The pessimism that has marked public discourse in the United States and Europe over the past five years obscures two overwhelmingly positive trends that now characterize the international system.
The first is that liberal democracy can no longer be considered an exclusively Western value. Seventy percent of those living in electoral democracies today reside in the developing world (almost 60 percent in nine large countries: India, Indonesia, Brazil, Bangladesh, Mexico, the Philippines, Turkey, Thailand, and South Africa). Fifty-two states represented at last year’s Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran — an event dismissed by many commentators in the West as a congregation of dictators — had held free and fair elections. Most of these countries adopted democracy of their own accord, not because of its imposition by the West. In fact, democracy has flourished in many of these states despite tacit or active support for authoritarian regimes by the United States and its allies.
The second welcome trend is that developing democracies are delivering. Emerging democratic powers are growing rapidly, creating new markets, improving productivity, and pulling tens of millions of their citizens out of poverty each year. Together, the economies of the nine largest developing democracies have grown an astonishing 330 percent in dollar terms over the past decade, comparing favorably to 174 percent for the eurozone and 147 percent for the United States.
At a time of austerity, it is perhaps natural that the transatlantic allies should want to focus on nation-building at home and pressing global challenges, such as the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and the rise of China. To do this, however, would be short-sighted. The constructive engagement of key emerging democracies not only has the potential to revitalize the U.S. and European economies by expanding market access and helping to preserve an open trading system, it may also be the only way to address the structural threats to Western interests, values, and institutions posed by political outliers.