The Coming Democratic Revival: America’s Opportunity to Lead the Fight Against Authoritarianism – Foreign Affairs Magazine
For two centuries, American leaders have quarreled about how high to place support for democracy on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities. The Biden administration’s recent tragedy-marred withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan reinforced the view of skeptics from across the domestic political spectrum that actively promoting democracy overseas is naive and less likely to advance the country’s core interests than to embroil it in no-win quagmires. They point as well to a steady decline in global freedom over the past 15 years as evidence that emphasizing democratic values is out of touch with prevailing trends and therefore a losing strategy, one that actually detracts from the country’s international standing. With the United States confronted by partisan divisions at home and fierce adversaries abroad, these critics assert that U.S. leaders can no longer afford to indulge in Lincolnesque fantasies about democracy as the last best hope on earth. They must instead shift their focus inward and accept the world as it is.
This thesis, although in keeping with the emotions of the hour, is shortsighted and wrong. It would be a grave error for the United States to waver in its commitment to democracy. Historically, the republic’s claim on the global imagination has been inseparable from its identity—however imperfectly embodied—as a champion of human freedom, which remains a universal aspiration. The more disturbing events of the twenty-first century, for all their complications, have dented, but not destroyed, what remains a unique foreign policy asset. Nothing would be more foolish than to toss away this comparative advantage or to flee the global stage entirely due to past disappointments and self-doubt.
The United States still has immense resources it can deploy for purposes that serve both its immediate needs and its enduring ideals. Should the country conclude otherwise, however, and decide to absent itself from the democratic struggle, it would disappoint its friends, aid its enemies, magnify future risks to its citizens, impede human progress, and compromise its ability to lead on any issue. What is more, American leaders would be sounding the call for retreat at precisely the moment an opportunity has arisen to spark a democratic resurgence. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the momentum is not with the enemies of democracy. It’s true that in recent years, some authoritarians have grown stronger. But in many cases, they are now failing to deliver, including in countries where people increasingly expect accountable leadership even in the absence of democratic rule. This is a key point that few observers have yet grasped. Democracy is not a dying cause; in fact, it is poised for a comeback.
According to Freedom House, authoritarian leaders took advantage of international indifference amid the COVID-19 pandemic last year to crush opponents and shrink the space available for democratic activism. As a result, “countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006. The long democratic recession is deepening.”
There is, however, a silver lining in this cloud: it is easier to move upward from a valley than from a peak. Measurements of democracy’s slump typically start with the period following the breakup of the Soviet Union, when newly free democratic governments emerged in almost every region. Many states whose democracies are now troubled were under authoritarian rule until about 30 years ago. Today, the world takes note when authorities in Tanzania arrest an opposition leader, leaders in Sri Lanka consolidate their power, the president of Brazil threatens to cancel elections, or the prime minister of Hungary rules by decree. Yet there was a time in recent memory when those countries were not democracies at all. Despite their current distress, the forces of freedom have an enlarged platform from which to mount a revival.
Observers should also note that democracy’s decline coincided with the rise of international terrorism, the 2008 global financial meltdown, the Syrian civil war, a global refugee crisis, and a worldwide public health catastrophe. These events stoked a host of popular frustrations and fears, with most blame settling on elected leaders. The next 20 years can hardly be less conducive to liberty’s growth than the last.
This is the case in part because the world’s two most prominent authoritarian states, China and Russia, have squandered their best chance to offer an appealing alternative to liberal democracy. With the United States missing in action during President Donald Trump’s four years in office, and Europe preoccupied with Brexit and other intramural disputes, the governments in Beijing and Moscow had their opportunity to establish themselves as global models. They blew it. According to a 2021 survey of people in 17 developed countries conducted by the Pew Research Center, unflattering views of China are at a historic high, and a median of 74 percent of those polled reported that they had no confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin to do the right thing in world affairs. The results are easily explained. The Chinese government’s transactional approach, lack of transparency, and tendency to bully have left it with more contracts than friends. The regime in the Kremlin, meanwhile, is widely thought to be corrupt, untrustworthy, and a one-man show rapidly approaching its final curtain. Russia, a country that according to the World Health Organization ranked 97th in average life expectancy in 2019, does not have much to brag about.
Further, the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election was a blow to autocrats everywhere. Trump’s belly flop demolished the myth he helped create that relentless egotism is a political winner. Many of Trump’s most outspoken international admirers have also suffered losses or are under siege. These include Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and France’s Marine Le Pen. The Philippines is one of the few countries where a charismatic strongman still has an appreciative audience. But the 76-year-old Rodrigo Duterte’s term as president ends next May.
For all these reasons, a democratic comeback is possible. But should one begin, it will meet resistance. Although some authoritarians are self-obsessed amateurs, many are skilled at shaping public perceptions and checkmating potential opponents. Their ranks are split between those who insist that they are democrats—albeit “illiberal” ones—and those who openly scoff at even the most basic democratic norms. All of them assert that in a dangerous and amoral world, leaders must be able to act decisively to impose order, repel threats, and foster national greatness. In recent years, authoritarians have provided cover for one another through their influence in multilateral bodies and by insisting that governments not be criticized by outsiders for doing whatever they wish within their countries’ borders. National sovereignty, they assert, is a sufficient defense against any allegation.
Dictators also have the advantage of intimidation. Few are above using force to harass political rivals and disrupt protests. Their goal in so doing is less to change minds than to convince women and men yearning for freedom to surrender that aspiration. Sometimes, this works.
But people should not abandon hope. There was a period late in the Cold War when it was fashionable to conclude that Soviet-style governments would last forever because of their willingness to quash dissent before it could take hold. That proposition was used to justify U.S. support for anticommunist dictators on the grounds that if only despots could survive in countries lacking a democratic tradition, Washington should want them to be pro-Western despots. Then the Iron Curtain lifted, and the theory of totalitarian permanence collapsed.
Could something similar happen again? That depends on what metaphor one prefers. If history moves like a locomotive, in a single direction, today’s trends will become tomorrow’s reality. But if the human desire for change causes history’s course to swing back and forth like a pendulum, a reversal can be expected.
Because people today are more connected and demanding than ever before, governing is harder than it has ever been. Compared to in the past, younger generations have easier access to education, more awareness of one another, less respect for traditional hierarchies, and an ingrained belief in their own autonomy. People of all ages observe what others have—and want more. Technology has created in many a thirst for speed and a dearth of patience. Citizens increasingly question what leaders say and are drawn to voices that reject present conditions and promise something better.
These factors have fueled the rise of demagogues, but they can also undermine the staying power of authoritarian regimes old enough to embody the status quo. There is a limit to how long an autocrat can sustain popularity simply by comparing himself to a despised predecessor. In Russia, Putin is rarely contrasted anymore with the hapless Boris Yeltsin; in Venezuela, few remember the ineffectual civilians who governed before Hugo Chávez; Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega can hardly justify his broken promises by pointing to Anastasio Somoza, who was deposed in 1979. Hungary’s Orban has ruled for more than a decade, and Turkey’s Erdogan for nearly two, so neither can easily escape responsibility for the beleaguered condition of his country.
Some of the more vulnerable heavy-handed governments are already facing intensifying pressure from below. In Belarus, a major protest movement has emerged because a growing number of citizens consider President Alexander Lukashenko to be a Russian puppet and want him to leave. In Cuba, where for the first time since 1959 neither of the Castro brothers holds power, the street demonstrations last July were the largest in decades. Although it is true that repression may work for a time, that strategy has to fail only once. Should a well-known authoritarian leader be forced out, there is a good chance that others will be too, as happened during the last democratic wave, when the triumph of Poland’s Solidarity movement led rapidly to democratic transitions throughout central Europe and the ouster of a strongman in Manila was followed by similar departures in Chile, South Africa, Zaire, and Indonesia. In a world where most people are able to peer beyond national borders, a trend of any kind can gather strength quickly.
It helps as well that the techniques the current generation of phony democrats rely on may already be suffering from overuse. In their lexicon, “constitutional reform” is code for evading term limits, diminishing the clout of parliaments, and seizing control of the courts. They issue emergency decrees not to safeguard the public but to criminalize opposition and silence the press. They employ patriotic appeals to equate pro-democracy agitation with foreign subversion. They rig elections to hide the ugly visage of despotism beneath a veneer of respectability. Although still harmful, these efforts no longer fool anyone—which makes them easier to discredit and oppose.
Even more important, despite the battering that democracy has endured, most people want to strengthen, not discard, their democratic systems. According to the German scholar Christian Welzel, support for democracy has increased since the mid-1990s in more countries than it has declined in, and it remains steady overall at roughly 75 percent. Similarly, the research institution Afrobarometer reports that those surveyed this year in 34 African countries still overwhelmingly prefer democracy when compared to single-party or one-man rule. This is true even for the minority of Africans who see China as a better model for their countries than the United States. Arab attitudes are less clear, but democracy has recently made modest gains in some tough neighborhoods—Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan—while somehow surviving almost nonstop chaos in Lebanon.
Today, more talented women and men are striving in more places on behalf of democratic principles than ever before. The National Democratic Institute, a nongovernmental U.S. organization that supports democratic institutions overseas, is working with around 28,000 local partners in more than 70 countries on five continents. Despite democracy’s struggles, popular participation in shaping public agendas is up, not down. Strides toward gender equality have contributed to this rising level of commitment, as has the fact that a record percentage of today’s young adults grew up in relative freedom. They consider self-expression a right to be exercised regularly and regardless of obstacles. Far from giving up on democracy, they are generating a steady stream of proposals for its improvement, including more rigorous term limits, reforms of campaign financing, equal access for candidates to the media, ranked-choice voting, citizen assemblies, referendums, shorter campaigns, and steps to make it simpler or more complicated to establish new political parties. Not all such ideas are likely to prove both practical and beneficial, but the energy they attract is evidence of a hunger that no dictator can satisfy.
Another reason to be optimistic is that U.S. President Joe Biden is better positioned than any American president in 20 years to argue on behalf of democracy. George W. Bush saw himself as a champion of freedom, but he wrapped that mission so thoroughly around his invasion of Iraq that denigrators equated his stance with violent American overreach. Wary of the association, Barack Obama was less outspoken than he might have been in advocating democratic ideals. Trump, of course, had the most antidemocratic instincts of any president. Having replaced him, Biden faces an international pro-freedom constituency that has learned to be skeptical about the steadiness of U.S. leadership but is also anxious for Washington to regain its voice on matters of liberty and human rights.
In his inaugural address, Biden characterized his election as a victory not of a candidate or a cause but of democracy itself. He has since stressed the benefits of political freedom; condemned specific acts of repression in such places as Cuba, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, and Myanmar; and invited democratic leaders to an important and timely summit. The challenge he must address next is how to build on this start.
One good way to begin would be to draw a clear line separating past U.S. military interventions from U.S. support for democracy. The distinction is important because many observers at home and abroad still confuse the two. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan, launched toward the end of 2001, was prompted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The invasion of Iraq 16 months later was triggered by faulty intelligence concerning that country’s weapons programs. Both were military operations. In neither instance was the buttressing of democracy a primary motivating factor, and neither experience should discourage the United States from pursuing future civilian initiatives on democracy’s behalf.
There are, after all, numerous examples of successful nonmilitary American engagement in support of freedom. These include the Marshall Plan, the Point Four Program, Radio Free Europe, the Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps, and overseas technical assistance on topics as varied as public health and digital access. Projects such as these create, at modest expense, a reservoir of respect that can serve the United States well in times of crisis. Washington should invest far more in them than it does, because that is how democracy is best promoted—with an outstretched hand, not a pointed gun.
The Biden administration should also defend the American example while acknowledging that U.S. democracy, although the world’s oldest, remains a work in progress. Numerous commentators point to the bitterness surrounding recent U.S. elections to suggest that the country’s democracy is unraveling and therefore no longer a suitable model for others. Such claims are exaggerated. Despite widespread fears and false allegations, the 2020 balloting was free of both significant locally engineered fraud and disruptions traceable to foreign disinformation campaigns. The high voter turnout was a sign of robust democratic health, as were the actions of courts and state officials to uphold the results. As for the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, less than one-fourth of Trump voters approved of the tactics that the protesters employed, and a recent effort to organize a follow-up demonstration fizzled. The debates currently underway regarding election standards and early and mail-in voting mostly involve issues that were not even under consideration a decade or two ago. The important question now is not whether the country has made progress toward more liberal electoral norms but whether those gains can be preserved and enhanced. A positive answer—delivered via legislative debate and, if necessary, the judicial branch—will only strengthen the country’s democratic system. U.S. leaders should speak about American democracy with humility, but dictators overseas who claim that the United States’ long experiment with freedom is nearing its end will be proved wrong.
Even while working to set the record straight about U.S. democracy, Biden should launch a multipart strategy aimed at sparking a renewal of faith overseas in the power of collaboration among free governments, workers, enlightened corporations, and civil society. His core message, exemplified by his planned Summit for Democracy, should be that democratic leaders must support one another and use their combined influence to bolster civil discourse, due process, fair elections, and the essential freedoms of speech, worship, and the press.
For this strategy to attract followers, the United States must show the way by integrating its commitment to democracy into all aspects of its foreign policy. In national security decision-making, when other interests appear to conflict, the benefit of the doubt should be given whenever possible to the backers of political openness and the rule of law. In bilateral diplomacy, considerations of human rights should be at the top of the agenda, instead of an afterthought. The most courageous democratic leaders, whether of countries large or small, should be acknowledged, supported, and invited to the White House. Through the UN and regional bodies, the United States should strive to hold countries accountable to the principles proclaimed in multilateral declarations and charters.
Biden and his team should also stress the economic advantages of democracy. In the late 1990s, when I was serving as U.S. secretary of state, I assured people everywhere that democracy would enable them not only to vote without fear but also to better provide for their families. What I said was reinforced by what audiences saw. Aside from the oil-rich Arab states, most prosperous nations were free. The reason was plain: open societies were more likely to generate good jobs by encouraging new ideas and innovative thinking. In the time since, China’s domestic rise and subsequent increase in foreign commercial engagement have, to some minds, undercut this thesis. Consider, however, that even today, the per person income in the authoritarian People’s Republic is around one-third of that in democratic Taiwan.
Since ancient times, authoritarian leaders have masqueraded as modernizers, building great works that invariably double as advertisements for themselves. Current examples of such leaders include Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Although there is obvious merit in looking forward, there are flaws in the notion that a single all-powerful leader is best for driving progress. In Egypt, Sisi has allowed the military to sink its teeth into virtually every part of the economy, thereby inhibiting opportunities for the private sector. Saudi Arabia remains overly dependent on oil revenue and continues to spend vast sums on vanity projects. Meanwhile, in Turkey, the “economic miracle” touted by Erdogan has given way to rising poverty, joblessness, currency devaluation, and debt. The troubles intensified after 2016, when Erdogan assumed emergency powers.
U.S. officials must also deal aggressively with problems that can chip away at support for democracy. For instance, few factors do more damage to the appeal of free institutions than the perception that leaders who claim to be democratic are in fact ripping off their countries. The message from Washington must be that open government is the remedy for, not the breeding ground of, crooked, self-serving regimes. The point is harder to establish than it should be because many demagogues confuse the issue by arguing that only a single powerful leader can clean house—or “drain the swamp”—to get rid of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Consider that one of Putin’s favorite tactics is to accuse opponents of corruption, arrest them in front of government cameras, and then prosecute them in puppet courts. The most compelling answer to this brand of deception is the truth. Real democrats, such as Presidents Zuzana Caputova of Slovakia and Maia Sandu of Moldova, are showing that free institutions can be used to purge graft through honest investigations, judicial reform, and incentives to reduce bribery at every level. The international press has often done a good job of exposing corrupt practices, and so democratic leaders should do all they can to ensure that the rights of journalists are fortified and their freedoms preserved. Meanwhile, the United States should mobilize a global effort to seize the overseas assets of rulers who have been pillaging their countries and return them to those countries. By serving as agents of justice, democracy’s caretakers can thwart greedy foes and win lasting friends.
The Biden administration must act, too, on its understanding that democracy’s future is linked to how well societies handle the promise and perils of cyber-capabilities and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. That, in turn, demands effective solutions to an array of puzzles: how to establish a consensus on balancing freedom of expression with protection of the public good; how to counter the ability of authoritarian governments to spread lies, block communications, and criminalize even private indications of dissent; how to derail the use of ransomware; how best to regulate Big Tech platforms to ensure competition and honor individual privacy; and how to shield democracies from the security threat posed by cyberwar.
The last time a new technology raised such profound questions was at the dawn of the nuclear age. Back then, a small cadre of diplomats, scientists, and military strategists devised ways to prevent the worst outcomes; the solutions were necessarily top down. The dilemma created by digital threats cannot be resolved so narrowly. Any successful approach must incorporate not only better cyberdefenses but also more transparency for consumers, responsibility from high-tech companies, scrutiny from legislatures, input from academia, and research into the design of enforceable regulatory regimes. Over time, the answers must take into account the interests of all stakeholders (not just governments), including the millions of entrepreneurs and billions of consumers who live in nondemocratic states and who use, or would like to use, online technology to learn, shop, grow their businesses, and vent their opinions. As the world develops new rules for the digital road, it is essential that the United States join with allies to prevent authoritarian states from dictating those norms.
Biden can accomplish much by rallying friends of freedom from across the globe, highlighting the tangible and moral benefits of open government, and pushing for fairness in the regulation of new technologies. Past efforts to do so, however, have stumbled when democracy’s advocates have done a poor job of framing the issue. If the alternatives presented are freedom or repression, freedom clearly wins. The odds become less favorable, however, when the choice advertised is between “the common people” and “arrogant elites.” As has been shown in recent years, popular demagogues feed eagerly on the condescension that many in academia, the arts, and the press exhibit toward the less well educated and others they deem culturally backward. The notion that despots care most about the welfare of the average family is nonsense, and they should not be allowed to create that impression. For democracy to prosper, its champions must do a better job of defending and justifying their beliefs in an inclusive manner.
Progress in the democratic resurgence is less likely to be sudden than gradual and more likely to be spotty than universal. A pendulum, after changing direction, takes a while to gain velocity. In his later years, Vaclav Havel counseled freedom’s friends against impatience. If democracy can be compared to a flower, he said, gardeners may use fertilizer and water to speed its growth but will only cause harm should they become anxious and yank at the stem from above.
The importance of patience, however, is no excuse for idleness or cynicism. Small-d democrats cannot compete successfully with the likes of China and Russia by mimicking their methods, for that would concede the match before it begins. Democracy has its faults, but so, too, does every variety of despotism. Democracy’s assets are superior, however, because they demand the best from everyone and are grounded in respect for human rights, individual freedom, and social responsibility. By contrast, dictators seek only obedience, and there is nothing inspiring about that.
After too many years of handwringing, the time is right for democratic forces to regain the initiative. Democracy is fragile, but it is also resilient. In every region, the generation coming of age is smart, outspoken, and fearless. Worldwide, people are demanding more, while authoritarian leaders are tiring and running out of answers. The Biden administration has before it an opportunity it must seize. Although tattered and torn, freedom’s flag is ready to rise.
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