“A lot of people came of age in those years and thought that was normal,” Mr. Carothers said, mistaking the 1990s wave as both the natural state of things and, because the United States was global hegemon, America’s doing.
“But then the war on terror hit in 2001,” he said, and Washington again pressed for pliant autocrats and curbs on democratization, this time in societies where Islam is predominant.
The result has been decades of weakening the foundations of democracy in allied countries. At the same time, American-led pressures in favor of democracy have begun falling away.
“Democratic hegemony is good for democratization, but not through the mechanisms that people usually think about, like democracy promotion,” said Dr. Gunitsky, the scholar of great power politics.
Rather than alliances or presidents demanding that dictators liberalize, neither of which have much of a track record, he said, “The U.S. influence, where it’s strongest, is an indirect influence, as an example to emulate.”
His research has found that the United States spurs democratization when other countries’ leaders, citizens or both see American-style governance as promising benefits like prosperity or freedom. Some may see adopting it, even superficially, as a way to win American support.
But once-positive impressions of American democracy have been rapidly declining.
“Very few in any public surveyed think American democracy is a good example for other countries to follow,” a recent Pew Research Center study found. On average, only 17 percent of people in surveyed countries called U.S. democracy worth emulating, while 23 percent said it had never offered a good example.