Broadly defined in terms of power (the ABCD, i.e., acquisition, balance, control, and distribution of it), politics has historically been most representatively practised through a democratic government. At this 21st Century juncture, it does not take rocket science to distinguish between the good, bad, and ugly versions of such a government.
In the smallest category, good, there are too few and fragile cases to think loudly and proudly of democracy as an expansive force. Among the even fewer in this bunch that can influence the global architecture are Canada and France. Both having emerged from the closest encounter with a populist pathway in different ways remain the only significant global beacons that aspiring countries can look up to. Canada convincingly thumped the iconoclastic Conservative government of Stephen Harper just when the country was set to institutionally break its multicultural and peacekeeping traditions, while France was plucked out from the jaws of populism too recently to forget. Whereas the former stands the greatest ray of hope for 'alternative' cultures in the industrialised world (such as same sex partners or indigenous people), the latter now stands alone as perhaps the last stand against a populist Europe.
Australia, Japan, other North Sea littoral countries, and their Scandinavian counterparts remain crucial bulwarks of good democracy, but have not impacted the global spread of democracy consequentially enough to inspire other developing countries, as India; and though Narendra Modi won fair and square in the last election with his aggressive agenda by a handsome margin, as in post-Brexit Britain, too many incorrigible elements thwart India's good categorisation credentials.
India's worthy democracy is being undone, piece by piece, through the faster resurgence of a nationalism too mixed with aggressive and inchoate religious attachments. Though these forces emanate from within Modi's own camp, he has done too little to rein in their spillovers, with the results of fanatic targeting of Christians and Muslims, worsening border relations all around, from Bhutan to Kashmir, and unnecessarily provoking the Dragon up north, China. Britain's counterpart corrosive elements remain largely nationalistic and the 'rule Britannia' mindset of yesteryears when Europe ruled the world at a time when Asia speaks for as much of the world as Europe. Political mismatches and over-reaches taint democracy cultivation.
Both these two hitherto stalwart practitioners of good democracy find company in the United States in the bad category. For the United States, populism, 'alternative facts', and childish appearances in international forums have been sufficient to both clip democratic values, practices, and institutions severely, at least for the short-term, and its three-quarters of a century-long decisive global leadership claim. Here lies the incontrovertible proof of domestic politics influencing international counterparts, and vice versa, if ever there was a doubt about it. Like the sinking Lusitania a century ago symbolised the rough beginning of US internationalisation, the globally sinking United States today also symbolises the new bug in both democratic and international leadership calculations: government-aided transnational societal networks breaching democratic elections illegitimately, as Vladimir Putin's Russia is doing.
Blackmail permitted by Internet hacking not only thwarts democracy alarmingly, but may become the slippery-slope down which both Britain and the United States might slide to join Russia in the third category: the ugly lot, a refrain not far removed from how the United States was tagged in the 1950s and 1960s as the dictator's best friend (and exposed through its bungled foreign policy, as in Eugene Brudick's and William Lederer's 1958 book, The Ugly American, and George Englund's 1963 movie, of the same name); or a Britain that exploited slaves to produce sugar, which, in the form of the same tea consumed for thousands of years in China and India, became a 'British cuppa' from the 17th Century, sold no less under gunboat pressure across its Empire. The kindness and gentleness of local cultures and international affairs lie behind quirks of these kinds.
The net result has been to fatten the ugly component of the democratic ladder. Every dictator is there, from Nicolas Maduro in one of the Western Hemisphere's hitherto most socio-economically cultivated countries, Venezuela, to another of Spain's colony, this time in Asia, Rodrigo Duterte's Philippines, with Kim Jong-un's North Korea a hop, skip, and jump away in one direction, and authoritarian monarchs across Arabia in the other.
Also included in this group are all the countries facing the kind of institutionalised corruption that is becoming a cultural trait: from several other Latin countries to South Africa leading a continent that might sink from stolen wealth in spite of teeming millions of migrants.
Several other countries lie on the cusp between categories, either moving up, at least wanting to (like Indonesia), or, mostly, spiralling, downwards (such as Malaysia, Myanmar, Poland, Thailand, and so forth). If it is a bad season to practice democracy, which is historically true, two types of footprints will be left behind for future historians: one, the flaky impression at the bottom of the democracy tier, meant to last only for the short-term, and consisting of dictators, thieves and hardcore popularly re-elected populists in the ugly category, and secondly, the firmly imprinted type, capable by only a few countries at the top, in the good category, but guaranteed to last over the long haul. Whereas the latter is for the daredevil's domain, the more popular former, if replicated time and again, will become both long-term and dominant. As often in its history, democracy 'of the people, by the people, and for the people', cannot but depend on government 'of the few, by the few, and for the few,' to survive.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.