A Strategy for Democratic Renewal


Democracy is being challenged today as never before since the end of Cold War, notes Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy. Freedom House has recorded ten consecutive years during which democracy and human rights have declined in more countries than it has advanced.

Globalization was considered to be a favorable context for the expansion of democracy and liberal values.  ….But it hasn’t worked out that way.  Against all expectations, these authoritarian countries have not liberalized but have grown more repressive, and far from being changed by the efforts to integrate them into the liberal world order, they are trying to take over that order and use it to advance their own interests and anti-democratic values.

We at the NED have called this phenomenon “resurgent authoritarianism,” and we’ve just come out with a book of essays on the subject called Authoritarianism Goes Global, which explains how a number of autocracies – in particular Russia, China, and Iran – have developed new tools and strategies in a number of areas to contain the spread of democracy and to challenge the democracy agenda on a number of different fronts in the “soft power” battle of ideas.

  • One of these fronts is civil society. Over the last four years, 120 laws that repress and control civil society have been passed in sixty countries – a remarkable commonality over an immensely broad international spectrum. These are laws that seek to frustrate, undermine, and prohibit the activities of democratic civil society groups and individual activists, who are often called “foreign agents” and a “fifth column.”   ….The goal here is to preemptively block what the autocrats call “colored revolutions,” which are popular uprisings like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Green Revolution in Iran.  They hope to do this by cutting civil-society groups off from international assistance and placing them under very tight political control.
  • Information and media are a second front in this battle. As Anne Applebaum and Edward Lucas have noted, the autocrats seek to exploit the declining influence of major Western media outlets and the proliferation of online information that makes it harder for people to judge accuracy of news.  …NED is also a target.  For example, a fraudulent letter has been circulating online over the last year purporting to show a USAID official asking that NED “revise plans” to use NGOs in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to recruit people for ISIS, warning of a possible Congressional investigation and media controversy.  The letter, undoubtedly the work of Russian trolls, has been picked up by a number of Russian online platforms.
  • A third soft-power front involves an effort to counter international democratic and human-rights norms in key rules-based institutions such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as bodies concerned with the governance of the Internet….

In sum, the authoritarians are no longer content just to contain democracy.  They’re now trying to role it back, and the West has been caught off-guard.  …..  Still, there are a number of reasons not to despair and maybe even to be cautiously hopeful.

  • The first is that while the Freedom House annual survey charts a decline in freedom in many countries, it does not show a decline in the number of electoral democracies in the world, which has held roughly steady at 125, the post- third wave peak level. This is one of the reasons that political scientists like Larry Diamond speak of a “democracy recession” today and not a democracy depression or a “third reverse wave.” …
  • Second, there have been a number of surprising democracy advances. These include the successful presidential election in Nigeria last year, which surprised many people who feared that a stolen election, which they expected, would trigger a terrible civil war.  Another key election was the upset victory in Argentina last November of the liberal reformer Mauricio Macri, which The New York Times called “a stunner that is likely to set in motion a transformational era at home and in the region.”  The defeat the following month in Venezuela of the Chavista party in parliamentary elections was also a major setback for illiberal populism in Latin America.  ….
  • A third reason for cautious optimism is that the world’s resurgent autocrats do not sit securely on their thrones. Their repeated warnings about the danger of foreign-instigated “colored revolutions” is actually an implicit admission that what they fear most is the test of a real election that they might lose, knowing that the trigger for a colored revolution would be an attempt to reverse an unacceptable result. ….
  • A fourth reason for cautious optimism is that the world’s poorest people have made unprecedented economic, health and education advances during the last quarter of a century, a phenomenon documented by the Georgetown University development scholar Steven Radelet in his new book The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World. …..

The last reason for hope that I want to point to is the energy and resilience of civil society, not just in fragile new democracies and semi-open autocracies but also in backsliding and increasingly repressive authoritarian countries as well.  In Africa they include bloggers in Ethiopia, youth activists and trade unionists in Zimbabwe, investigative journalists in Angola, and human rights defenders and peace activists in Burundi and the Congo, where leaders and dangerously trying to steal or block elections…..

I cannot know if a new democratic wave will occur in the foreseeable future.  But I think there are three fundamental things that need to be done to renew democratic progress and momentum:

  • The first is to acknowledge – and try to reverse – the authoritarian resurgence. Congress has given NED special funding to develop and implement a strategic plan to address some of the negative trends I discussed earlier, and we are now beginning to implement that plan, even as we continue to refine and modify it.  …
  • The second priority is to restore U.S. leadership in the defense of the liberal world order that is so essential for democratic progress, economic growth, and political stability in the world. As the leader of a bi-partisan organization, it is not my job to critique our government’s foreign policy.  But I think a few general principles can be stated that deserve bi-partisan support and that hopefully can survive what NED board member Stephen Sestanovich has called the periodic swing in our foreign policy between maximalism and minimalism.  …
  • The third priority is to think about how we can restore our country’s sense of its purpose in the world and to reaffirm the American founding values that have done so much to influence the growth of democracy in the world. …

The above post is an abridged version of Carl Gershman’s Hurford Lecture delivered on May 17, 2016.


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