other things, the government denounces Brussels for ’interfering’ in Hungary. Well, if the Orbán government doesn’t want the EU to ’interfere’ in Hungary, it should return all the money that is coming in.

Harsh reactions of the American government with regards to lex CEU could have been surprising to the Fidesz-government, partly because it expected a complete paradigm shift after the election of Donald Trump, who is hostile to George Soros himself. Where did Viktor Orbán miscalculated himself with Mr. Trump? What do you expect about the future of the bilateral relations in light of the recent measures taken by the Hungarian government?

While the new American government is still in formation (and probably will be for a while), it is important to remember that we have had transitions before. And there is always more continuity than discontinuity in U.S. policy, because American interests and values do not change just because a new person becomes president. The recent statements from the U.S. government, in Washington and Budapest, reflect considered and settled U.S. policy that we prefer democracy and rule-of-law to dictatorship and kleptocracy.

Last December, commentator Fareed Zakaria claimed that with Trump’s victory we might be watching the rise of illiberal democracy in the United States as well. Do you agree with the idea that history is open or multiple checks and balances within the US political system could slow down or thwart any illiberal presidential actions?

The United States remains, as ever, a work in progress – created, as it says in the first sentence of our Constitution, “’in order to form a more perfect Union…” – not ’perfect’, but ’more perfect.’ We have been reminded already, during these earliest days of the new administration, that our Judiciary is attentive and principled; that our Congress requires a broad consensus to make major policy changes; and that our independent media and our civil society have never been as energetic as they are today. Notwithstanding its many flaws and weaknesses, I am confident in the enduring strength of the American democracy.

Thomas Melia, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and a former executive deputy director of Freedom House. Today he is a Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, working on a project to strengthen bipartisan consensus in U.S. policy.

The interview was first published in Political Capital Blog, on May 8, 2017. 

Photo: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia speaking in Warsaw, Poland, on Sept. 25, 2012. (USOSCE/Colin Peters)