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Special Lecture by Prof. Larry Diamond: “Crises of Democracy: Key Trends, Causes, and Policy Responses”

Special Lecture by Prof. Larry Diamond: “Crises of Democracy: Key Trends, Causes, and Policy Responses”
August 8, 2017 15:00-17:00
Conference Hall, KFAS

On August 8, Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies hosted a special lecture by Prof. Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Titled “Crises of Democracy: Key Trends, Causes, and Policy Responses,” this lecture provided an opportunity to hear Prof. Diamond’s valuable insights on the makings of democracy and how to hold firm to our cherished values. Attended by more than three hundred people, the event also included a tete-a-tete session with Prof. Lee Sook Jong of Sungkyunkwan University.

Prof. Diamond began the lecture by delineating what constitutes a true democracy. He emphasized that democracy is not just about elections, and that a liberal, high quality democracy is composed of three dimensions: majority rule, minority rights (freedom), and good governance (rule of law). “These three themes are in tension with one another,” he said, “and the challenge for any society is to find a way to balance them.”

He then pointed out the current phenomenon of the worldwide democratic “recession”. Since the third wave of democracy that began in 1974, the world has seen a continued growth of democracy until it met an inflection point in 2006. Since then democracy has been declining, though modestly. Prof. Diamond added that democratic breakdowns no longer result from dramatic change of military coup overturning a popularly elected government, as was the case in Thailand. Now democracy generally gets lost when popularly elected leaders, like Erdogan in Turkey, gradually strangle democracy. The causes of those breakdowns, Prof. Diamond indicated, include weak rule of law, lack of transparency, severe polarization, and poor economic performance.

Regarding the failure of the Arab Spring, which he termed the “Arab Freeze,” Prof. Diamond explained that the political institutions in the Arab region were very weak, with little experience with democracy, and had little time for development. He emphasized that “democratic progress is usually more sustainable if it is incremental.” He would rather see the Chinese Communist Party engage in a sustained, planned pattern of liberalization that gradually opens up the country as the Kuomintang did in Taiwan. China has now reached the level of economic development where it could successfully liberalize, but regretfully China doesn’t seem to have the will, he said.

Prof. Diamond also warned about the negative impact social media can have on amplifying polarization. Our reaction to this problem, however, should not be state regulation, but we should rather be gearing up educational and civic actors to help train young people to develop critical thinking and become questioning citizens.

“We are in a new era.” With these words Prof. Diamond expressed concerns about the resurgence of authoritarianism. Democracy has lost the dynamism of pushing its values, ideas and narratives, he argued, while countries like China, Russia, and Iran are actively spreading their ideas through both hard and soft power. If we want to reverse this trend, he argued emphatically, we should go back to what we believe in, which is fighting for and promoting democratic values and pushing back against the expansion of the authoritarian regimes. Here, he stressed Korea’s role in assisting budding democracies in Asia. “We need your help. I implore you to launch conversation in the Korean society and support democrats elsewhere in Asia.”

The lecture was followed by a discussion with Prof. Lee Sook Jong of Sungkyunkwan University. On the rise of the China model and its impact on democracy, Prof. Diamond conveyed that he is critical of the China model argument. There is little faith in the current system among the entrepreneurs and the ruling elites in China, he argued, and that is why they send their kids and money abroad. Once again, he urged Korean civil society to have moral responsibility and help the Chinese people go through peaceful political change. 

On the question of how to include democracy promotion in the American foreign policy, Prof. Diamond answered that it has to be woven into the policy making process, while keeping the balance with economic and security concerns. While the government is constrained by other concerns, civil society can do many things, and the keyword is partnership. “Democracy cannot be imposed on people,” he stated, “but should be a response to their initiative.”

In the Q&A session, one student audience asked about the lessons we could draw from the Cross-Strait relations. Prof. Diamond answered that in the Cross-Strait relations, positive development was possible because the mainland China went through economic modernization under pragmatic leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Along the same line, it is fundamental for North Korea to modernize. He reinforced that organic change will be hard to achieve if there is no liberalization inside North Korea.

Prof. Diamond previously served as a consultant to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He has also advised and lectured to the World Bank, the United Nations, the State Department, and other governmental and nongovernmental agencies dealing with governance and development. His sixth and most recent book, In Search of Democracy (Routledge, 2016), explores the challenges confronting democracy and democracy promotion, gathering together three decades of his work on democratic development, particularly in Africa and Asia.

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