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Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century
By Samuel P. Huntington
University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, 366 pages

In this wide-ranging and influential study, Samuel Huntington analyzes the transition of some thirty-five countries, mainly in Asia and Latin America, from nondemocratic to democratic political systems during the 1970s and 1980s. He refers to the widespread international push toward democracy during this period as the "third wave" (not to be confused with Alvin Toffler's "third wave" which became the byword of people like Newt Gingrich in the 1990s). The other "waves" occurred from 1828-1926 and 1943-1962, each followed by reversals. Huntington recognizes that democratic transitions, consolidations, and collapses can all result from a variety of dynamics, and while he explores several of them both analytically and historically, he is more concerned with developing a post hoc explanation than an all-embracing model or predictive theory.

He begins by identifying five changes in the world that paved the way for the latest wave of transitions to democracy: 1) the deepening legitimacy problems of authoritarian governments unable to cope with military defeat and economic failure; 2) the burgeoning economies of many countries, which have raised living standards, levels of education, and urbanization, while also raising civic expectations and the ability to express them; 3) changes in religious institutions which have made them more prone to oppose governmental authoritarianism than defend the status quo; 4) the push to promote human rights and democracy by external actors such as non-governmental organizations and the European Community; and 5) the "snowballing" or demonstration effects, enhanced by new international communications, of democratization in other countries.

Next, Huntington examines the processes by which the transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes took place. He distinguishes four general types of transitions: 1) transformations (as in Spain, India, Hungary, and Brazil) where the elites in power took the lead in bringing about democracy; 2) replacements (as in East Germany, Portugal, Romania, and Argentina) where opposition groups took the lead in bringing about democracy; 3) transplacements (as in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bolivia, and Nicaragua) where democratization occurred from joint action by government and opposition groups; and 4) interventions (as in Grenada and Panama) where democratic institutions were imposed by an outside power.

Huntington also discusses various aspects of democratic stabilization and the prospects of consolidation in fledgling third wave democracies. He outlines a number of conditions that have favored or are favoring the consolidation of new democracies: 1) the experience of a previous effort at democratization, even if it failed; 2) a high level of economic development; 3) a favorable international political environment, with outside assistance; 4) early timing of the transition to democracy, relative to a worldwide "wave," indicating that the drive to democracy derived primarily from indigenous rather than outside influences; and 5) experience of a relatively peaceful rather than violent transition.

Looking to the near future, Huntington is least optimistic about the countries of Mongolia, Sudan, Pakistan, Nicaragua, Romania, Bulgaria, Nigeria, and El Salvador. He is especially pessimistic about the prospects for democracy in regions of the world that have not entered democratization, especially homegrown Marxist-Leninist regimes linked to nationalist appeals. He is also doubtful of the democratic promise of Islamic countries and certain areas of East Asia, making a special point of highlighting the antidemocratic implications of Confucian and Islamic religious doctrines.

The strengths of this book are not in helping us chart our way into an uncertain future (there is a role for such books). Rather, it is to help us make sense of recent events by offering a solid theoretical framework for understanding democratic transitions. Huntington is a scholar of the first rank, and this study is, like many of his others, a major contribution.

Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.