The spread of democracy has been one of the defining geopolitical trends of the last 25 years. In 1975, 30 nations of the world had popularly elected governments. By 2005 that number had rocketed to 119.
But in recent years the growth of democracy and political freedom has slowed. In a number of countries – such as Venezuela and some of the former Soviet states – it's even begun to slip backward.
And for the first time since the heyday of communism, democracy may be facing competition from an ideology that styles itself as an alternative. Enriched by oil money, autocrats such as Vladimir Putin of Russia and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez are challenging the importance of checks on executive power, the rule of law, and unfettered media.
"They are trying to redefine democracy and dumb it down," says Thomas Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House, a think tank that promotes democracy and rates the performance of governments around the world.
First, the good news. The days when the United States and the Soviet Union seemed locked in a great wrestling match over the ideological fate of the world are long gone. After the collapse of Soviet-style communism as a competitive alternative to representational government, popular votes became the norm in much of the globe.
Historians of the future may judge this to be the era of democracy's triumph.
"In the last quarter of the twentieth century this form of government enjoyed a remarkable rise. Once confined to a handful of wealthy countries, it became, in a short period of time, the most popular political system in the world," writes Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.
What we know as democracy today is really the fusion of two things, notes Mandelbaum: popular sovereignty, or voting; and individual liberty or freedom. It's easy to hold a national referendum, but establishing liberty is much more difficult, as it requires laws, police, legislatures, and other institutional trappings of freedom.
In its most recent annual survey, Freedom House rates 90 countries in the world as fully free, meaning they are democracies with established liberties. Fifty-eight are partly free, and 45 are not free, according to Freedom House.
The percentage of nations rated free has not gone up for a decade. And in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the territory of the former Soviet Union, once-promising democratic transitions have turned out to be shallowly rooted.
"There has been a fairly long-term process of stagnation in democracy ... and now we're seeing individual bits of bad news," says Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies, international politics, and governance, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In Pakistan, President Pervez Musharra has begun freeing thousands of opponents from jails across the country, but his declaration of emergency rule has enraged opposition lawyers and set the country's political cauldron on full boil.
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez, elected to a six-year term with 60 percent of the vote in 2000, is pushing forward with a constitutional referendum that, among other things, would allow him unlimited reelections.
In Georgia, President Mikhail Saakshvili has come under strong Western criticism for imposing a state of emergency on Nov. 7 after police violently broke up a large protest gathering. The protests were sparked by opposition allegations of corruption and the possible involvement of Saakshvili's government in a murder plot.
Behind the bad news, say experts, are a number of factors. One is that the wave of democracy unleashed following the fall of the Berlin Wall has run its natural course. Those nations ripe for political change have experienced it and now are trying to consolidate their gains.
Another problem is that in some countries citizens are confronting what they feel are democracy's weaknesses. They have gained a vote, but remain dissatisfied with their lot.
"It's tough sledding for democracy right now," said Vin Weber, chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy, at a Sept. 12 Carnegie seminar.
The high price of oil is not helping. Non-democratic but petroleum-rich states such as Venezuela, Kazakhstan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Angola can use their flush coffers to placate their citizens, and help their neighbors.
"It gives them ready money to go out and promote their style of politics," says Mr. Carothers of Carnegie.
In addition, revelations about warrantless wiretapping, waterboarding, and other controversies related to Iraq and the war on terror have not helped the US image abroad. That gives antidemocrats ammunition to try and discredit the US style of government.
Then there are the examples of Russia and China. Both are doing well economically, though for different reasons. Both present themselves to the rest of the world as alternatives to what they charge is Western chaos.
"The narrative that Putin is using to explain his actions to his people is that he has brought order to Russia after the chaos that the US foisted on them after the collapse of the Soviet Union," says Thomas Melia of Freedom House.
Putin, as well as Chavez of Venezuela, and Hamas officials in the Palestinian Authority, deliver services to the lowest sectors of society in a manner that democracy did not seem able to do, according to US experts.
And while there may not yet be an Axis of Autocracy, Venezuela, Iran, Russia, China, and others press what they consider their advantages in as many international organizations and forums as they can.
"In the last year and a half, what you've seen is more effective coordination of autocracies, while democrats dither," says Mr. Melia.
Europe and the free nations of Latin and Central America need to understand there is a real problem, and join with the US to counter this propaganda, says Melia.
"There's another cold war underway," he says. "It's not East vs. West, but democracy versus nondemocracy."