March 1, 2019

The Growing Signs of the Fragility and Resilience of Liberal Democracy

EU foreign policy has a role in protecting and promoting democracy and human rights at a global level

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it would be fitting to assess the current state of liberal democracy on a global level in order to understand in what direction the world is evolving. It seems that in recent years the success of liberal democracy has come to halt and it has started going into decline while authoritarian regimes are emerging, both in established Western democracies and the world in general. We are witnessing decreasing support for democratic states, human and civil rights, and the principles of the rule of law; and the increasing popularity of illiberal populism and nationalism and the growing strength of authoritarian regimes around the world. The future of liberal democracy seems to be getting bleaker with every passing year. This raises the questions whether liberal democracy is capable of facing down the challenges of today: how can we define, evaluate and measure its resilience?; what makes some democracies more durable than others?; and why do some countries experience the erosion of democratic qualities, backsliding from democracy, or even its total failure? By understanding these issues we can consider the fragility of liberal democracy better and increase its resilience to adapt to today’s changes, challenges and crises.

Liberal Democracy in Crisis

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many new democratic countries stepped onto the world stage. This seemed to confirm that democracy would soon become the main form of governance. Samuel Huntington described it in 1991 as a “third wave” of democratisation that started in 1974.1 Even though many of those new democracies took hold, a number of “third wave” democracies remained essentially unfree. Leonardo Morlino defined them as “hybrid regimes”,2 Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way as “competitive authoritarian regimes”3 and Thomas Carothers as “gray-zone countries”.4 Thus, it is safe to say that “third wave” democracies are very different in terms of the quality of their democracy.

Today it can be seen that the quality of democracy is declining in many countries due to both internal and external influences. IDEA’s (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) 2017 report “The Global State of Democracy: Exploring Democracy’s Resilience” highlighted that many such “third wave” democracies have problems with re-consolidation and democratic backsliding.5 This phenomenon has also been called “the erosion of democracy” (Huntington,6 Marc Plattner7), “democratic recession” (Larry Diamond),8 and crisis of democracy or disintegration or decline of democracy (IDEA).

Diamond, one of the leading researchers at Stanford University in the field of democratisation, has estimated that the decline in democracy can be traced back to 2006. First, crises in democratic regimes have become significantly more common since then; second, the overall quality or stability of democracy has declined; third, authoritarianism has spread; and fourth, states with advanced democracies are not functioning well and they lack the will to promote and protect democracy abroad effectively (Diamond, 147–8). These signs of the increasing fragility of democracy mean that, when faced with the changes, challenges and crises that could push a democratic regime over the edge towards authoritarianism, a state’s resilience is crucial for its survival. At the same time, we lack knowledge about the resilience or fragility of democratic regimes and the internal working mechanism of this phenomenon. A better understanding of this would give us the opportunity to support the resilience of democratic states when they face internal or external changes, challenges or crises.

Resilience and Fragility of Democratic Regimes

In order to better understand the resilience of a democratic regime and its defining and characteristic features, we need to define what resilience is. Resilience comes from the Latin resiliens, which literally means “rebounding”. This shows that the basis of the concept of resilience is the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress (Merriam-Webster dictionary). In the 2017 IDEA report, Timothy Sisk describes the resilience of democracy as “the properties of a political system to cope, survive and recover from complex challenges and crises that represent stresses or pressures that can lead to a systemic failure”.9

Thus, resilience is an internal quality of democratic regimes, and durable regimes are characterised by the following features: flexibility—the ability to absorb stress or pressure; recovery—the ability to overcome challenges or crises; adaptation—the ability to change in response to a stress to the system; and innovation—the ability to change in a way that more efficiently or effectively addresses the challenge or crisis.5 At the same time, elsewhere9 Sisk seems to ignore the original meaning of resilience or endurance that was encompassed by resiliens—the ability to adapt but return to the original point of equilibrium that can be characterised by “democratic identity” and “regime continuity” when the regime faces internal or external changes, challenges or crises. Hence, the resilience or endurance of a regime can be described as the ability of the system to adapt to change to a certain degree before the identity of the system transforms into another type of regime, while in order for the regime to be resilient, it should keep its democratic identity and maintain its continuity.

Fragility is the opposite of resilience. It comes from the Latin fragilis, which means subjecting to or being susceptible to breakage or fracture (Merriam-Webster). Thus, a regime can be either resilient or fragile: while resilient or durable democratic regimes have internal mechanisms that help them cope with change, challenges and crises, fragile regimes do not have the same capabilities and are more susceptible to decline in the quality of democracy, to crisis, or to the disintegration of democracy. As Sisk has stated, such fragility can be seen more often in “‘partial’ or grey-zone democracies, ‘competitive authoritarian regimes’ or hybrid democracies in autocratic states, which can be stable”,5 or consolidated democracies, since states that are transitioning to a democratic regime are more fragile in comparison to consolidated democratic regimes.

Endurance, Continuity and Persistence of Democracy

It can be stated that democratic regimes have generally turned out to be quite durable throughout history, but this has been undervalued since the success of democracy has not been global. Plattner has stated that focusing on the persistence of authoritarian regimes has caused the endurance of democracy to be undervalued or ignored.10 In his view, democracies have endured remarkably well and the third wave of democratisation, which started in 1974, has not yet gone into reverse, i.e. the number of states experiencing the collapse of democracy has not exceeded the number of new democracies, even though Huntington (1991 has stated that previous waves of democratisation have receded sooner or later. According to Plattner, this is due to the fact that democratic regimes have a greater legitimacy in the eyes of not only their citizens but also the wider world.10 This internal quality of democratic regimes has been also discussed through other similar concepts, such as the continuity,11 endurance12 and persistence (Burnell, P., Calvert, P. (1999). Democracy: Persistent Practice or Durable Idea? Democratization, 6:1, pp. 271-284. ) of democracies in academic literature. Hence, despite citizens’ dissatisfaction with the quality and performance of democracy, advanced democracies still display remarkable endurance. The same has been stated by Levitsky and Way,13 who support the statement that “third wave” democracies have turned out to be surprisingly durable and survived in countries where conditions are extremely unfavourable, for example in places with a deficient or non-existent tradition of democratic rule, in weak states with widespread poverty and inequality, and in divided societies. They have also endured serious economic crises and radical economic reforms, which many academics have never considered compatible with democracy.

Growing Signs of Fragility in Liberal Democracies

At the same time, there are today clear signs of the growing fragility of liberal democracy and the crisis of liberal democracy on a global level. This has been accompanied by the weakening of human rights and civil liberties, the erosion of democratic norms and an increase in populism and nationalism—both in so-called transition countries and established Western democracies. According to the Freedom House report for 2018, democracy has been in recession in 71 countries and there were positive developments in only 35.14 This marks the 12th consecutive year in which Freedom House has documented the decline of global democracy. The Economist Intelligence Unit also reported the decline of democracy at the global level in 2017, stressing in particular the worrying developments connected with freedom of speech and the media.15 According to World Values Survey data, decreasing support for democracy and increasing support for non-democratic forms of governance can be also seen in countries with developed democracies.16

We can see this happening in Europe, where populist and nationalist parties have emerged and risen to power, e.g. in Austria, Hungary, Italy and Poland. It can therefore be predicted that both right- and left-wing extremist populist and nationalist political forces will make progress in national elections in EU member states in 2019 and the forthcoming elections to the European parliament. At the same time, Europe is not the only region where populism and nationalism have triumphed. For example, in countries with liberal democracies such as the US and Brazil there has been a decline in the quality or stability of democracy, and in the case of illiberal democracies such as the Philippines and Turkey authoritarian elements have gained a stronger foothold.

Many of these countries have faced political, economic or social challenges such as immigration pressure and problems following the economic crisis, which have posed a threat to the legitimacy of liberal democracy. In many such countries, public support for the government and traditional political institutions has declined. This has in turn increased the support for external and anti-establishment political forces. Thus, we can often see that the biggest threat to liberal democracies results from democratic mechanisms such as regular elections, which are the cornerstone of a democratic system. In many of the aforementioned countries with advanced democracies, illiberal populist and nationalist political actors have come to power through elections and it can be seen that the political parties that have undermined the regime of liberal democracies have done so as a result of a learning process, observing and copying similar developments in other countries to gain power.

Such challenges have caused the gradual decline, erosion and/or backsliding of the quality of democracy both in the Western European countries with advanced democracies and in the so-called “third wave” democracies all over the world, including democratic post-communist states. Support for authoritarian forces is increasing in transition countries that do not have a tradition of democracy or have only a recent one. Driven by those developments, authoritarian regimes such as in China and Russia are acting increasingly forcefully in the international stage, as they can find like-minded allies more easily in order to achieve their strategic goals both in bilateral relations and in multilateral forums. Growing signs of the fragility of liberal democracy show that we have entered a new era since the end of the Cold War in which the erosion of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms can be acutely felt, and thus the challenges facing liberal democracy are the biggest they have been in the past 30 years.

The Role of the EU in Promoting and Protecting the Resilience of Democracy at the Global Level

In addition to identifying the internal mechanisms of democracy, external actors can and must promote and protect democracy. In the EU’s Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy—the so-called Global Strategy adopted in 2016 as a framework for EU activity around the world—the Union focused on supporting resilience both within itself and in third countries.17 In the strategy, resilience is defined as “a broader concept encompassing all individuals and the whole of society … featuring democracy, trust in institutions, and sustainable development”. The basis of the global strategy is thus the notion that a durable state is a democratic state, since the shortcomings in democracy based on the principles of human rights and the rule of law endanger the opportunities of a state and society for sustainable development.

The EU has thus set a goal to use its external activities to strengthen the resilience of states or their ability to adapt to political, economic, environmental, demographic or social pressure and to support their ability to preserve their main functions under pressure in a way that would guarantees democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental and human rights.18 At the same time, reduced efficiency, energy and confidence in promoting and protecting democracy and fighting against democratic backsliding is evident in the case of both the EU and the US.19 The protection of liberal democracy against an authoritarian decline as well as the resilience and further progress of global democracy depend on the actions of the EU today. Hence, it is important that the EU—both the Union and individual member states—continue to protect and promote democracy and human rights in their foreign policy in a uniform way in order to support the resilience of states to counter today’s changes, challenges and crises and those in the future.

The endurance of democracy depends on both internal and external factors and influences, but since it is an internal characteristic, internal factors and influences are decisive in whether a regime will be durable or fragile in a situation in which it is influenced by both internal and external changes, challenges and crises. At the same time, external actors like the EU can have a positive effect on the internal resilience of democracy. If international actors such as the EU prevent the risk of democratic reversal and intervene at the right time using appropriate foreign-policy measures, the erosion or decline of the quality of democracy might not occur and the country may turn out to be resilient. At the same time, it is important to stress that the resilience of democracy is an internal characteristic that, while it can be supported by external actors, must be primarily developed from within. This is why it is particularly important to support the establishment and maintenance of democratic governments in third countries and support a civil society that protects democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms at the state level.


1 Huntington, S. P. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman, OK and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

2 Morlino, L. Changes for Democracy: Actors, Structures, Processes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

3 Levitsky, S. and Way, L. Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

4 Carothers, T. “The End of the Transition Paradigm”. Journal of Democracy 13(1) (2002), pp. 5–21.

5 Sisk, T. D. “Democracy’s resilience in a changing world” in IDEA, “The Global State of Democracy: Exploring Democracy’s Resilience”. Stockholm: International IDEA, 2017.

6 Huntington, S. P. “Democracy for the Long Haul”. Journal of Democracy 7(2) (1996), pp. 3–13.

7 Plattner, M. F. “Populism, Pluralism, and Liberal Democracy”. Journal of Democracy 21(1) (2010), pp. 81–92.

8 Diamond, L. “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession”. Journal of Democracy 26(1) (2015), pp. 141–55.

9 Sisk, T. D. “Democracy and Resilience: Conceptual Approaches and Considerations”. Background Paper. Stockholm: International IDEA, 2017.

10 Plattner, “Populism, Pluralism, and Liberal Democracy”, p. 82.

11 Przeworski, A. Sustainability of Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

12 Cheibub, J. A., Przeworski, A., Limongi Neto, F. and Alvarez, M. “What Makes Democracies Endure?” Journal of Democracy 7(1) (1996), pp. 39–55.

13 Levitsky, S. and Way, L. “The Myth of Democratic Recession”. Journal of Democracy 26(1) (2015), pp. 45–58 [55–6].

14 Freedom House. “Freedom in the World 2018: Democracy in Crisis”.

15 The Economist Intelligence Unit.

16 World Values Survey.

17 European Union. “Shared vision, common action: A stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy”, 2016. Available at

18 European External Action Service. Joint Communication to the European Parliament and to the Council. “A Strategic Approach to Resilience in the EU’s external action”, June 2017.’s%20External%20Action

19 Diamond, “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession”, 152–3.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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