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To Boost Democracy Abroad, Biden Needs a Real Strategy
Nice words must become bold action.
Activists in the Republic of Georgia did something remarkable a few weeks ago, stopping their young democracy from backsliding further into authoritarian rule with peaceful protest. Rather than accept a copycat law based on Russian legislation that would allow the government to crush civil society, a coalition—formed of both youth groups and stalwarts who still remember what it took to throw off Soviet repression—came together. Days before the protest began, I sat in the Fukuyama Frontline Democracy Center in Tbilisi with longtime pro-democracy activist Nino Evgenidze. She told me, “We will not go quietly.” They didn’t.
Georgia’s story is powerful not because it is so unique, but because the challenges the protesters face have become so common. After a powerful global wave of democracy crested in the 1990s, freedom has taken a beating around the world. As the 2023 Freedom in the World report makes clear, we are now facing an unbroken run of 17 consecutive years of global backsliding. No region has been spared, with hundreds of millions of citizens losing essential political and civil rights in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. According to V-DEM, 72% of the world’s citizens now live in autocracies, the highest proportion since 1986. While the specifics of the story differ from place to place (rising repression and aggression, inequality, climate, technology) the broad arc is clear: democracy is in crisis.
So what must be done to stem the tide and stop the unraveling of rights and freedoms around the world? President Biden has called this “the defining challenge of our time.” This is not the first time we have faced such a challenge: in the two decades before Biden’s birth in 1942, the number of democracies worldwide halved. In today’s era of decline, are the United States and its democratic allies doing enough to meet the gravity of the threat?
The track record, two years into the Biden administration, is mixed. This week, the White House is convening its second Summit for Democracy, following its virtual gathering of world leaders in 2021 to discuss democratic resilience. These summits have been valuable for spurring action on important new initiatives, like more support for independent media and anti-kleptocracy efforts. A new USAID “Bright Spots” initiative, aimed at focusing additional resources on countries experiencing democratic breakthroughs, has promise. Encouragingly, these new investments have been accompanied by diplomatic efforts to align democratic actors on global problems—most notably on Russia and Ukraine, and the role of technology in rising authoritarianism. Overall, these efforts are both strengthening the tool box for supporters of liberal democracy and building a group of allies willing and able to wield those tools.
But with so much backsliding, and Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin creating a global authoritarian axis, we are still fighting a forest fire with a bucket brigade. At a strategic level, we have yet to articulate a broad vision of transformation—or a compelling thesis explaining why these steps, taken together, will result in the change we seek. There is also little sign of the demanding tactical policy, fiscal, or bureaucratic realignments—changed funding priorities, high-level appointments, presidential directives—to drive the focus and resources needed for material change.
The U.S. concern about democratic decline comes not only from the fundamental American belief that all people regardless of race, creed, or country are deserving of freedom, democracy, and basic dignity. It is also born of the recognition that the other most important things we want for ourselves—security, prosperity, a livable planet, public health—are heavily dependent on cooperation with other nations. This does not require that other nations be liberal democracies, but it helps: When other countries have accountable government, rule of law, and a free press, they are better and more reliable partners. By contrast, when nations invade neighbors, hide disease outbreaks, enslave minorities, manipulate markets, and pollute the environment and their people without public protest, they undermine the fundamentals of our shared success.
To start, the United States needs a detailed National Democracy Strategy that rises to this moment. Such a strategy should begin with an assessment of the human, economic, and security costs of declines and improvements in democracy and authoritarianism. Measuring the systemic effects and costs of public health crises, climate change, and discrimination has been invaluable for policy and advocacy. We know that the costs of rising authoritarianism (war, disinformation, crushed human potential) or failed states (refugees, famine, regional destabilization) are enormous. But if we don’t at least attempt to count these costs, we can’t factor them into our long-term thinking. To establish a baseline of facts and expectations, the White House should request a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) to assess the global state of democracy, the drivers of decline, and related impacts on U.S. security and the economy.
Second, the strategy must articulate a compelling theory of change. Rather than doing many things in many places and calling the result a strategy, we need an evidence-based articulation of why our new direction will lead to the desired outcome. In other words, what sorts of policies, actions, and investments have the potential to make real change over what time frame? This assessment should also take into account the neighborhood effects of good governance: Turn the tide in one place, and change in the next becomes more likely. Prevent an assault on civil society in Georgia, and democratic movements nearby take courage. Prevent a post-election coup in Brazil, and rising autocrats in South America will have to think twice about trying the same. Keep the free press alive in Afghanistan, and it affects Iran and Central Asia.
To this end, we should be “doing development democratically.” Too much of global development investment seems agnostic about democracy, instead focusing on “effectiveness” and “delivery,” like the billions spent on public health in Uganda and Rwanda even as their citizens steadily lose their basic rights. This approach gets the dynamic of sustainable development and democratic transformation backward: it is always the citizens struggling on the front lines who bring about change in their own societies. Unless the changes—to education, health, infrastructure, and governance—come with meaningful citizen participation and respect for rights, they are unlikely to be sustainable. Informed and engaged citizens also make a strong bulwark against rising authoritarians. Yet, foreign assistance too often breaks, rather than reinforces, local chains of accountability by divorcing policymakers from the beneficiaries of their policies and making them dependent instead on foreign funders. We need to align economic, trade, and development policy to support democratic consolidation and reduce vulnerabilities to malign influence.
Finally, in order to be taken seriously, a National Democracy Strategy would need a credible set of commitments. In this, President Biden should look to the recent praise of PEPFAR, President George W. Bush’s twenty year old Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, as a guide. This bold initiative has helped to bend the global arc of the AIDS epidemic. It hasn’t only been effective—with 25 million lives saved—but it also has persevered with eye-popping global financial commitments, policy reforms, and bi-partisanship. PEPFAR’s power has been in working with those countries facing the biggest challenges, making long-term commitments, and adapting to local circumstances. A PEPFAR for supporting struggling democracies and democratic movements—with big price tags, lots of partners, and a ten- to twenty-year horizon—could do the same.
Also read: “The Collapse of Liberal Internationalism” by Michael Ignatieff
It won’t be easy. For many reasons, the United States has lost credibility around the world as a beacon of democracy, imperiling efforts to lead and galvanize allies let alone more reluctant partners. But being knocked off our pedestal may, ironically, make us more likely to succeed. While engaging with leaders in the emerging Chinese foreign aid infrastructure between 2013 and 2015, I was particularly struck by one defining element of their worldview: that the Chinese understand what development and poverty reduction really feels like, because they have lived it every day for decades. In their view this made them a good development partner, while the United States—so far from the political, social, and economic realities of low-income countries—was not. Today, America is much more down in the dirt with others, dealing with election denial, disinformation, corruption, even political violence. This near-term experience of struggle should sharpen our own communication, urgency, and responses.
The alternative is bleak. Without a serious long-term strategy and investment, progress is unlikely. Like global warming, tipping points could leave countries and regions irreversibly unfree, or at least unfree for a long, long time. Global closing—the relentless and measurable decline of open societies and civil and political rights around the world—is real. Today, for the first time in more than two decades, there are more people living in unfree or partly free societies than in liberal democracies. A few more authoritarian takeovers, wars of aggression, pandemics, or mass economic disruptions, and 2042 could look a lot more like 1942 than we ever dreamed possible. Failure to dream and prepare now will make that dispiriting future more likely.
Alex Thier, a Senior Advisor at Moby Media, a global media and education company, was Co-Director of the bipartisan Task Force on Supporting Democracy and Countering Authoritarianism.
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