The spread of democracy around the globe has been one of the most stirring and important trends of the late 20th century. But evidence is growing that the worldwide move from bullets to ballots has slowed - and that in some regions a backlash to democracy may have already begun.
Areas with historic ties to the industrial West, such as central Europe, are proceeding apace toward more political freedom, say a number of experts. But parts of the former Soviet Union, Africa, and the Middle East are quietly sinking into 1960s-style dictatorships.
This retrogression presents the Clinton foreign policy team with a difficult challenge, as the administration has long said that aiding the spread of democracy is one of its preeminent diplomatic goals. Speaking at Harvard University recently, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went so far as to say that one of the greatest dangers now facing the United States is "that we will allow the momentum toward democracy to stall."
It's true that today far more people live in nations that hold elections than did 10 years ago. At the beginning of 1997, there were 118 democracies in the world, according to Freedom House, a New York-based research organization. That's up from 69 in 1987.
But the number of nations judged fully free by Freedom House has stagnated in recent years. And the quality of democracy - as measured by the extent of political rights and civil liberties - is deteriorating in many places, including Turkey, Brazil, Pakistan, and perhaps Russia.
The result is an increase in what scholars call "pseudodemocracies." About 35 percent of today's democracies might fall into this category, according to figures compiled by Larry Diamond, co-editor of the Journal of Democracy. At the beginning of the decade only 15 percent did.
Algeria might be judged a pseudodemocracy, for example. The nation's military rulers permitted multiparty elections for parliament last month, but didn't allow the banned (and in their mind dangerous) Islamic Salvation Front to field candidates.
Turkey is a democracy in danger of slipping into the "pseudo" category - or worse. The Turkish military, which has assumed power three times since 1960, is feuding bitterly with the civilian government's pro-Islamic wing and threatening another takeover.
In El Salvador, disquieting noises from the right are calling into question the democratic gains made since the dark days of the 1980s. Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian has shown dictatorial tendencies; the intentions of the new leader of Congo, Laurent-Desir Kabila, remain unclear. Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori has in effect fired three judges who ruled him ineligible to run for a third term.
"There's definitely been a cooling of the democratic trend," says Thomas Carothers, senior associate for democracy promotion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "It's probably to be expected."
After all, the first two waves of democracy - a long, slow swell from 1828 to 1926, and then a sharp surge from 1943 to 1964 - ebbed eventually. It now appears that today's third wave peaked in 1991 or '92.
One possible slowdown cause: Most of the figurative ground that's fertile to democracy has already been plowed. Of the world's 74 unfree nations, few seem to have the tradition, culture, or economic development needed for freedom's full blossom - though history is full of surprises.
And backsliding in such nations as Sierra Leone (which is suffering through a military coup) is showing how difficult full democracy is to achieve. In many regions, old elites are reconsolidating their rule, due to fledgling democrats' weaknesses.
"In terms of thinking strategically about the state of democracy in the world, the priority for the near term is to prevent a worsening range of democratic breakdowns," says Dr. Diamond.
OUTSIDE pressure can indeed have a positive effect, he says. He points to Paraguay, where the US and neighbor members of the Organization of American States rallied behind embattled civilian rule and in essence helped prevent a threatened coup in 1996.
At least democracy now faces no real worldwide competitive model of government. In the past, communism tried to present itself as an alternative to Western-style freedoms. Today, democracy's only real challengers are regional paradigms: Islamic fundamentalism, and East Asian authoritarian capitalist states.
Thus, experts say, the Clinton administration would be well-advised to focus its energies on areas where these alternative kinds of government have some appeal, if it is serious about the expansion of democracy being a top foreign-policy priority.
That would mean investing time and money in Jordan; among Arab nations, King Hussein's state has gone furthest down the democratic road. Similarly, Thailand, the Philippines, and especially Taiwan loom large as East Asian examples. "I see those four countries as being very important to the future of democracy in the world," says Diamond.