The current Journal of International Affairs editorial board is diverse, comprising of students from countries across six continents, ranging from the oldest constitutional democracy in the world to four ex-Commonwealth states, one of which gained independence less than 60 years ago. Regardless of our backgrounds, we, like the majority of the diverse student body at SIPA, had our worldviews shaken by the historical events of 2016 and 2017: multiple impeachments, social-media driven uprisings, unpredictable political campaigns that redefined expectations and bewildered analysts, covert interference in national elections, and referendums that wreaked political havoc. In the United Kingdom, a win by the “Leave” camp made it clear that predictive polls have to be taken with a grain of salt. Catalonia attempted to declare independence from Spain through popular referendum. Turkey continues to crack down on society following a failed coup attempt, while the Zimbabwean military overthrew long-time ruler Robert Mugabe.
At the same time, democracies around the world experienced triumphant firsts. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) struck a landmark peace agreement 50-years in the making. Political scandals surrounding South Korean President Park Geun-hye led to a grassroots-driven impeachment in South Korea—the first for the country since 1948. While debates continue on the extent and role of foreign interference in the 2016 United States presidential elections, over 5 million women across 84 countries took to the streets in a historic march for “Women’s Rights as Human Rights” following the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
At this uncertain moment in time, the editors of The Democracy Issue brought together prominent experts, thought leaders, and political figures from across the world to debate and discuss the current state of democracy and democracies in the world. Professor Lisa Anderson at Columbia SIPA evaluates the ability of political science to explain recent political phenomena. Álvaro Gómez del Valle Ruiz, graduate student at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, considers troubling non-democratic practices in the world’s democracies that harm the political system itself.
In addition to gauging the general state of democracy and political analysis, our authors have addressed specific aspects of this issue. Anya Schiffrin, professor and director of the Technology, Media, and Communications specialization at Columbia SIPA, examines forms of disinformation and their impact on democracy. H. Akin Unver, assistant professor at Kadir Has University and fellow at Oxford University and Alan Turing Institute, analyzes the transformation of digital media platforms into political governance systems. Looking at the digital problem practically, Venkat Motupalli, Chief Information Officer of the New York City Department of Veterans’ Services and professor at Columbia SIPA, offers recommendations to various actors on their use of big data.
On the role of civil society, Jenik Radon, adjunct professor at Columbia SIPA, and Lidia Cano Pecharroman, graduate research fellow at Columbia University Earth Institute’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity, argue that governments can benefit from its ability to ease social tensions. Writing on their organization’s work, Laleh Ispahani and Sarah R. Knight of Open Society Foundations consider the ways in which philanthropy must adapt to a changing political landscape in the US and around the world. Steven Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and professor at SIPA, assesses the role of grassroots initiatives for environmental protection at the local level in the transition to renewable resources.
We learn more about democracy from the specific experiences of countries. We have the honor of including a piece by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, offering his own perspective on the peace process with FARC. Benjamin Goldfrank, associate professor at Seton Hall University, writes on the opportunities for participatory democracy missed by the Left in Latin America. Journalist and writer Nicole Pope presents an in-depth look at the recent coup attempt in Turkey and the country’s drift into authoritarianism.
In addition, we interview Rana Foroohar, a global economic analyst at CNN and The Financial Times, about the impacts of globalization on modern democracy. Sheri Berman, professor of political science at Barnard College and an expert in European politics, speaks on the state of democracy in Europe given recent events. Lilia Shevtsova, associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, offers her opinion on prospects for democracy in Russia considering the country’s upcoming presidential elections.
Our winning student essay by David Korenke, Columbia SIPA, revisits the issue of US democracy promotion, specifically in the context of Ukraine and the Maidan protest movement. We also review Human Rights Futures, edited by Stephen Hopgood, Jack Snyder, and Leslie Vinjamuri; We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History by Cemil Aydin. We intend for this issue on democracy to be both reflective and informative: understanding the challenges ahead based on these perspectives and experiences will be key in addressing them moving forward.