Supporting Democracy and Human Rights in an Age of Authoritarian Challenges and Democratic Setbacks

By Daniel Brumberg

Director, Democracy and Governance Studies, Georgetown University

On the afternoon of January 26, 2018 the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University will host a special panel to celebrate what is for us a very special occasion: ten years as the only MA degree program in the US that focuses on democracy, human rights and governance. There is no doubt that the significance of our MA program has increased in direct proportion to the mounting challenges to democracies and democratization that have emerged in every corner of the globe – including the United States. Some of these challenges, as I discuss below, are relatively recent, such as the rising influence of “global autocracies.” Others, such as polarization of the US political arena, are not exactly new, as anyone who recalls the political and social conflicts that rocked in our country during the sixties and seventies. But in the context of growing authoritarian challenges abroad, intensified political conflict in the US is surely complicating the task of fostering democratic change abroad.

Our MA program is designed to help our students analyze and address these old and emerging problems. Associate director Jennifer Raymond Dresden and I are proud of the teaching, studying and research that has unfolded under the umbrella of this unique program. We also fête the many contributions that our alumni have made: over 100 students have pursued careers in a myriad of institutions in government, civil society and the private sector in the US and far beyond. We are especially gratified that more and more of our students come from the developing world. In countries as diverse as China, Mexico, Brazil, Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, our graduates are helping leaders in government, civil society and the private sector address the challenges of economic, social and political change by adopting or more pluralistic politics.

Their efforts could not come at a more important moment. Indeed, as Freedom House’s most recent report, Democracy in Crisis, amply demonstrates, 2017 marked the 12th year that the international community has suffered a decline in the practice of electoral democracy and the upholding of political rights.

The causes of this unhappy record are many. They include economic crisis, corruption and weak governance, escalating identity crises and bloody civil conflicts. In addition, we must consider the role of major “global autocracies” such as China and Russia. Scholars and policy makers have highlighted the “diffusion effects” emanating from the efforts of these and other states to demonstrate that autocracy can bring concrete material benefits. Thus far there is little empirical evidence to support the idea that the leaders of new or emerging democracies have tried to emulate the hybrid of autocracy and semi-capitalist development represented by the so-called “Beijing Model.” But there are reasons for concern, particularly given the efforts of both global and regional autocracies (such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) to expand their investments and foreign aid in myriad of developing countries, both democratic and authoritarian.

These efforts are not limited to creating a potentially alluring model of “autocratic development.” Instead, they suggest deliberate efforts of autocracies to advance programs designed to deflect democratic change at home and in their regional backyards. It is hardly surprising that the supreme strategic goal animating these “democracy resistance” efforts is regime survival. This means cooperating with –and learning from –other like-minded autocratic regimes. In concrete terms, democracy resistance seeks to intimidate and repress advocates. Where and when these advocates have received –or are perceived to have received– support from abroad, democracy resistance has also sought to stifle assistance programs undertaken by a wide range of organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Transparency International, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

While democracy resistance remains a significant challenge, it not the same thing as the far more ambitious goal of “autocracy promotion.” The latter goal is not merely to defend or strengthen existing autocracies: rather, it is to undermine existing or new democracies, and if possible, to replace them with authoritarian regimes. Thus far there is little evidence that autocracy promotion per se has been strategic goal motivating the rulers of major autocracies. Political scientists note that rulers in countries as diverse as China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela have not been inspired  by—or advocated– a shared ideology of global autocracy promotion. These countries sometimes cooperate on an ad hoc  basis, but they do not constitute an autocratic club or alliance. Moreover, the current research does not support the conclusion that there is any clear link between what Larry Diamond calls the “democracy recession” on the one side, and democratic resistance much less autocracy promotion on the other. Even the International Forum for Democratic Studies’ recent and much-discussed report, Sharp Power, does not demonstrate such a link. The report does show that China and Russia have sought abroad to foster a positive image of their countries in popular and elite circles, and even more so, to deter or punish criticism of their political systems in Poland, the Czech Republic, Peru, and Argentina. But the report’s case studies also suggest that the emergence of populist-nationalist parties in Eastern Europe, or the travails of democratic governance in Latin America, is largely a product of domestic factors.

Indeed, I would argue that to single out or blame China or Russia only detracts from the primary responsibility that citizens and leaders bear for escalating problems of democratic governance in their home countries. This lesson, it appears to me, also applies to the role of Russia in the 2017 US election. There is ample evidence that Russia interfered, especially by manipulating the internet. But democratic malaise in the US is a home-grown phenomenon. Russia exploited it, but as Lucan Ahmad Way and Adam Casey have shown, Moscow’s nefarious actions, which are surely not new, did not substantially affect the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election.

Speaking of the US, I would suggest that the problems posed by global and regional autocracies may turn out to be less consequential than the emerging challenges facing our own country. Democracy promotion and US democratic leadership have been a mainstay of US foreign policy for decades. That leadership was never consistent or immune to contradictions. Indeed, while the end of the Cold War removed one significant strategic rationale that had animated US support for Western-friendly autocracies, since the fall of the Berlin Wall successive US administrations have backed autocracies whose strategic support has been judged vital to US security interests. That said, these perhaps inevitable tensions were mitigated by the crucial role that a myriad of governmental (and non-governmental) organizations played in pushing for human rights and democracy irrespective of the policies of any given US administration. Moreover, despite its drawbacks, the US political system continued to provide an inspiring example of the social, economic and political merits of democracy. The “diffusion effect” of regularly electing leaders who represented rival constituencies, interests and ideas but still embraced the basic norms of democratic governance and pluralism insured that the US remained a beacon of light for democratic activists and leaders around the globe.

Not a few scholars, analysts and political leaders – both Democratic and Republican – have argued that the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 has dimmed that light. Indeed, recent polling by the Pew Research Center shows a corrosive decline of America’s image abroad. As the report notes: “In the closing years of the Obama presidency, a median of 64% had a positive view of the U.S. Today, just 49% are favorably inclined toward America. Again, some of the steepest declines in U.S. image are found among long-standing allies.”

This alarming development is not merely limited to perceptions of US democracy or unsteady domestic leadership. Instead, it may very well be that the US is becoming a source of global autocracy diffusion. This was certainly the thesis that Senator Jeff Flake set out in his extraordinary January 18, 2018 Senate speech. During that speech, he noted that both Trump and Stalin had used the word “enemies of the people” to discredit (or in the latter case, eliminate) real or imagined critics. Moreover, he also noted that US-friendly autocrats had apparently adopted Trump’s label of “fake news.” Thus, Flake implied, whether he intended it or not,  President Trump seems to have become a source of authoritarian learning. That on the same day of his speech Arizona Senator John McCain set out a similar case in the Washington Post is probably no coincidence. Both Republican Senators are dedicated proponents of a conservative version of US global internationalism that sees US support for democracy abroad as a mainstay of US democracy at home—and vice versa.

Whatever one thinks of these bold criticisms, we surely live in an age that poses both old and new challenges when it comes to US official and non-governmental support for human rights and democracy. On the 10th anniversary of GU’s Democracy and Governance program we will be joined by an extraordinary group of experts and practitioners who will discuss this issue in an afternoon conference that we call “Leading From Below: Democracy Support in a New Era.” Kenneth Wollack will set the stage during a key note address. Drawing on his more than 30 years as executive vice president and then president of the National Democratic Institute, he will discuss not only the new obstacles to fostering democracy: he will also highlight positive elements of historical continuity that suggest reasons for optimism when it comes to fostering  human rights and democracy, be  it “from below,” but also  from the middle and from above. What better way to celebrate an MA program that illuminates both the many challenges, as well as the enduring opportunities, that our graduates must confront or embrace as they make their mark in a complex and changing world!