During the last 50 years, Western democracies have faced significant stresses and undergone major changes. In his panoramic, well-researched, consistently stimulating transnational history, Empire of Democracy, Simon Reid-Henry, a British writer and scholar, shows in very readable prose how U.S. and European democracies have fared both economically and in regard to equality while building vibrant democratic orders.
The Cold War “was absolutely fundamental to the success of Western democracy post-1945.” The common threads that bound countries together were the relationships between and among capitalism, liberalism and democracy. But there was a continuing need to reinvent democracy. Demonstrations took place during the 1960s in the U.S. and Europe, as students and others protested against the Vietnam War and for civil rights and women’s rights, while movements for workers’ rights and other causes were taking place in France, Germany, Britain, Portugal and Spain. Identity politics emerged, and subjects that had previously been treated as aspects of one’s personal life became political causes.
Reid-Henry traces the international financial crisis of 2008 to the capitalist structures that have defined Western democracy since the 1970s. The reunification of Germany and the peaceful management of the transition after the fall of communism were major achievements, and much has been written about the close relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But the importance of the cooperation between Germany’s Helmut Kohl and France’s Francois Mitterrand in the 1980s may have been, in its way, just as important.
Today’s democracies must deal with globalization, migration, the environment, international terrorism and threats to democratic rule. There is much to think about in this engrossing overview of how we got to the present.