Six Steps to Save Global Democracy

The U.S. government badly needs a National Democracy Strategy.

By Michael Abramowitz and Alex Thier

Around the world, democracy is declining and authoritarianism is on the march. The democratic erosion is happening on every continent, in democracies old and new, rich and poor. In some countries, internal threats, including extremism, populism, polarization, and corruption, are weakening the foundations of free and open societies. In others, the failure of democratic governments to deliver inclusive economic growth and equitable services is undermining faith in the very idea of democracy. At the same time, China’s totalitarian regime is expanding its influence, and the Russian leadership is working hard to disrupt democracies and strengthen like-minded dictators.

While the causes of the trend may be diverse, the consequences for the United States and its allies are uniformly dire. Democratic decline and authoritarian gains threaten global peace and stability, America’s economic and security partnerships, and general respect for human dignity. Nevertheless, the United States has yet to squarely address this urgent strategic challenge.

During his speech to Congress last month, President Joe Biden touched on this problem, saying: “The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent.” He added, “America’s adversaries—the autocrats of the world—are betting it can’t. . . . They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works.”

Biden’s White House should turn this rhetoric into policy. It can begin with creating a National Democracy Strategy which would lay out a detailed, medium-term vision that puts advancing democracy and countering authoritarianism at the center of both domestic and foreign policy. The president should establish a National Democracy Council at the White House to draft, coordinate, and oversee the implementation of this strategy. This council would also carry the responsibility for planning President Biden’s Summit for Democracy and ensuring its commitments are implemented.

What might a National Democracy Strategy look like? Here are six essential elements, drawn from the report of the Task Force on U.S. Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism. Co-convened by Freedom House, this diverse group included senior policymakers and specialists from both Republican and Democratic administrations.

1/ The United States should significantly scale up investment in the pillars of an open, accountable, inclusive, and democratic society. For example, it could create an ambitious new public-private fund to support independent media outlets that are under attack all over the world. This venture could help transform struggling local journalism, which is critical to exposing the corruption and human rights abuses of authoritarian and illiberal regimes.

Such investment could also support a new center for election integrity that pools knowledge and resources from the United States and other democracies to combat electoral interference. Over the past decade, leading authoritarian regimes have spent heavily in at least 33 countries—including the United States—to undermine local democratic processes. Some may question whether America can credibly offer help or advice to other countries given the problems surrounding our own elections. We believe, however, that the successful action by a multitude of state governments, courts, and civil society organizations to defend against deliberate efforts to undermine the U.S. election gives us critical experience to share with others—warts and all. The administration should approach this in a spirit of openness to successful initiatives abroad and share hard-earned lessons of the 2020 election.

2/ The United States should make combating corruption and kleptocracy a national security priority. Modern-day authoritarians are weaponizing the corruption of their countries’ elites to build their autocracies. Corruption harms effective governance, undermines economic growth, and weakens the rule of law. It also corrodes public trust, fuels both apathy and extremism, and is interwoven with security threats like organized and transnational crime, terrorism, human rights abuses, and armed conflict.

Unfortunately, the nearly universal political commitments to combat corruption have thus far resulted only in cosmetic measures. President Biden has publicly pledged to fight corruption, and the administration should follow up by forging an international action plan to combat corruption and strengthen democratic values. Among other steps, it could back the creation of a new mandate for an existing intergovernmental body, the Financial Action Task Force, to formalize anti-corruption standards, rigorously assess countries’ performances, and incentivize progress in addressing corruption. The U.S. and others, including the multilateral development banks and private capital, should use these assessments to restrict financing to corrupt and authoritarian regimes. 

3/ The United States should ramp up diplomacy in defense of democracy and human rights. The State Department can start with support for embattled human rights defenders and civil society groups working on the front lines of the struggle for freedom, from Thailand and Hong Kong to Nicaragua, Belarus, Uganda, and beyond. Despite the pandemic-related lockdowns, mass democratic protest movements have continued to proliferate, most notably in recent months in Myanmar. The Burmese public’s heroic resistance in the face of lethal violence has challenged the military junta that seized power in February. The United States, the world’s oldest and greatest liberal democracy, must support these grassroots efforts, quietly when necessary, but with open solidarity whenever possible.

The State Department can play a crucial role here, ensuring that our embassies maintain regular contact with dissidents and proactively seek to consult with or assist human rights defenders, their safety permitting, in politically sensitive countries. Secretary of State Antony Blinken should require each U.S. embassy to include in its strategic plans an explicit examination of the host country’s democracy, rights, and rule of law indicators and identify what the mission plans will do to support democracy, including the extent of engagement with local civil society.

4/ A new democracy strategy should elevate democracy and human rights to a privileged status in technology policy. The original notion of the internet as a free and open medium that operates across national borders has badly deteriorated. Totalitarian regimes like China and Russia have weaponized it to suppress dissent at home and undermine democracy abroad. The United States should rally fellow democracies to turn back the splintering of the internet into protected national intranets and combat the rise of digital authoritarianism as championed by Beijing.

Democrats and Republicans should be able to find common ground on the need to resist the growing use of technology for censorship and surveillance as we have seen in countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and Myanmar. The United States must do more to deny such regimes access to technologies that can be turned on their own populations, in part by establishing stronger export controls. Furthermore, the Biden administration needs to work with allies to discourage the share of such technologies with autocrats.

5/ The United States needs to intensify its focus on restoring trust in the information environment and countering the spread of disinformation and online hate and harassment. The 2016 elections in the United States brought misinformation to the front of national debates. The situation has only gotten worse ever since. The democratization of information and the proliferation of different forms of media have resulted in diminishing trust in media institutions. This has allowed for the reemergence of misinformation and conspiracy theories around the world. Autocrats have weaponized this and are running smear campaigns against marginalized ethnic and religious groups, the LGBTQ community, and others. These campaigns are especially vicious against independent journalists and human rights activists.

One way to fight back is to build societal resilience by ensuring that people around the world—especially youth, women, and members of marginalized communities—are able to access and produce credible information and have the skills to identify and reject disinformation. This effort should include investments in the necessary infrastructure and in digital literacy and the promotion of digital entrepreneurship so that local actors can develop their own tools to address disinformation and hate speech and apply emerging technologies like artificial intelligence in ways that advance democratic priorities.

6/ The United States should harness its enormous economic power to support democracy and counter authoritarianism. This means designing trade agreements that entrench human rights and international labor standards and demanding the same from the private sector. The administration needs to give companies stronger incentives to promote democratic values in their choice of investment destinations and foreign subsidiaries. On top of that, the U.S. government needs to protect American businesses from foreign government backlash when they stand up for fundamental rights like freedom of speech.

The United States should also significantly enhance its use of development finance to support sustainable and inclusive growth, empower women, and help ensure that democracy delivers benefits for all segments of the population. The current economic aid, as appropriated by Congress, is less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget. This has to change. America should use its economic tools—including its influence in multilateral development banks and other investment institutions—to proactively support democracies to succeed, or prevent Beijing’s model of opacity, corruption, and debt traps from undermining open societies and national security.

A grand pro-democracy agenda might seem a tall order for a country struggling with its own democratic bona fides and striving along with the rest of the world to recover from a devastating pandemic and head off an intensifying climate crisis. But the dynamo at the heart of America is its system of free self-government. The yearning of others for the same is one of America’s strengths in its foreign policy. We can restore American credibility and influence abroad by acknowledging and repairing our own democratic deficiencies. And by supporting democracy around the world, America will make itself more secure, prosperous, and free.

All over the globe, people are taking great risks to achieve liberty and equality. Now is the time for the United States to join them—with support, with solidarity, but most of all, with a plan for success. This isn’t mere altruism. It is at the core of America’s interest.

Michael Abramowitz is president of Freedom House and a co-convener of the Task Force on U.S. Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism. Alex Thier is chief executive of the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery and co-director of the task force.