2024: The World at Crossroads—Part Two

The Global Democracy-Autocracy Tug-of-War

Abstract

Countries with over half the world’s population go to the polls this year. While none of these elections represent absolute good vs. evil, the outcomes will still make a big difference. In this global tug-of-war of ideas and institutions between democracy and autocracy, much is at stake for all of humanity, including peoples’ rights and liberties, the rules-based global order, world peace, and global prosperity.

Article

Sweeping decisions made in 2024 will affect humanity for years and decades to come, in areas including the future of AI, democracy vs. autocracy, and dealing with disinformation. In Part One of this series, we discussed some of the big issues facing AI (bias, jobs, disinformation, etc.) and the critical AI-related actions and decisions happening in 2024: in government regulation, legal actions, labor actions, and industry self-regulation.  Here in Part Two, we examine how the elections in 2024 will have major impacts on the ongoing tug-of-war between autocracy and democracy. There are signs that we are at a pivotal point in history in this epic battle.

Hover mouse over image above to zoom in.

This is Not a Movie

Real World Elections and Conflicts Are Complex and Nuanced with Many Shades of Grey

There is clearly a global tug-of-war going on between different ideas and conceptions of how the world should be run … even more intensely than usual. That said, the real world is much messier than the tug-of-war drawing above implies—i.e., it’s not purely good guys vs. the bad guys. In the real world, corruption and greed for power exist everywhere, but to hugely varying degrees and ‘flavors’. We should not engage in false equivalencies, just because no system is perfect (or even close to it). There are still enormous differences between how different countries are run.

Source: Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1 – 2022 Democracy Index

One measure of democracy is the Economist Democracy Index, which measures countries on 60 metrics in five categories: electoral process, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation, and political culture.[1] Based on a scale of 0 to 10, they group countries into 1) Full Democracies, 2) Flawed Democracies, 3) Hybrid Regimes, and 4) Authoritarian Regimes.  The U.S. is at the upper end of the ‘Flawed Democracy’ grouping.

Unfortunately, the world has become less democratic over the past decade, according to this index, reversing the trend of more than 70 years of democratic progress in the second half of the 20th century and early 21st century.

Source: Data from Economist Intelligence Unit, EIU’s 2022 Democracy Index, Chart by ChainLink Research
Figure 2 – Global Average for Economist Democracy Index Score 2006-2023

The same conclusion is reached by Freedom House who, using their own research methodology, determined that democracy and freedom have been on the decline globally for the past 16 years.

There are struggles around the world where the question of who wins a particular election or war really matters in this fight for the future of humanity. In this article we look at what is at stake in these struggles (i.e., why we should care) and the specifics of key elections and conflicts around the world, including the potential impact on the future of democracy and on global supply chains.

What’s At Stake?

It is fair to ask, “why should we care who wins a particular election or war abroad?

We should care a lot because there is so much at stake in this tug-of-war, including our rights and liberties, the rules-based world order, world peace, and global prosperity.

Rights and Liberties

The long-term growth and health of democratic societies and principles, the essence of the types of societies we will live in, is at stake. It is a choice underpinning many of our most cherished values:

  • Freedom of expression: Societies that encourage independent thinking where a wide variety of contrasting ideas can flourish vs. ones where the state tells people how to think;
  • Civil liberties: Where individuals’ civil liberties (e.g., freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, privacy, self-defense, etc.) are protected vs. where the individual is subservient to the whims of the rulers;
  • Justice: Where there is a fair and impartial system of justice and due process of the law vs. sham trials, and arbitrary detention and punishment (with or without a trial).
  • Power of the vote: Where individuals, regardless of their position in life, can influence major societal decisions through the ballot box vs. where people without means or influence are powerless;
  • Minority protections: Where minority populations and their civil liberties are protected vs. where the majority rules with an iron fist and minorities have their rights trampled on and are treated as second-class citizens;
  • Property rights and contracts: Where property rights and contracts are honored vs. where the government can arbitrarily seize property and repudiate contracts.

A Rules-Based World Order

Most of us have come to take for granted the benefits of the rules-based world order that emerged from the devastation of World War II. Largely led by the United States, this new (at the time) world order, while far from perfect in its execution and results, has nevertheless facilitated increased cooperation, peace, stability, and the rule of law among those who have embraced it.[2] Countries respecting these global rules and using these institutions to resolve conflicts have fewer wars and violent conflicts.[3]

The rules-based order is based on respect for human rights, national sovereignty, democracy, open markets and free trade, collective security, and monetary cooperation. It is supported by a set of institutions such as the UN, WTO, ICC, WHO, and IMF.[4] While there are many legitimate criticisms of these organizations—which really should be addressed—supporting these institutions is nevertheless preferable to the alternative of having no forums for resolving conflicts peacefully. The survival of this rule-based order was never guaranteed and is currently under threat from authoritarian countries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, as well as the erosion of democratic and rules-respecting norms within western and non-aligned countries due to rising populism, protectionism, nativism, and nationalism. The outcome of elections and armed conflicts can make an enormous difference in whether the rules-based order is strengthened or weakened, as we will discuss further below.

Source: Image by Frauke Riether from Pixabay

World Peace

Of course, no country is immune from human conflict. However, not surprisingly, regimes that do not support a global rules-based order are more likely to engage in wars (e.g., territorial disputes), and their conflicts are larger and more violent, with less regard for civilian casualties. The Economist’s 2024 Democracy Index reports that “the incidence and scale of war and conflict are much greater among the ‘hybrid regimes’ and ‘authoritarian regimes’ … 24 of the 34 ‘hybrid regimes’ and at least 40 of the 59 ‘authoritarian regimes’ were involved in a war, conflict or insurgency of some kind in 2022-23.

Global  Prosperity

The world is richer (monetarily … and otherwise) when it is more democratic. Research[5] has shown a correlation between democracy and economic growth, where this correlation is mediated by the extent that democracy leads to improved governance. When leaders are answerable to voters, it can reduce corruption and improve the quality of governance compared to more autocratic systems. Research by the Atlantic Council shows a correlation between freedom and prosperity, as shown below.

Source: Atlantic Council, Do Countries Need Freedom to Achieve Prosperity?
Figure 3 – Correlation Between Freedom and Prosperity

Coordinated Global Problem-Solving

It has been speculated (but remains to be proven)[6] that democracies are better able to cooperate and take coordinated action to solve global problems, such as stopping human trafficking and slave labor, preventing abusive AI from emerging, reducing trade barriers, and fixing climate change.

Impacts for Supply Chain Managers

In addition to these civilization-changing impacts on humanity, there are narrower concerns that supply chain practitioners should have about the spread of autocracy and declines in democracy. Companies and markets depend on having predictable and consistent enforcement of the rule of law. Trying to second-guess dictators’ whims is a hard way to run a business. Corruption and rampant bribery are a drag on a business’s performance; a completely unproductive waste of capital. Supply chain risks are multiplied when supply chains are opaque and standards of conduct are dubious, as is often the case when operating in autocratic regions. Reliable property rights and consistent enforcement of contracts are a necessary prerequisite to confidently investing in supply chain relationships. For all of these reasons, we should all be concerned about and supporting the health of democracies around the world.

Key Elections in 2024

In 2024 there will be national elections in countries representing over half of the world’s population. The outcomes of these elections will have a profound impact on the direction and health of democracy globally. There are at least 64 countries holding national elections this year. There are many ways to organize and group these elections—for example, chronologically (by month) or geographically (by region). For our purposes, we have chosen to organize 2024’s elections in four groups, according to each country’s geopolitical position/posture, as follows:

  1. Major Democracies—Large and influential democracies—such as the U.S., India, and Indonesia, all of which have elections in 2024—are (to varying degrees) examples or trendsetters for the rest of the world. These countries have seen some erosion of democratic norms in recent years. The outcomes of the 2024 elections in these countries have the potential to either accelerate or reverse this democratic backsliding.
  2. Regional Powers and Smaller Democracies—Taken altogether, elections at democratic regional powers and smaller functioning democracies also make a substantial global difference collectively. In 2024, these include elections in Taiwan, Finland, South Africa, and many others. Recently some of these countries have represented some of the bright spots in reversing the corrosion of democracy. We can hold out some more hope for this year.
  3. Teetering Semi-Democracies—These are states with a few weakened elements of democracy, combined with elements of authoritarian rule. The outcome of these elections could destroy even the small democratic institutions and guardrails that still exist, thereby more firmly embedding the autocracies. Alternatively, the election could help the state maintain their democratic elements and possibly inch closer to becoming more democratic. Examples of elections in 2024 for teetering states include Pakistan, Algeria, Georgia, and Madagascar.
  4. Autocracies—These are authoritarian countries with virtually no legitimate democratic institutions or processes. They often still have elections in an attempt to claim legitimacy, but these are sham elections where the outcome is predetermined. Nevertheless, opposition voices often find ways to speak out and be heard—either through direct protest and criticism, which almost assuredly land them in jail, beaten up, or dead, or through more subtle and creative means. 2024 elections in authoritarian countries include Russia, Iran, and Venezuela.

In Part Three of this series, we will take a deeper look at each of these four groups, examining the 2024 elections that really matter and why.


[1] A summary of the 2023 Economist Democratic Index can be seen here. It presents summary explanations and several insightful graphical views of the data. — Return to article text above

[2] The post-WWII rules-based world order was embraced initially by the U.S., Western Europe, Japan, and Australia, then started spreading, particularly after the Cold War ended, to the rest of Europe, most of Latin America, and parts of Africa and Asia. Some Asian countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan, are strong, reliable supporters of a rules-based order. — Return to article text above

[3] That conclusion was articulated in the Economist’s 2024 Democracy Index, based on their research. — Return to article text above

[4] UN = the United Nations, WTO = the World Trade Organization, ICC = the International Criminal Court, WHO = the World Health Organization, IMF = the International Monetary FundReturn to article text above

[5] For example, Democracy, Governance, and Economic Growth: Theory and Evidence, Rivera-Batiz, 2002 Review of Development Economics; An Empirical Study of the Relationship between Democracy and Prosperity, Zhang, 1999, Wright State University; and Democracy and Prosperity, Siegle, DoD’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies — Return to article text above

[6] For some different viewpoints see Why Democracies Cooperate More: Electoral Control and International Trade Agreements, Democracy and the Challenge of Climate Change. — Return to article text above

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