Since the 1970s the growth of democracy worldwide has been strong and continuous. But in the past year, evidence that democratic growth may be slowing or may even have peaked is increasing.
Most analysts agree that now is not the time to let up - many of democracy's gains are still fragile and a failure to follow up would result in retrenchment.
But exactly how to build on past gains and ignite new democratic growth are now fodder for lively debate among American diplomats and scholars.
The end of the cold war, say some, means that the US needs more nuance and less muscle if it wants to ensure the continued growth of stable democracies around the world - that pushing for elections alone is not the answer.
"We need to get away from the architectural view of democracy; we can no longer view elections as the erector set of democracy," says Joseph Montville, the director of preventative diplomacy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Elections without bolstering social awareness and economic openness [doesn't work]." Mr. Montville says that the United States should pay more attention to "the soul of democracy rather than its superstructure.... Otherwise it entrenches inequalities that are already in place."
But other US analysts say Washington should step up political and economic pressure to force undemocratic governments to hold free and fair elections. This view holds that while elections may not guarantee human rights and freedoms, they are still the best way of jump-starting the democratic process.
Stick with what works
"Twenty years of efforts by the US and other mature democracies have borne fruit over and over again," says Adrian Kartnycky, president of Freedom House, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to the strengthening of democracies. "This is not a time to abandon a proven policy," he says. "The record shows that democratic procedures over time help overcome these threats to freedom and lead to better compliance with basic civil liberties."
With the end of the cold war and the perceived triumph of democratic capitalism, he says, the US and other "mature democracies" have become more preoccupied with geopolitical and economic self-interest - and have allowed pressure on undemocratic nations to slacken. The danger, he says, is that countries such as China are becoming models for those who would like growth and expansion, but aren't interested in human rights or toeing the democratic line.
But some analysts say the US can no longer rely so much on traditional political and economic arm-twisting to coerce democratic change.
"We are past the state of paternalism where one country or community can dictate to another," says Catherin Dalpino, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Democracy cannot substitute for conflict resolution. Forcing the issue without preparing the ground is like planting seeds in a dry, parched desert."
But Ms. Dalpino, and other proponents of a more nuanced approach, say they are not suggesting the US do nothing, just refocus more of its energy on finding individual solutions for each country and situation.
Building trust in Bosnia
For example, says Montville, in Bosnia his group has been working for three years with mid-level clergy - Muslim clerics, Serb Orthodox priests, and Croat Roman Catholics. By allowing each to present their grievances and "lay pain on the table," he says, they have then been successful in building trust and mutual respect based on their shared spiritual and humanitarian values.
"Now some of our graduates are committing themselves to working together for the common good," he says. "We have seen Serb priests using their standing and prestige to protect and escort refugees of other faiths and nationalities back to their homes in Serb communities. These things take time, but they build a solid foundation for increased freedom and lasting democracy."