Promoting Democracy in Tumultuous Times

How do we advance democracy in a world where autocracy is on the rise and challenges to democratic principles abound in our own nation?


Moths never reach the moon, but they navigate by it; we humans may never reach democracy … but we navigate by its ideals.

—Author Rebecca Solnit, praise for Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, by Astra Taylor

Retired USAID FSO José Garzón’s Speaking Out column in the September FSJ, “Democracy as a Vocation,” was thoughtful and timely testimony to the need to promote America’s signature value. It carries wisdom born of the long, practical experience of a true believer. It might be useful to survey the uneasy environment in which the Foreign Service is carrying out its democracy mandate today.

President Joe Biden clearly shares the view that democracy must be cultivated. It was a major issue in his presidential campaign in 2020, and he backed it up by holding a virtual Summit for Democracy in December 2021. That meeting was launched with relatively little fanfare and a low bar for expectations. Something of a pre-summit summit, the meeting’s “deliverables”—the agreements, treaties, and other tangible results that typically emerge from summits—weren’t likely to cause much of a stir. Nor were they necessarily meant to.

Rather, Biden intended the event to focus the attention of the 100-plus participating world leaders and to harvest pledges from them to strengthen democracy at home and promote it abroad. It was to serve as the “kick-off of a year of action,” as the president put it, to culminate in a second, in-person summit about a year later (no date has yet been announced).

The pledges generated by the summit varied widely in specificity and scope. New Zealand, for example, pledged $1 million NZD “to support anti-corruption within the Pacific region.” Meanwhile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo simply promised it would “[organize its] elections within constitutional deadlines.”

Mixed Reviews

Like any Washington policy initiative, the summit got mixed reviews at home. “I don’t think [the summit] amounted to much, substantively,” Colin Dueck, a foreign policy professor at George Mason University, told the author in a January 2022 interview. “One reason was the format. Hundreds of NGO leaders, private sector individuals, and heads of state are unlikely to hammer out a practical or workable agenda in a virtual setting. And they didn’t.”

Others gave a more positive, if tentative, assessment. Retired Ambassador Norman Eisen, who served as chief of mission in the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014, and two colleagues from the Brookings Institution write that the summit “laid a robust groundwork for success. … The summit has already resulted in some initial measurable commitments to advance democracy in the U.S. and abroad, establishing specific, concrete steps to fulfill them.” However, they also note that any real success would require vigorous follow-through.

Ambassador Cameron Munter, chief of mission in Serbia from 2007 to 2009 and in Pakistan from 2010 to 2012, believes some of the terminology surrounding the summit and the vagueness of its objectives served to muddy its intent. “The term ‘global democratic revival’ presents a bit of a warning,” he said in an early 2022 interview with the author, because “there’s always a temptation to try to re-create ‘the way it was before,’ a kind of idealized, pre-populist time in which, somehow, democracy will flourish again. But this is unlikely. In my opinion, this is why the virtual democracy summit got mixed reviews. We know what we don’t like, and we have notions of what we used to have, but the question remains: What do we look forward to?”

A December 2021 Pew Research Center poll found that only 25 percent of Americans believe promoting democracy should be a priority for U.S. foreign policy.

What, indeed. Last February, just two months after the virtual summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin—who had not been invited—offered one possible future scenario when he ordered his military to invade Ukraine. Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz told The New York Times on Feb. 27, 2022, that the invasion provided “a taste of what a world without checks on antidemocratic behavior would look like.”

If there is a silver lining to the grisly story unfolding in Ukraine, it’s that it “made political leaders and thinkers sit up and realize that the threat to democracy is real and very concrete: [They think,] ‘Right now, it’s Ukraine, but it could be us next,’” said Staffan Lindberg, founding director of the Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, in a live-streamed Carnegie Endowment event on April 8, 2022. “Hopefully [Ukraine has] galvanized democracies in both the global North and South to act more coherently together and stand up and support one another going forward.”

Democracy and Foreign Policy

It’s an article of faith that promoting democracy makes good foreign policy. In an interview with the author, Ambassador Brian Carlson, who was chief of mission in Latvia from 2001 to 2004, explained his belief that “the United States is defined by, and centers its foreign policy on, democracy. And we Americans believe that democracy depends on honoring the basic political rights of the individual.”

Kori Schake, deputy director of policy planning at the State Department from 2007 to 2008 and now director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says it’s important to keep promoting democracy abroad. In an interview earlier this year, she told the author: “Democracies don’t go to war against each other, and they don’t commit atrocities, and they abide by rules internationally because it’s the natural outgrowth of abiding by rules domestically.”

The American public, however, doesn’t share the administration’s eagerness to promote democracy—in fact, most think we needn’t bother. A December 2021 Pew Research Center poll found that only 25 percent of Americans believe promoting democracy should be a priority for U.S. foreign policy. Atlantic Council senior fellow Emma Ashford spoke for many when she said the United States needs to clean its own house first. “Ambitious foreign-policy goals are completely out of step with the realities of the country’s domestic political and economic dysfunction,” she wrote in Foreign Policy last year. “How can the United States spread democracy or act as an example for others if it barely has a functioning democracy at home?”

Ashford may have a point. Pew found that 85 percent of Americans see the need for “major changes” in our political system, and nearly half of those believe the system needs to be “completely reformed.” American pollster John Zogby found that 46 percent of us believe we might be headed for a civil war. Citing a decade of increased voting restrictions, racial injustice, the outsized influence of special interest groups, and partisan polarization, Freedom House (which receives most of its funding from U.S. government agencies) reports that American democracy has reached a state of “acute crisis.” An October 2022 New York Times/Siena College poll found that 71 percent of American voters agree that American democracy is endangered—but only 7 percent think it’s the most important problem of the day.

America as Role Model

Many blame America’s democracy dip on former President Donald Trump, whose actions and statements while in office often upended tradition and legal precedent, and who continues to stoke discontent among his supporters. Schake said in our interview: “American credibility has unquestionably been diminished by the election of a populist who doesn’t respect the institutional and legal and normative restraints of democracy. President Trump and his enablers undertook actions to corrode democracy and prevent the peaceful transition of power that is essential in democracies. Foreigners are right to be aghast that these things could happen even in so established a democracy as ours.”

However, she continued, “the legal and institutional framework of American democracy is holding fast. American journalists have been vociferous [in challenging Trump’s false claims]; courts—even those with Trump-appointed judges—have been unflinching in upholding the law; state election officials, including Republicans, have refused to falsify vote counts. And the American people did not return Trump to the presidency.”

Although the United States has long been the standard by which other democracies are judged, our role model status is up for debate.

In its “Freedom in the World 2022” report, Freedom House points to some longer-term, underlying issues: “The weakening of American democracy did not start with President Trump’s direct pressure on democratic institutions and rights, and his departure from the White House has not ended the crisis. Disturbing problems that predated his administration—legislative dysfunction, partisan gerrymandering, the excessive influence of special interests in politics, ongoing racial discrimination, and the spread of polarization and disinformation in the media environment—remain unaddressed.”

So, although the United States has long been the standard by which other democracies are judged, our role model status is up for debate. America’s chaotic pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021 left even staunch allies wondering whether the United States still had the spirit to fight for democracy. The violent Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by disgruntled Trump supporters—and their persistent denial of his defeat—present to many outsiders the image of a frail, failing democracy. The perilous state in which we find ourselves was laid bare for the world to see during the House of Representatives public hearings into the Jan. 6 attack (though the very fact that the hearings were held was in itself a sign that democracy is still with us).

Meanwhile, however, ongoing race- and gender-based injustice and economic inequalities, and harsh new voting restrictions enacted in some states, demonstrate that America still has far to go to achieve the democratic ideal: A 2021 Pew Global Survey of advanced economies found that only 17 percent of respondents believe the U.S. provides a good model of democracy.

Our Diplomatic Dilemma

How do we advance democracy in a world where democracy seems to be falling out of favor, while our own nation’s commitment to it looks uncertain?

Ambassador Munter cautions that changing times have made the job harder. “In the past, we assumed our power was supported by our domestic example,” he said in our interview. “We might be hypocritical, we might be naive, but we proudly owned up to our shortcomings because the evidence of our success at home was compelling. That’s a lot harder to achieve right now. Social polarization and a host of other factors will make it hard for us to overcome the problems at home that hinder our strength as a beacon of democracy abroad.”

From overseas, Anar Bata, coordinator for the U.S. and Americas Programme at the London think tank Chatham House, comes to a similar conclusion. “Although the U.S. is the only state with the resources to be a global democratic leader, heightened partisanship will make it harder for the Biden administration to increase protections at home,” she told the author in an interview in January 2022. Bata noted that the U.S. has long struggled with issues of voting rights and racial equality, and worked to correct these problems “by listening to criticism and allowing for input from civil society.” Nevertheless, she added: “the U.S. must do more at home to be credible when it says it values democracy and equality for all.”

Thomas Carothers and Frances Z. Brown, co-directors of the democracy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agree that the U.S. needs serious political reform and that our democratic standing and diplomatic negotiating position have been damaged. However, they argue in a March 10, 2021, post for American Purpose, this isn’t the time to hold back: “The global condition of democracy is too dire for that.” Rather, the Biden administration should “move forward with an active democracy support policy”—but back away from America’s “almost reflexive” role as the natural leader and exporter of global democracy. Show some humility, they wrote, and “acknowledge our missteps as evidence that “democracy requires constant tending and self-correction, both at home and overseas.”

How do we advance democracy in a world where democracy seems to be falling out of favor?

The Biden administration reflects a similar attitude. The New York Times reported in September that the administration is committed to the reinforcement of democracy as a foreign policy priority—although, the Times noted, the emphasis now is more on the “resilience” of democracies rather than democracy promotion. Aides to Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the newspaper their approach would be to strengthen democracies and encourage cooperation among them rather than work to change political systems.

As the White House’s planned in-person democracy summit approaches, veteran diplomats cite the need for open and honest analysis and acknowledgment of our own history. “Our own struggles in recent years make it clear that no democracy is perfect, and that it’s always a work in progress, but the key to credibility is sincerity,” Ambassador Carlson said. “Humans are very adept at recognizing someone who is sincere in their beliefs, honest about their motives, and open to questions and merited criticism. If American support of democracy and human rights is sincere, it will have the necessary credibility.”

A Work in Progress

Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon Jr. suggests taking a look at our not-too-distant history. “Remember, when the U.S. was fighting a war to keep the world safe for democracy, Americans were being lynched. Jim Crow laws were in place. Political intimidation was being used, not only against minorities but against political outliers,” Shannon pointed out during a Nov. 3, 2021, American Purpose event. “All democracies have had times when we were promoting bigger visions of ourselves that didn’t necessarily correspond to the reality of the moment.”

It’s also worth recalling that not everyone shares our definition of democracy, says Robert Cekuta, U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2015 to 2018. In a February 2022 interview with the author, Ambassador Cekuta noted: “Each society has its own history. We might say a country isn’t democratic, but the people in that country say, ‘OK, but this is what we want.’ Should we be imposing democracy on them? At what point are we helping, and at what point are we meddling?”

One Senior FSO still in service agrees that a one-size-fits-all message about democracy won’t work. “Talking about democracy overseas now is going to be different than before,” the diplomat says. “Whether in established democracies that might have trust issues with us or with developing democracies, our approach will need some reshaping and tailoring in each country in order to be effective.”

Ambassador Munter notes that we’re in tumultuous times, and the present global democracy crisis doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s been helped along by economic and other cyclical factors. “We should avoid apocalyptic hand-wringing” about democracy’s current decline, he counseled; the pendulum can swing back.

But that doesn’t absolve us of looking after our own democracy, Munter adds. “I hope that an honest reckoning with our difficulties, carried out by people of good will, is not impossible,” he said. “But without such a reckoning, it will be hard for America’s message to have the power and coherence we would like. It will be awfully tough for us to continue to claim the mantle of ‘leader of the free world’ without it.”

Retired FSO Bill Wanlund served for 26 years with the United States Information Agency and the State Department in Sierra Leone, the Philippines, Germany, Venezuela, and Austria, as well as in Washington, D.C. Following retirement he took several assignments as a reemployed annuitant before working as a freelance journalist for CQ Researcher.


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