Democracies are engaged in a persistent, asymmetric competition with autocracies in the information space. Russia and China each make use of information manipulation campaigns to achieve their geopolitical goals: denting the global prestige of democracy, weakening multilateral institutions that could constrain their activities, and punishing those who would hold them accountable. Russia seeks to rend democratic societies from within, exacerbating domestic political fissures and distracting democratic governments from playing an assertive role in international politics. China seeks to highlight the strengths of its governance model and push back on criticisms of its rights record in order to position itself as a responsible global leader.
To succeed in this contest, liberal democracies need an affirmative strategy. The information domain is perhaps the most consequential terrain over which states will compete in the decades to come. To master it, democracies must take advantage of their strengths and frame the competition on their own terms. The Biden administration’s virtual Summit for Democracy is an opportunity for the United States to rally its democratic partners to make progress toward that aim.
If the administration is serious about putting the United States and its partners on a sound footing to push back on authoritarianism, a good place to start would be getting democratic governments to agree not to conduct information manipulation campaigns of their own. This is not an academic exercise. Last year, France was exposed as having used fake accounts in seven target countries in Africa, in contravention of its own foreign affairs ministry, which has cautioned that democratic decisionmakers ought not “yield to the temptation of counter-propaganda.” The people behind the years-long operation used fake accounts to pose as locals, posting and commenting on news and current events, including French foreign policy, and dueling with a team of trolls run out of Russia.
Unlike autocrats, who view information as a weapon to be wielded abroad and tightly controlled at home, democracies depend on healthy information environments to thrive. That’s because self-government rests on the notion that the truth is knowable and that citizens can discern it. When democratic governments pollute the information environment with manipulated content, they contribute to the idea that there is no such thing as truth, damage trust in their own institutions, diminish the appeal of democracy, and ultimately harm themselves more than their competitors.
The administration could also use the summit as an opportunity to build support for independent media, especially in places where democracy is most vulnerable. That’s because independent media speak truth to power and keep citizens informed. Within democratic societies, they help root out corruption and identify policy mistakes so that governments can correct course and deliver positive outcomes for their citizens. They also expose the failures and false promises of autocratic regimes abroad, who paint their closed models as superior. If democracies are going to win the contest with autocrats, it will be by sharpening their leading advantages. Vibrant information environments – although at times fraught and messy – are chief among them. Transparency strengthens democracies and weakens autocrats.
Finally, the Summit is an opportunity to build momentum in the campaign for an open internet, which is both essential to the health of democracies and a threat to authoritarian challengers. The administration appears poised to launch an Alliance for the Future of the Internet as a means to push forward an affirmative, forward-looking vision based on democratic values. Such a measure could be an important component of efforts to advance an internet freedom agenda worldwide.
To make this initiative a success, the administration must ensure that it is truly multi-stakeholder in nature so that it reflects the principles it preaches. That means the White House will need to ensure that it is coordinating not only with governments, but with civil society advocates. This is especially the case in backsliding contexts, such as Brazil and India, where civil society leaders are likely to be the alliance’s greatest allies. The White House should also ensure that the effort is rooted in the existing U.N. human rights framework, which has the force of international law, rather than cast their efforts as establishing a new set of new principles. Doing so would help avoid enabling autocrats to dismiss existing, rights-respecting norms by claiming they are no longer relevant, thereby creating space to advance a more repressive vision of their own. Finally, the White House should work with other branches of government and civil society leaders here at home to remedy gaps in our own adherence to internet freedom principles, for example around data privacy, and encourage our liberal democratic partners to do the same.
Much has been made about whether the United States is in a position to host a Summit for Democracy at a time when it is facing an array of visible challenges at home – partisan political polarization, rampant online harms, voter suppression, home-grown efforts to undermine confidence in American elections, and the erosion of traditional media, among others. Although American democracy is under-performing, recent anti-racism protests and nonpartisan, civil-society-led election integrity efforts demonstrate that civic engagement is alive and well. As foreign and defense policy expert Kori Schake observed in an article in The Atlantic, “This churning, disputatious, and even sometimes violent dynamic is what social change in America looks like. And what it has always looked like.”
Unlike autocratic governments that disappear critics, prohibit independent media, and censor free expression, democratic ones have an enormous capacity to self-correct because they empower civil society to make change. This is what makes democracy, despite its flaws, such a compelling and powerful system. And it is why it is essential now, more than ever, that the United States work with its partners to learn from one another and make commitments toward improving democratic practice.
This is a tall order, but an achievable one. Whether the Summit for Democracy delivers tangible results may depend on fulfilling it.