Democracy Lab

The Third Wave Peters Out

The end of the Cold War ushered in an era of expanding freedom. Is the golden age of democratic transitions drawing to a close?

The year 2014 marks two important anniversaries in the history of democracy. Twenty-five years ago, in 1989, the communist regimes of East-Central Europe came crashing down. Forty years ago, in 1974, the Portuguese military staged a coup against their authoritarian government, initiating a chaotic two-year period of revolutionary change that culminated in the emergence of a democratic regime. Political scientist Samuel Huntington cited the Portuguese Revolution as the starting point of what he called the "Third Wave" of democratization.

More attention is being paid to the first of these anniversaries, and it is easy to see why. The revolutions that brought down communism in Eastern Europe were not only a great advance for democracy: They marked a watershed in world history. Those who lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, even if they only watched it on television, felt that they were witnessing a major historical turning point, and they were right. The revolutions of 1989 to 1991 demarcated the history of the past 70 years into two distinct periods -- the Cold War era and the post-Cold War era. Far into the future, 1989, like 1789, is likely to be regarded by historians as an epochal moment in world history.

The launching of the Portuguese Revolution in 1974, though it too was regarded in its day as a significant event, received much less worldwide attention. It didn't mark the end of an era, and no one at the time would have guessed that it would be the forerunner of a new global wave of democratization. In most respects, in fact, the year 1974 was a low point for the fortunes of the West and of democracy. The Arab oil embargo, initiated in late 1973, led to recession, a stock-market crash, and surging inflation. The rise of OPEC also seemed to foreshadow a more lasting shift in economic power from the advanced democracies to commodity-rich developing countries. Meanwhile, the United States was in political disarray. The Watergate crisis and the resignation of President Richard Nixon sped a withdrawal from Vietnam that culminated in a humiliating defeat for Washington. In the developing world, it seemed a given that democracy was in retreat. The two oldest and most successful democracies in Latin America, Uruguay and Chile, had just suffered military coups in 1973. Moreover, many skeptics questioned whether the military overthrow of Portugal's dictatorship would actually lead to democracy.

Nonetheless, Portugal did succeed, against the odds, in establishing and then consolidating a democratic regime. It had some modest help from abroad in this regard from the United States and especially Western Europe. Indeed, the assistance provided to the transitions in Spain and Portugal by German political party foundations was often cited by those who advocated that the United States establish its own equivalent organization, the National Endowment for Democracy. But there is little doubt that the course and the outcome of the struggle in Portugal were primarily determined by the actions of the Portuguese themselves.

There is much greater scholarly disagreement about the causes of the revolutions of 1989. Who was most responsible for this democratic breakthrough? Some would say Mikhail Gorbachev, and it is difficult to deny that these revolutions would probably not have occurred in the way that they did had he not been at the helm of the Soviet Union. Others give the lion's share of the credit to Ronald Reagan, whose firm foreign policy and commitment to democratic principles helped the West to win the Cold War. But it would be wrong to overlook the crucial contribution of the Eastern European opposition groups themselves, especially such extraordinary figures as Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. In any case, the revolutions of 1989 clearly had a more important external or geopolitical element than did the Portuguese revolution or most of the other Third Wave transitions during the 1970s and 1980s.

The transitions from communism, of course, were also more far-reaching than those from other types of authoritarian regimes, in that they involved wholesale economic transformations and in many cases also the creation of new states. Some scholars, notably Michael McFaul, have contended that the upheavals of 1989 were so different that they should not even be considered part of the Third Wave, but instead constituted a new "fourth wave" of democratization. While recognizing that the communist cases were distinctive in some important respects, I don't believe that it is useful to speak of a fourth wave separate from the third. In the first place, 1989 is too close in time to 1974 to plausibly form a separate wave. Huntington himself defines a democratic wave simply as "a group of transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes that occur within a specified period of time and that significantly outnumber transitions in the opposite direction during that time."

The interesting question, however, is to what extent the transitions that began with Portugal in 1974 paved the way for the events of 1989. There is no definitive way of answering this. Some argue that the peoples of Eastern Europe were uninterested in the democratic gains taking place in developing countries, and that they were driven above all by Western models and the desire to "return to Europe." Others counter that some Eastern European intellectuals, such as Poland's Adam Michnik, specifically invoked the example of Spain. But I would argue that, in a more general fashion, the Eastern European transitions were fostered by the growing sense, bolstered by the transitions in other parts of the world, that democracy -- and not communism -- represented the wave of the future. And, of course, the downfall of European communism certainly boosted the perception that one-party rule was a thing of the past, leading to a new flurry of transitions to democracy, especially in Africa.

But what is the state of democracy in the world today, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and 40 years after the start of the Third Wave? Though few of the democratic gains of the past have been decisively reversed, the last few years have been a discouraging period for democracy, and 2014 presents particular cause for alarm. Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for separatism in other parts of Ukraine highlight a trend toward the resurgence of authoritarian powers and a new willingness on their part to employ military and other means to counter democracy. The new assertiveness of the authoritarians can be seen in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and in China's actions in the South China Sea, as well as a variety of other arenas in which they are pursuing policies aimed at the "containment of democracy."

After a hiatus of a quarter-century, geopolitics is back at the heart of the struggle between freedom and autocracy. There is reason to suspect that what we have been calling the post-Cold War period has come to a close. We cannot know what will come next, but the chances are that the years ahead will witness greater international instability than the world had seen for the past several decades.



Midfield General

Pragmatism Is the New Orange

As a football team and as a people, the Dutch have replaced style with staying power.

UTRECHT — World Cup semifinalists in 2014, World Cup finalists in 2010 -- this is not a bad record for a nation of just 17 million people. And yes, the Dutch are quite satisfied with their performance in Brazil, despite playing little of the free-flowing "total football" that made them famous. But their reaction is the culmination of four decades of change, not just in Dutch football but in Dutch society as well.

The football played by the Dutch in the early 1970s represented a certain frivolity, a good representation of its liberal and open roots. "Celebrate football, celebrate life" seemed to be the credo; winning wasn't as important. Of course, the quality of Dutch football at that time was at a peak that made winning a side effect of being brilliant. Even the World Cup final loss against West Germany in 1974 didn't seem to matter that much. The moral high ground was with the Dutch, who felt that their football was revolutionary and in that sense more relevant to the sport and to society.

This was further emphasized ahead of the World Cup in 1978, when a lot of people in the Netherlands felt going to Argentina was wrong.  Dutch baby boomers were opposed to the idea of playing a tournament in the country during its brutal military dictatorship and have shown a similar mentality towards later competitions held in countries that they perceived as controversial. The need to crown a certain feeling of supremacy with prizes was never strong among this Dutch generation.

This attitude gradually fell out of favor after the Dutch won the European championship in 1988. The Oranje was blessed with incredibly talented squads between 1988 and 2000 but never showed the necessary grit to grind out a result when needed. Style trumped substance to an almost ridiculous extent. The epitome of this was the 6-1 win over Yugoslavia in Euro 2000, a game more talked about than the 0-0 semifinal defeat to Italy where the Dutch missed a total of four penalties.

But changes were coming in the early 2000s. The Dutch as a people were losing their liberal touch, and the demands on their football team started to transform in parallel. With the political atmosphere shifting towards the right -- becoming stricter, conservative and less tolerant of outliers in society -- so did the atmosphere for football.

The unlucky Marco van Basten became the first Netherlands manager to come under scrutiny for playing eye-catching football but not getting the results. Though the World Cup in 2006 wasn't pretty for the Oranje, Euro 2008 saw the Netherlands play a flowing, beautiful type of counterattacking football. But when the machine got stuck against a determined Russian team in the quarterfinals (ending in a 3-1 loss after extra time), Van Basten ceased to be lauded for his team's performances against Italy (3-0) and France (4-1); rather, he was criticized for his naivety against Russia.

Instead of being open minded and embracing the artistic, accepting all its flaws as a given, the Dutch had turned into a results-oriented people, looking for a system that would shut out any negative influence -- even if it meant the many positives that could come from it would be kept to a minimum too.

This trend was followed by a dogged World Cup performance in 2010. The call of the Dutch people in that tournament for efficient striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to replace the artistic Robin van Persie, who admittedly had a poor tournament, exemplified their mindset. Though the foul-ridden World Cup final against Spain caused quite some controversy and criticism, there is little doubt that all that would have been forgiven and forgotten if the Oranje had brought home the Cup.

Finally, things came full circle -- or so it seemed. In 2012 the efficient machine that Bert van Marwijk had built came to a halt with three consecutive defeats in the European championships, leading to a call for more aesthetically pleasing football. "If we have to lose, let it be in style," was the mantra. Still, it was more of a face-saving mentality, built of nostalgia, than an actual demand that the team revert to the aesthetics of the 1970s.

When Louis van Gaal was appointed Dutch national manager in 2012, he first tried to bring back the recognizable style for which the Dutch were historically lauded. He played a 4-3-3 formation with pressing football and a lot of positional switches, and he brought in plenty of youngsters to expound his philosophy. The Dutch, albeit not as good as earlier teams, started to play in "the Oranje way" again.

But after draws in friendlies against Italy and Portugal followed by a defeat to France, there were again calls for football driven by results. After losing Kevin Strootman, one of his lynchpins, to injury, Van Gaal obliged and turned into the pragmatist he had proven to be when necessary before.

During the World Cup in 2014, the 62-year-old turned to a 5-3-2, a seldom seen formation in Dutch football. As the formation paid dividends, Van Gaal and his team received a lot of praise despite not being as dominant as the Dutch normally assume they should be in football. Even having the ball less than your opponent all of a sudden became acceptable. After a shocking 5-1 win over Spain, the Dutch eked out the necessary results against Australia, Chile, Mexico and Costa Rica before finally being brought to a halt by Argentina after penalties.

What remains in the Netherlands is pride in the overall performances rather than disparagement for the lack of attacking intent in four of the five matches played so far in this World Cup. Though this side has not brought back the romanticized image of the 1970s, the Netherlands, and Van Gaal in particular, have at least brought back one of the sources of Dutch pride. The 5-3-2 to contain Spain, the change of tactics against Australia, the stifling 3-4-3 against Costa Rica followed by bringing on a goalkeeper strictly for the penalty shoot-out -- all of these showed adaptability in their football, a quality that has come to serve them well as a country, too.

A nation once known for its great painters and artists, its exploration of the far corners of the globe, and its open and progressive mentality now relies on another quality: pragmatism. The Netherlands has turned to a country of containment -- whether of political and economic ambitions, water, or opponents in football -- always making the most of its limited resources. It was once the land of Cruyff; now it is the land of Kuyt. For a small country on a crowded continent, it's not a bad way to go.

Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty Images