August 18, 2010 — While the world focuses on the rise of China, the most important story of the early 21st century goes untold: the ascendance of democratic powers to positions of regional and even global prominence.
Which are the rising democracies?
India: With a population of more than 1 billion, red-hot economic growth and an increasingly capable military, India is Asia's second emerging superpower.
Brazil: The colossus of Latin America, Brazil couples the world's fifth-largest population with a sophisticated industrial base and natural resources ranging from rain forests to undersea oil.
Indonesia: Located athwart the strategic crossroads of the Indian and Pacific oceans, Indonesia is also one of the world's foremost emerging markets.
Turkey: A bridge between West and East since ancient times, Turkey is the Middle East's economic dynamo and a power widely respected across the region.
South Africa: The recent host of the World Cup accounts for one-third of sub-Saharan Africa's gross domestic product and provides the main impetus for regional economic development.
The rise of these democracies is an epic tale - almost one-third of humanity, spread across virtually every region of the developing world, advancing toward greater prosperity under democratic regimes.
This tale should go a long way toward dispelling the gloomy outlook that has enveloped the United States and Europe in recent years.
The West, its faith in the effectiveness of democratic capitalism shaken by the global financial crisis of 2008, can take heart. The rise of India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa puts the lie to claims that countries must choose between development and freedom. The model of authoritarian growth pioneered by China may appear attractive to some, but much of the developing world has opted for a different path.
Rising democracies also hold great promise for the future of international order.
First, they behave predictably. Democracy is based on domestic checks and balances. With power divided, a democracy's foreign policy evolves slowly and within relatively confined boundaries. International order becomes more stable when a majority of the rising powers can only change course after time-consuming debate and consensus-building at home.
Second, democracies can rise and reassure. In a free society, the media extracts information from state authorities and officials enjoy considerable leeway when conversing with foreign counterparts. This transparency conveys a democracy's intentions to the outside world, short-circuiting the cycle of mistrust, reaction and counterreaction that typically accompanies the emergence of new powers. Because most of today's ascendant states have embraced democratic governance, fear will not pervade the international order of the 21st century.
Third, rising democracies are highly permeable. Their checks and balances mean that a variety of groups participate in decision-making, while a free press and communicative officials allow outsiders to easily discern internal disagreements. Other states can shape a rising democracy's foreign policy by lobbying government officials, playing off rival bureaucracies, and cultivating societal groups that, in turn, pressure the government. The West can use these avenues of influence to nudge rising democracies toward becoming pillars of international order.
And so the West's declining share of the world's wealth and military might need not herald the end of international order as we know it. The postwar system founded by the United States, which enshrined principles such as freedom of the seas, the superior legitimacy of democracy, and freedom of trade can endure if rising democracies step up. To be sure, they will demand a greater say in the order's management than accorded in the past. Over the short term, tensions undoubtedly will surface as rising democracies fail to meet Western expectations - and vice versa. But over the long term, a grand bargain with rising democracies to uphold international order is eminently affordable.
Consider the alternative: a disaggregated world where dominant regional powers preside over islands of stability amid a sea of fragile and failed states.