President Reagan once famously remarked that the Soviet Union and other authoritarian regimes were failing and would be consigned to the "dust bin of history." In the 1980s, it seemed that the "arc of history" was bending toward liberal democracy, the principles presented by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and the Enlightenment philosophies of freedom, independence, self-government, and the equality of all people. The easing of restrictions under Soviet Perestroika, the Solidarity movement in Poland and the overthrow of oppressive regimes in South America all pointed toward a more democratic future. Soon after, the Soviet empire collapsed.
This week's news, however, seems to point in the opposite direction. Venezuela appears to be falling headlong into authoritarianism, and Turkey, a member of NATO, is turning to mass trials and the abolition of dissent.
Venezuela has declared victory for a proposal from appointed president Modura that will dissolve the national legislature and replace it with an assembly selected by Modura himself. The Sunday referendum, which was nearly universally condemned as illegitimate, approved the sweeping powers and rewrite of the constitution. That was followed by the dark-of-the-night arrest and imprisonment of opposition leaders. The nation is in turmoil after years of mismanaged, centralized economic policies. Basic necessities such as food and toilet paper are said to be unavailable in Caracas, the capital. The notion that a hungry, oppressed electorate would choose more of the same is a farce. Yet, Modura appears to be winning the battle against the public. The United States is imposing sanctions, but a collapsed economy can only be hurt slightly by economic sanctions.
In Turkey, President Erdogan continues a crackdown that has followed last year's unsuccessful coup attempt. Erdogan has used the coup attempt to justify his arrest of political opponents. Turkey had been one of the few democratic and secular Islamic majority nations, but the continuing crackdown has reversed hopes for a democratic, secular society. This week, mass trials began, featuring 500 defendants dragged into a courtroom for a prosecution with a result pre-ordained. European and American NATO members have to cringe at the obligation they have to defend this dictatorship should it be attacked by any other nation.
Since Reagan's "dust bin of history" remark, the United States has conducted a forceful foreign policy based on America's unchallenged global military power. But with Putin's Russia and Xi's China extending their reach and influence, the United States may no longer go unchallenged in a crisis. Putin is sowing seeds of discontent and doubt in democratic countries and trying to prove that a central authority is superior to a dispersed, federal, democratic system. If Venezuela and Turkey succeed in their transition from democracy to dictatorship, other countries, encouraged by Putin's conniving and China's economic successes, could be tempted to shift their allegiance from democratic ideals to authoritarian practicality.