Democracy and Disorder: Experts examine the struggle for influence in the new geopolitics

John Allen and Adam Schiff speak at the 2019 Democracy and Disorder Symposium.

Amid a new era of great power competition, democratic retrenchment, and authoritarian expansion, democracy is at a critical juncture.

Over the past year, 33 scholars from across the Foreign Policy program at Brookings conducted deep research on the interplay between domestic and international challenges to democracy in key regions and countries across the globe. In February, Brookings Foreign Policy hosted a symposium to discuss the ideas in its Democracy and Disorder project. While mostly under Chatham House rules, two keynote sessions—featuring remarks from Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and a conversation with Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA)—were held on-the-record.

In her keynote address, Sen. Shaheen recounted a sharp contrast she witnessed at this year’s Munich Security Conference, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel offering a collaborative message in support of the liberal democratic order and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence presenting a more isolationist view. Sen. Shaheen lauded Merkel’s entreaty to the West to hold strong to its democratic values and multilateral institutions.

Shaheen went on to emphasize the West’s failure to take ample heed to China’s rapid internal growth and spreading international influence—a recurring theme throughout the symposium.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen offers keynote remarks at democracy symposium

Shaheen noted that while Beijing celebrated landing a space shuttle on the dark side of the moon (a first), NASA researchers were furloughed, while Washington dragged its feet through yet another government shutdown. Next, Foreign Policy Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Tepperman interviewed Brookings Foreign Policy Director Bruce Jones about the key findings of the Democracy and Disorder project.

Jones highlighted two key framing questions: What is driving today’s global democratic retrenchment, and what role will the world’s powerful countries—including particularly China—have in shaping the future world order? Jones noted that China and Russia aim to capitalize on this moment of weakness in the West­­­­­, as nations that have traditionally been the architects of global democracy are being faced with great internal challenges to their own democracies.

In a keynote conversation over dinner, Brookings President John R. Allen spoke with Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA). The two discussed authoritarianism and the future of democracy, topics that the House Select Committee on Intelligence—which Rep. Schiff chairs—had covered in a hearing that same day. Rep. Schiff reinforced the importance of U.S. intelligence agencies in identifying threats and countering the efforts of Russia and China, among others, to subvert democracy at home and across the world. Schiff also shared his confidence in the ability of the United States and its allies to weather the current storm, declaring: “we have to do everything possible to shore up our own democracy at home…and continue to champion democracy and human rights across the globe.”