The details of the transitions from longtime U.S.-backed dictatorships in Central Africa, the Philippines, and Haiti are, of course, all different, but these histories share a common thread in opportunities lost through a shortsightedness about U.S. responsibility and power. This is not to say that the United States can or should attempt to manage the domestic affairs of other nations, nor that it has the power or even right to impose democratic outcomes on other countries. But the ending of dictatorships that Washington had a strong hand in supporting should have given way to generative new forms of engagement that did much more to favor the emergence of stable democratic rule.
It is true that there is no widely accepted set of tools for achieving such an outcome, but that is only partly due to the inherent difficulty of the many thorny challenges that post-authoritarian transitions pose. It is equally due to the paltry and inconsistent efforts that Western countries have made toward these ends, particularly in the erstwhile Third World. Today, it is hard to witness events in a country like the Philippines, where Marcos’s son has just been sweepingly elected as president, as a kind of revenge of this history—the natural result of the inadequate work done over the last generation to give more institutional depth to democracy and give it more resonance in the lives of citizens.
Blowback like this is not limited to the so-called global periphery, though. In many parts of the West, led by the United States, populist demagogues now commonly flout the underlying principles of democracy. It is time that we see this crisis of democracy as it spreads in more and more Western countries as being linked with outcomes in the so-called developing world, where decades of Western mouthing of the values of democracy overseas with no corresponding investment have finally come home to roost.