The Biden administration will take office at a time when democracy is being tested across the world. Since COVID-19 began its global spread, 80 countries have experienced democratic backsliding as autocrats exploit the pandemic to expand their power and quash dissent.
Democracy is facing an ideological insurgency, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promotes an alternative governance model based on centralized control and suppression of independent thought. The CCP also corrodes democracy by proffering opaque deals that fuel corruption and embolden authoritarians in countries where China seeks expanded influence. The Kremlin actively endeavors to destabilize the West by undermining legitimate electoral processes and exploiting fissures to divide democratic societies against themselves.
But all is not bleak. Democracies have mounted the most effective responses to the pandemic without police-state coercion. People-power movements in every region are demanding more of their governments and striving to transform protest into responsive policies.
Underlying these trends is the promise new technologies hold for democratic participation and accountability, albeit balanced against their use by authoritarians to repress and control citizens.
The state of democracy globally is a priority for U.S. foreign policy — not only because supporting freedom and liberty has long been a guiding light of the American project, but because American citizens are more prosperous and secure when the world is free and open.
America’s closest allies are democracies. Countries governed by rule of law and democratic institutions do not fight each other, host violent extremists, or produce uncontrolled mass migration. Great-power autocracies seeking expanded spheres of illiberal influence pose the greatest danger to American security; countervailing them demands a values-based approach that protects the United States and the free world.
Supporting democracy abroad not only underwrites the safety and prosperity of the American public, it is something our citizens strongly support — 71% of Americans favor the U.S. “taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries,” according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Democracy Project.
The next administration should make strengthening democracy overseas a pillar of its foreign policy because doing so embodies our nation’s core ideals and is imperative to U.S. security and economic well-being. The fate of democracy abroad is tied to the health of our democracy at home: A world in which authoritarians control the balance of power would gravely endanger domestic freedoms.
Instead of dusting off the same playbook, the Biden administration should craft a democracy agenda that is responsive to today’s context, rooted in evidence-based innovative approaches, and positions the United States for key struggles and opportunities over the horizon.
Doing so will require strong bilateral partnerships — with governments and civil society — and reinforcing alliances capable of buoying liberal democracy and helping steel it against illiberal challenges from authoritarian regimes.
The state of democracy today
The first step toward crafting this agenda is having a clear-eyed view of threats and opportunities. Chinese and Russian malign influence is subverting democratic practice globally. The CCP is interfering in vulnerable democracies, exploiting governance gaps to achieve its strategic aims. Beijing’s influence efforts bolster illiberal actors, undermine civil society and independent media, and render countries economically dependent on China. At the same time, Beijing is exporting digital authoritarianism by sharing surveillance technologies that underpin the CCP’s approach to social control.
Meanwhile, Russia’s assault on democratic institutions, including attacks on elections, the spread of corruption, and disinformation campaigns, aims to weaken open societies and diminish American leadership.
Citizens across the globe believe democracy is not delivering for them. In a survey of 34 nations, more than half of citizens reported being dissatisfied with how democracy works. They are not wrong. From the Philippines to Turkey, governments are using media censorship, data control, and state security forces to close civic space. Elected strongmen have taken advantage of COVID-19 to expand executive power. Corruption and kleptocracy corrode democracy where authoritarians are on the march.
But citizens are not standing by. Instead, they are mounting broad-based protest movements to demand change, as in Belarus, or root out endemic corruption, as in Iraq. Since 2017, roughly 100 significant protest movements have led to substantial reforms or the removal of 30 governments and leaders.
The digital revolution has led to large-scale innovation in how technology is used for good and evil in governance. In some cases, like Zimbabwe, repressive regimes use tools like facial recognition to track and jail dissidents, relying as much on the chilling effect of potential surveillance as the reality of it.
But the rise of digital authoritarianism is not the complete story. Citizens are embracing technology to demand accountability from their governments. In many countries, governments themselves are making their first forays into deploying technology to advance democratic principles. The capacity for democratic actors to deliver requires an open, secure, interoperable digital infrastructure — an underpinning aggressively contested by China, Russia, and others.
Five pillars of a democracy agenda
To position the United States to secure its interests, the administration should consider the following five recommendations as part of its plan for supporting democracy abroad. The overarching aim of these actions should be a world where democracy is the predominant form of governance — because it is the model with the best chance of delivering peace and prosperity for citizens.
First, the agenda’s keystone should be to bolster core institutions of democracy in strategically important countries. This includes helping strengthen electoral institutions, political parties, civil society, independent media, legislative bodies, and judiciaries, particularly given the requirement to operate effectively in a digital environment. A small investment relative to defense spending, this support is proven to help governments deliver for citizens. Stronger and more responsive governmental institutions, political parties, media, and robust civil society also position countries to effectively detect, expose, and counter foreign malign influence. Sufficiently resourcing the National Endowment for Democracy, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s democracy and governance programming will be central to this effort. (For disclosure, the International Republican Institute receives funding from all three entities.)
Second, the administration should couple democracy strengthening with democracy protection. The CCP and Kremlin are executing separate but reinforcing global political interference campaigns designed to swell their influence and discredit democracy. Any democracy agenda must include sustained efforts to counter this danger head on. Beyond the healthy institutions and transparency that underpin democratic resilience, vulnerable nations require local expertise to identify and counter the tactics employed by authoritarian states, which are frequently covert or difficult to distinguish from benign soft power campaigns.
In the case of China, Washington should formalize a partnership with fellow developed democracies, including those like Taiwan with significant experience managing CCP interference, to share with democratic actors best practices in countering China’s efforts and to support local Chinese language and academic programs not dependent on CCP support. Partnerships with Chinese diaspora groups can support independent Chinese-language media around the world, both traditional and digital, and counter CCP efforts to coopt and coerce these communities to serve its strategic ends.
To back this effort, the U.S. should double funding for the Countering Chinese Influence Fund. The U.S. and democratic allies should also dedicate resources to countering Kremlin, CCP, and other malign actors’ information operations and cyberattacks that are seeding doubts about democracy in individual countries and amplifying false messaging globally about authoritarianism’s superiority in handling crises like the current pandemic. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center could do more in this regard.
Third, the U.S. should support a positive vision for how technology can deliver on democratic principles and push back against digital authoritarianism. To date, most U.S. efforts to counter digital authoritarianism have been defensive. The U.S. should invest in, amplify, and scale efforts that harness technology to explicitly deliver democratic public goods. Open-source, participatory platforms with transparent data give citizens more oversight over government activity and involvement in areas of governance that directly impact their lives. Just as China and Russia have used technology strategically to advance authoritarian objectives, the United States must do more to strategically empower democrats, including in closed societies, to safely communicate and organize. The Open Technology Fund is one tool for advancing these frontline partnerships.
Fourth, the United States must recommit to working with and through allies to shore up democracy abroad. This includes burden-sharing to strengthen democracy in countries of shared interest and linking arms in defense of shared liberal ideals. To operationalize the multilateral aspect, the United States should work with the U.K. to formalize the D-10 group of leading democracies and to develop a common, positive vision and approach to strengthening and protecting open societies. A new technology consortium among democracies to protect the free and open internet, including the data-driven infrastructure that underlies it, would be timely.
Finally, the United States must back these initiatives with forceful and principled diplomacy. This will involve calling out and holding autocrats accountable as well as standing with advocates advancing democratic rights in their societies. The U.S. can enhance preventive diplomacy to head off conflict, the closures of civic spaces, and other threats to democracy. Modest investments to seed responsive governance and citizen inclusion cost far less than managing the fallout from countries that descend into conflict.
Democracy is the most just and highest-performing method for organizing societies. The stronger democracy is at home in the United States, the better able we will be to execute this ambitious agenda abroad. But democrats around the world will not wait for the United States to perfect our union — they seek our help and support now, because their struggle for rights and freedoms is about them, not us. The United States has been working to realize the vision of the Founders for nearly 250 years and there is always more work to do. In fact, the credibility of American democracy assistance overseas stems not only from our successes at home but from our system’s manifest ability to overcome shortcomings and self-correct. The transparency and resilience of the American system is a formidable strength that developing democracies can learn from as they confront similar challenges. Citizens, governments, and advocates abroad deserve our support and active efforts to make the United States a model for the world.